Janis Siegel thinks a lot about the power of vocal harmony.
This makes sense since she’s one-fourth of one of the most popular and successful vocal harmony groups of the last 40 years, The Manhattan Transfer.
The group has nine Grammy Awards and had more than a half-dozen songs on the Billboard charts. Not to mention a big radio hit with “Boy From New York City” in 1981.
Siegel thinks the idea of vocal harmony is the key factor in the band’s long success. Not just what vocal harmony is – voices blending nicely together – but what it means to people on a deeper, even subconscious level.
“People love vocal harmony and I think they feel something in it. It’s a sort of metaphorical expression, four people from different backgrounds coming together, fighting and working out differences, living as business partners and family,” said Siegel, 61, from her home in New York. “I think people see something bigger in it than just the music.”
Siegel and The Manhattan Transfer will bring their expansive idea of vocal harmony to Portland Friday, with a show at Asylum. The group’s songs range from jazz fusion and gospel to pop and “songs that are way out there,” Siegel said.
The core of the group – Siegel, founder Tim Hauser, and Alan Paul – have been together since 1972. Cheryl Bentyne joined the group in 1978, replacing Laurel Masse, but she is currently on leave from the group, fighting a battle with cancer. Katie Campbell will be singing in her place in Portland.
“She’s doing very well,” Siegel said of Bentyne. “She’s cancer-free now and her doctors think she’ll be back singing with us soon.”
Siegel grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was drawn to music early. She said her parents weren’t particularly musical, though her father sang in the car constantly. Still, Siegel was just 12 when she started singing professionally in a group with other young girls, doing local gigs and even recording locally.
She didn’t think singing would be her career, so she went to college to study nursing.
But even in college, at the State University of New York in Buffalo, she was going back to New York City often to sing and record. It was around this time she decided to try music full time. Then she met Hauser.
“He was driving a cab when we met,” said Siegel. “It was a lot of timing and luck.”
Just a couple years after forming, The Manhattan Transfer got signed by Atlantic Records.
The group’s sound was fresh, with songs ranging from up-tempo jazz to gospel to pop, usually backed by a full band. And in a time when radio stations weren’t so narrowly focused on one type of music, lots of unique sounds could get on the air.
The group’s first radio hit was a version of the gospel classic “Operator” in 1975.
“You can’t do songs like that today and get on the radio,” said Siegel.
The group has become known for “vocalese,” a jazz style where vocalists sing words to melodies that were originally part of an instrumental composition. Sometimes the words are written, sometimes they’re improvised. Their best-known song in this genre was probably “Birdland” which won them a Grammy in 1980 in the category of Best Jazz Fusion Performance.
The group has continued to tour and record, and members have had solo careers as well. Siegel has made 10 solo records, she sings in other groups, and she teaches singing at colleges.
“When I left nursing school to do this it seemed pretty reckless,” Siegel said. “But it’s turned out all right.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: