The transit of Janis

Janis Siegel. Photograph by Janis Wilkins.

Written by Gregg Shapiro

Celebrated vocal group The Manhattan Transfer has had our attention for more than 40 years. Combining thrilling harmonies, eclectic song selections and even dressing up for the part, The Transfer has always been a treat for the ears and the eyes. Over the course of the vocal group’s existence, it has left its mark on songs from the Great American Songbook, jazz standards and pop tunes throughout the mid-to-late 20thcentury and into the 21st, collecting Grammy Awards and other accolades along the way. The Manhattan Transfer even had the distinction of having its own summer replacement variety show on CBS in 1975. Janis Siegel, an original member of The Transfer, was kind enough to answer a few questions in advance of the group’s 2017 concert tour and gig this month at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill.

Janis, how did you became a member of The Manhattan Transfer?

“It came through meeting (the late) Tim Hauser. I met him through his cab (laughs). He was driving a cab in Manhattan and I was singing with Laurel Canyon with Dianne Davidson. We were having an end-of-the-tour party at a hotel somewhere in midtown. Our conga player hailed down a cab and it was Tim. Phillip put his drums in the backseat and got into the front seat with him. They started talking. ‘I’m a musician.’ ‘So am I. I’m doing a demo next week. I want to get a record deal myself.’ 

“Phillip said, ‘I’m with a whole bunch of singers right now. You should come up to the party.’ Tim parked his cab and came up and stayed awhile. He took our numbers, because we were based in New York. Dori (Miles) and I showed up at Tim’s session and that’s where I met (original Manhattan Transfer member) Laurel Massé. Tim did ‘Minnie The Moocher’s Wedding Day’ and some bluegrass. It was right up my alley. I loved the ’40s jazz that he was referencing. 

“Tim and I became very close and we started to hang out. He sat in with my group because he played five-string banjo. He started to play records for me. I was a jazz fan but as a listener exclusively. When I heard four-part-harmony, I went out of my mind. Tim and Laurel and I started hanging out and said, ‘Let’s start a four-part-harmony vocal group, two men and two women.’ That’s when Alan (Paul) came in.”

What would you say is the secret to the group’s longevity?

“The basic eclecticism of the concept. We said, ‘Let’s not be a jazz vocal group. Let’s not be a pop vocal group. Let’s not label ourselves, because then people can dismiss us when the trend is over (laughs). Let’s explore different facets of harmony.’ Mostly American, with a brief foray into Brazilian pop. We explored these different styles. 

“Our signature sound is close-voice, four-part-harmony. There were a lot of groups that had only one gender. Our group was mixed gender and the voices are close together in proximity and it gives a creamy, almost geometric sound. We also explored doo-wop singing and some of the harmonies of the ’30s and pop music. We experimented with bringing the four-part-harmony sound into pop music.”

How did you know that 1982 was the right time to release “Experiment In White,” the first of your solo recordings?

“My very first solo performances were both in California. That gave me a taste for solo work. It was just intoxicating. Being able to pick my own material, that fit me personally and not having to think about other people for a minute. I could explore my own vision, which in retrospect, makes you stronger in the group situations. You come in and you have confidence. You know what you want. I have worked with so many different people and gotten involved with so many different methods of working that I have a wide palette when it comes to bringing in ideas and techniques to The (Manhattan)Transfer.” 

Still, you also have a long history of being a collaborator, from The Young Generation to The Manhattan Transfer. What is it about you that makes you someone who plays well with others?

 (Laughs) “You have to have a personality for it. I think you must be a compromiser and a realist. Also, I think there has to be an essential fairness in your worldview. It’s a combination of all different kinds of points of view that maybe I or someone else didn’t think of. Many times, the whole thing is better than the parts.”

The Manhattan Transfer performs May 12 at Paramount Hudson Valley Theater in Peekskill. For more, visit paramounthudsonvalley.com.

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