Never mind the fact that they’ve collaborated with a legion of legendary names in popular music, from James Taylor, B.B. King and Willie Nelson to Frankie Valli, Phil Collins and Ricky Skaggs. Forget for the moment that their appreciative audiences have included the likes of Tony Bennett and Pope John Paul II. Pay no attention to that groaning trophy case packed with dozens of Grammy awards and nominations. If you could even — and this is a bit more of a stretch — temporarily disregard the seamless vocal mastery that has kept them at the top of their game for some thirty years, then the ever-evolving, ever-elegant Manhattan Transfer seem as right neighborly as the street where you live; a jetsetting bunch of swells with one foot planted in your own backyard.
Those roots come largely courtesy of Tim Hauser, the group’s founder and sole constant from the original early 1970’s incarnation of the Transfer. A native of Wanamassa in Ocean Township from childhood through his early twenties, the debonair vocalist, producer and arranger (who resides these days with wife and kids in Los Angeles) speaks fondly of the “wonderful, idyllic summers” of his youth on the Shore; a time filled with baseball, beaches and the beat of music in the air.
Not that that represents the end of the line for the local connection. Hauser and his Manhattan Transfer mates (Janis Siegel, Alan Paul and Cheryl Bentyne) are among the last performers to have made music with the late great Count Basie, recording a pair of tunes with the celebrated Kid From Red Bank for their award-winning 1985 release, “Vocalese.” Basie band trombonist Dennis Wilson was commissioned by the Count to develop new material with the quartet, further cementing a relationship that seems especially pertinent on the eve of the group’s May 16 show at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre.
“We have about seven or eight songs that are associated with Count Basie in some way,” observes Hauser in the midst of an engagement at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village; hinting that audience members may be treated to a custom-tailored tribute of sorts when the MT takes the Basie stage.
Spawned in the same era that produced the Bette Midler of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and the Pointer Sisters of “Steam Heat,” the Manhattan Transfer transcended campy “now-stalgia” — forsaking the treacly path to stuff like “Wind Beneath My Wings” — through a combination of awesome harmonic technique, genuine musical scholarship and an easygoing confidence in their own unerring instincts for material and presentation. Along the way, they’ve pitched a stylistic tent that takes in top 20 hits (“The Boy From New York City,” “Twilight Zone”) and Grammy-lauded critical faves (“Sassy” and signature tune “Birdland”); as well as album projects ranging from a Louis Armstrong tribute, to vocal transpositions of classic jazz and Brazilian tunes, even an adaptation of the kiddie classic “Tubby the Tuba.” And to think it all started with a taxi ride.
As urban legend has it, Hauser was supplementing his showbiz dreams with a stint as a cabbie when he picked up an aspiring (and likeminded) vocalist named Laurel Masse; folk singer Janis Siegel and Broadway veteran Alan Paul soon joined the fold, and the new Manhattan Transfer was on its way to achieving cult status as one of New York’s most fervently followed club and cabaret acts. A record deal with Atlantic resulted in their eponymous hit debut in 1975, the same year that saw the Transfer granted their own summer-replacement TV variety show on CBS — an honor also bestowed upon the likes of Pink Lady and the Starland Vocal Band.
When Masse left to pursue a solo career at the end of the 1970’s, Cheryl Bentyne replaced her in the lineup — and has spent nearly a quarter century as “the new kid” in what stands as one of the longest-running configurations in popular music. While MT members have individually hauled home Grammys for their songwriting and arranging contributions — and have indulged in solo endeavors ranging from the expected critically praised albums to Hauser’s own “I Made Sauce” recipe — the tendency of these four talented people to look beyond the horizons of ego and “take it for the team” has been nothing less than remarkable in an industry forever marked by revolving-door personnel issues, devastating breakups and equally disastrous reunions.
Acknowledging with a chuckle that some of the group’s highly experimental forays into concept albums have resulted in “arguments about leaving some of the audience behind,” Hauser maintains that a certain sort of grounded attitude toward family relationships (both actual and extended) have helped the bandmates navigate their way through what could be likened to one of those long-playing Hollywood marriages they don’t seem to make anymore.
“Right now, we’ve got four album projects looming, including a live recording that’s almost done being mixed,” he explains. “We’re actually trying to go on the road less these days — when I was single it didn’t matter, but now I’d rather spend more time with my kids.”
The awakening musical eclecticism of Hauser’s 14-year old son and 8-year old daughter are credited by the veteran vocalist (along with LA’s standards-and-singers radio station KSUR) with keeping a continuous “where’d that come from, and where was I all that time?” sense of discovery in the air.
Despite the scenes of domestic bliss that await at the end of the touring itinerary, Hauser is always quick to put in a plug for his East Coast experience. “I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to grow up there,” he concludes. “I tell my West Coast friends that they’ve got to spend summer on the Jersey Shore to really ‘get’ it.”