Spice Of Life (Manhattan Transfer)

Man Tran - THUMB

When the disco era started in the early 70s, many thought it was just a fad that would come and go quite quickly, fortunately it didn’t and by the time it became big business in the late seventies, many established acts wanted to jump on the bandwagon, for example; the Rolling Stones recorded Miss You, Queen tried their hand with Another One Bites The Dust and Johnny Mathis turned out with Gone Gone Gone. The genre was still in full force throughout the eighties and in 1984 Manhattan Transfer, a jazz quartet seemed to appear out of nowhere with their latest offing, Spice of Life.

Man Tran, as they were often known as, was formed in 1969 by Tim Hauser with the name being taken from a John Dos Passos novel about New York City in the 1920s. The first incarnation of the group featured Hauser, Gene Pistilli, Pat Rosalia, Erin Dickens, and Marty Nelson and their style combined elements of rhythm and blues and country into what has been called a good-time, jug-band style. Pistilli leaned more toward a country type R&B sound, whereas Tim was interested in the jazz/swing sound. Because of the vast differences the group split in 1972.

Hauser became a cab driver and one day picked up a fare, a waitress named Laurel Masse. Hauser and Masse shared an interest in the same music and he decided to reform the group bringing Masse with him. A few weeks later he met Janis Siegel at a party where she was singing as part of a trio. They got chatting; she knew of the early Manhattan Transfer and agreed to join the new version. Deciding they needed a fourth member they found Alan Paul who was appearing on Broadway in Grease. They began regular rehearsals which included a whole stage production. “We were going to perform,” said Siegel at the time. “We weren’t going to be introspective on stage. We were going to give out. We were going to dress up.” Their act was complemented by costumes, choreography, and acting. In 1973 they began performing in New York City cabaret shows.

They were signed by Atlantic records owner Ahmet Ertegun and their UK hits kicked off with a cover of the 1939 Erskine Hawkins song Tuxedo Junction which reached number 24. They followed it in 1977 with a cover of Art and Dotty Todd’s 1957 song Chanson D’Amour, which was not French by origin, and they took it to number one. Their next single to make the top 20 was another cover, this time of the Jimmy Dorsey 1940 song On A Little Street in Singapore in 1978.

It would be a further six years until they really made any impact again and when they did, it was with Spice of Life which made number 19 and featured Cheryl Bentyne who had replaced Masse in 1979.

They also had a new producer who they’d met in the late seventies, Richard Rudolph, husband of Minnie Riperton and co-wrote her only hit Lovin’ You. They wanted to get some new, original songs for a forthcoming album. “Out of the blue, Richard called up and old friend called Rod Temperton,” Hauser remembered. Rod has written hits for Heatwave, before going on to write a number of songs for Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album. Hauser continued, “Dick, as I used to call him, told Rod that Janis and I were Michael Jackson fans and particularly liked Rock With You as that song was written as a four-part harmony, so he brought us two songs, Spice of Life and what became the American follow-up Mystery.”

There was another important person who was brought in. “Once the track was near completion,” Hauser added, “Richard felt that a harmonica solo would add credibility and I agreed. Richard then called up his old friend Stevie Wonder who agreed to do it and came over at just two days notice. It was wonderful to watch him doing it.”

The parent album was called Bodies and Soul and as Janis points out, “There were lots of other interesting collaborations, apart from Stevie and Rod, songwriters Jeremy Lubbock and Thelonious Monk wrote a number of tracks. Also appearing as a guest artist on the album was Frankie Valli, who sang on the track American Pop.” Cheryl added her thoughts, “I still get a warm feeling when I remember working in the studio with the great Stevie Wonder and the legendary Frankie Valli.”

Alan wrote two songs on the album, Malaise En Malaisie and Code of Ethics, the latter being written for the 1984 Olympics. Even so, Alan says today that Bodies and Souls was not one of his favourite albums, but, “I’m not sure why,” Cheryl added, “We won a Grammy for Why Not!” (Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Duo or Group) Speaking of that song,” Janis recalled “Cheryl and I did a ridiculous outtake of Why Not!”

“When we teamed up with Dick Rudolph,” says Alan, the album took The Manhattan Transfer into something of a different direction, or as Tim described it, “It encompasses a revised style of our music.” In an interview with the group shortly after the album’s release, Cheryl felt that the making of Bodies and Souls was “a growing experience for the group, which resulted in a stronger unit.” Alan felt the same way. “It took longer than we anticipated, due to the group’s inner struggle to maintain perfection in our work,” he said, adding, “It was a great growth experience for the group.” Tim concurred at the time, “We worked a lot longer on this album than any previous album. It’s finally out and the thrill is so great because of the hours, the energy and emotions that were spent to create a product that gave all of us such satisfaction.”

Bodies and Soul became WEA’s biggest selling album in Japan overtaking Led Zeppelin and became much in demand for live shows. In the UK, they became regular favourites on the Two Ronnies show, and “After we changed our sound, the older audience switched off and we gained a new young audience,” Tim recalled.

The band is still together and are still touring. This is the latest from their website; ‘Last month, we introduced a new series of shows called the Living Room Sessions – very intimate shows featuring just the four of us with our long time pianist and music director Yaron Gershovsky. Well, the format has become so popular that we’ve added new Living Room shows!’ At the moment they are only in America, but if you’re over there, might be worth checking out.

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