Manhattan Transfer makes its debut at this year's Columbia… (Photo courtesy of Manhattan…)
During the summer of 1975, Manhattan Transfer was riding high.The vocal group's first major-label album was a critical smash, its single "Operator" was a top-40 hit, and the band even had its own network television variety show.
So when it came time to record a second album, the advice the singers got from their manager was totally unexpected. "He said, you're going to have to completely change what you're doing," recalls vocalist Alan Paul by phone from his home inLos Angeles.
At the time, Manhattan Transfer was something of a nostalgia act. "In the beginning of the group, we were very stylized," Paul acknowledges.
"It was very specific in terms of the way that we dressed and also in the application of our harmonies. The way that we looked and our persona was very retro; it was very 1940's and it really served us well."
That may have been the case, but luckily for the band, someone in their organization saw the big picture.
"Our manager said, look, what you're doing is a fad, and if you stay with it, what's going to happen is; the fad is going to go away, and you're going to go away with it," the singer recalls.
"We fought it for a while, but we eventually agreed that he might be right."
Nearly 40 years later, Manhattan Transfer can look back on a career that has been anything but one dimensional. The ensemble has since recorded a number of albums that feature a wide array of musical genres from jazz to R&B. They've even recorded a children's album.
"With every project we'd always try to change it somehow, and we would try to go someplace else," says Paul, now 61.
"Some albums are more successful than others but it enabled us to keep moving, to keep changing and evolving." On Tuesday, June 14, Manhattan Transfer brings its four-part harmonies to the Jim Rouse Theatre as part of the 2011 Columbia Festival of the Arts.
Alan Paul was appearing on Broadway in the musical "Grease," when he was first approached to join Manhattan Transfer. "I thought it would be fun," he recalls.
"Up until that point I was a solo artist. I had never worked in a group before; I just thought it would be a cool thing to do." Never, Paul says, did the band envision they would still be going strong nearly four decades later.
"I knew that there was a uniqueness to what we were doing, but I don't think anyone of us ever expected that it was going to last this long."
The singer attributes the band's longevity to their passion for the music, and their genuine affection for each other. "We are like a family," he asserts. "We've been together so long; I think we really grew up together.
"At some point, this band became kind of like our child. In terms of dynamics, we had to learn how to look at the things that we really appreciate about each other, as opposed to the things that maybe irk us about each other. It's really about maturing to a point where you are able to kind of transcend that other stuff, to be really able to see the value of what being together holds."
Manhattan Transfer, which also includes vocalists Tim Hauser, Janis Siegel and Cheryl Bentyne, has won eight Grammy Awards since making music history in 1981 by becoming the first group to take home Grammys for both popular and jazz categories in the same year. The top-10 hit, "Boy from New York City" won a trophy for "Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group," and "Until I Met You (Corner Pocket)" earned it a Grammy for "Best Jazz Performance by a Duo or Group."
The foursome's latest project is 2009's critically acclaimed release, "The Chick Corea Songbook."
"It was an interesting venture," says Paul. "Chick Corea's music isn't the easiest to sing, so it was an exciting challenge. Chick was always out of the box, so we kind of saw our journey as being out of Chick's box."
It was an ambitious undertaking for a band that has perhaps earned the right to simply take it easy and rest on their laurels.That, Paul insists, isn't something the band has ever been interested in doing.
"In a way, David Bowie was our model. He was always creating a new version of himself. You could never nail him down, and that made sense to us. We understood that meant freedom to explore, and to be creative."
Manhattan Transfer performs live on Tuesday, June 14 at 7:30 p.m. in the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts in Columbia. Tickets range from $40 to $55, and are available at Tickets.com, and by phone at 1-800-955-5566. For more information on all Columbia Festival of the Arts ticketed attractions and events, call 410-715-3044.