The Manhattan Transfer has been around for a long time- 45 years to be exact. “Yet we don’t age!” joked Cheryl Bentyne, the group’s soprano, in a recent phone interview with Manhattan Digest.
The 10-time Grammy award winning vocal quartet continues to both look and sound as new as ever—all while entertaining fans around the globe. “People bring their kids and there are now three generations of audience members at our shows,” Bentyne said.
Tri-state residents can catch them in concert this Saturday night, November 4th at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. They will be one of many in an impressive line-up for the 6th annual TD James Moody Jazz Festival.
Trist Curless, Alan Paul, Janis Siegel, and Bentyne comprise this quartet, which was originally founded in 1969 by the late Tim Hauser. In 1972, a second version, consisting of Paul and Siegel was formed. Bentyne joined in 1979. After Hauser’s passing a few years ago, Curless stepped in—and the music continued.
“God Bless Trist,” Bentyne said affectionately. “He’s a sweetheart and a killer singer. He’s full of love and respect for Tim,” she said. She acknowledged that Hauser’s passing was painful, both for the group members and for audiences. “Our fans are a part of us in such a deep, heartfelt way. Shortly after Tim’s passing, we’d see people crying and, at the same time, embracing the fact that we are continuing. People love the idea and the heart of the group.” She added, “Alan always said that Tim would’ve wanted the legacy to continue. That was always Tim’s dream. He just had a burning passion in his heart to create vocal harmony.”
Their longevity is a pleasant surprise for Bentyne, who has been harmonizing with her fellow music makers for 38 years. In 1979, she auditioned as a replacement thanks to her personal manager and concert promoter, Linda Friedman. Bentyne moved to LA and was honing her craft in local clubs while waitressing. The Transfer’s manager asked Friedman if she knew anyone who could audition, and Friedman suggested Bentyne. After singing “Candy” to a cassette tape with Paul, Hauser, and Siegel, she was notified the next day: Bentyne would be the newest addition of The Manhattan Transfer.
“I didn’t know how big it would be,” Bentyne said. “I never thought that I would travel the world and record. I just knew I was in a group of singers that I loved. They really held my hand and walked me through that first year. It’s been a very exciting ride.”
Bentyne reached a zenith rather quickly, considering that the group won a Grammy in her first year with them. It would be one of many highlights for The Manhattan Transfer. They’ve had the distinct pleasure of singing (on separate occasions) with jazz greats, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett. “That was other worldly,” Bentyne said, with equal parts excitement and astonishment.”
The Washington state native is quick to recognize that fans have significantly contributed to the group’s success. “Sometimes you forget,” she admitted. “You’re out there touring non-stop and you’re tired. You get to your hotel for an hour, go to sound check, do the show, and repeat. Then, something stops you in your tracks and you realize, ‘Oh! This show meant the world to this person or to these people.’ We have to remember every night that these people bought this one ticket to this one show. It can’t be a blur. There is so much gratitude in that and we try to embrace it.”
Bentyne, who currently resides in a home built in 1838 outside of Boston, is embracing that gratitude with open arms. As a two time cancer survivor, she took a hiatus from the group in 2011 and 2013. Eventually, she received a stem cell transplant and is now “good to go.” “Enough of that crap!,” she said with conviction.
She eschews the notion of bravery, but admits that facing the ordeal altered her worldview. She explained, “My life has changed in subtle ways…I’m really glad I’m here. It never occurred to me that I’d never get through it. Something kicked in. I wasn’t brave. I just did what I was told. I walked through it and kept moving forward. I’m different. That’s the only thing I can say.”
Bentyne also shared the unmentioned side effect of PTSD. “They don’t tell you about that, but it exists. “You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get through that.”
She plans to chronicle her experience in a self-authored, one woman show called Chemo Cocktails for Two.
The tight knit foursome stood by Bentyne’s side while she recovered. “Thank God my group waited for me!” she conceded. “They replaced me (at two different times) with wonderful singers: Margaret Dorn and Katie Campbell. I can’t exactly apologize for having had cancer, but I know it was tough on the group, too. They only had 10 days to get a singer prepared for a Christmas tour!” she noted.
From her victory over fear, a new recording has emerged. For years, the daunting music of Stephen Sondheim had discouraged Bentyne from tackling new arrangements. “After I got sick, I thought, it’s time,” she said. “I just needed to trust my voice and trust that it would all come out just fine.” The result is a stellar collection of familiar and lesser known Sondheim hits on the album “Rearrangements of Shadows.”
Although her new songs won’t be on display this Saturday at NJPAC, New Yorkers can look forward to her solo appearance at midtown’s Birdland Jazz Club in March 2018. Until then, she’ll continue to tour with the group. In her free time, she plans to restore her 19th century home.
Devotees of The Manhattan Transfer will be thrilled to learn that a new recording will soon be released. Their latest, “The Junction”, will be available in the spring. Bentyne revealed that “a new level of vocalese” will appear on the album. “It was my crazy idea to harmonize US3’s “Cantaloop/Flip Fantasia””. She suggested that audiences may hear it on Saturday night.
As for the rest of Saturday’s concert, the group is still—no pun intended—fine tuning the selections. “We’re still developing the 45th anniversary show,” Bentyne confessed. “The hardest part is whittling it down to represent the group—and keep it under 5 or 6 hours!,” she said. “But, we are dedicated to this music and to vocal harmony—and what that means even beyond music in the world today. We love it, and we have a lot of music left.”
Bentyne credits “lots of water and lots of sleep” to the group’s ageless quality. Perhaps with continued hydration and frequent cat naps, we can all anticipate a 90th anniversary show from these sovereigns of song.
The Manhattan Transfer at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater (1 Center Street, Newark, NJ). Saturday, Nov. 4 @ 7:30 PM ET. NJPAC is easily accessible from Manhattan via PATH or NJ Transit to Newark Penn Station. For tickets and information, visit here.