Most folks probably assume that the members of the Manhattan Transfer are all New Yorkers with deep roots in the Big Apple. But Cheryl Bentyne, who sings the soprano parts in the group’s patented four-part harmonies, is actually from the Pacific Northwest, a place called Mount Vernon, Washington.
“This sounds really corny, like a storybook fable,” she said in a recent telephone conversation. “I grew up in this little tiny town and wasn’t exposed to any jazz other than my father’s Dixieland band. I tried to ignore it, but before I knew it I was singing with my dad’s band, and that just seemed like a natural step to take. I was also doing musicals in high school, and in junior college I did plays. Then I moved to Seattle and joined another goofy swing band that was like the Transfer in a weird way. So I started to listen to the Transfer.
“All of these pathways were forking down one same path that eventually led to coming to LA, getting a manager, playing clubs and doing the music that basically I’ve always done. Then one day, out of the clear blue, there was an audition for this group. But I’d never sung with other voices. In the back of my mind I knew it was natural, but I didn’t even consider the fact that it might not work because I’d have to blend with voices. But I guess everything that I had always done—I had the ear for it, I knew this group and I knew how to swing on two and four. It was the perfect marriage; I was very lucky.”
Bentyne, who’s in town Wednesday night for a Port Folio Weekly Music Series concert at the NorVa, had enjoyed the popular Top 40 music of the ‘60s when she was growing up, but her dad was a swing bandleader known as “the Benny Goodman of the Northwest.” Her tastes ran the gamut.
“I didn’t really get too deeply into rock-n-roll,” she said, “except The Beatles. You know…The Beatles, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, and then a lot of Barbra Streisand and a lot of Judy Garland strewn in between all that. I loved The Beatles, and there was something about the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. It was like this weird mix of influences.”
That mix of influences has served her well. When she moved to Seattle after high school, Bentyne hooked up with the New Deal Rhythm Band, a regional favorite.
“We were a cult band,” she said. “We played these bars in Seattle and people would line up around the block to see us. I was in it for about four years, so I call it my college years. We played San Francisco, Seattle and Lake Tahoe, and just had a ball doing these underground clubs.
“I was the only singer and there were eight guys. It was nuts. We were doing real early Cab Calloway; I did some Ruby Keeler, tap dancing; I did some Carmen Miranda, so I came out with the fruit on my head. We did all this stuff that was really theatrical, and then straightahead Ellington and Count Basie. But we were doing it at a time when disco was popular.”
When the Manhattan Transfer’s first album came out in 1975, she and her New Deal bandmates were immediately drawn to the music:
“That first record came out when I had a boyfriend in the band who was a trombone player. He gave it to me one day and said, ‘Listen to this group, they’re incredible.’ I can remember it—I played it and went, ‘of course, they’re fabulous.’”
Four years later she was in Los Angeles auditioning to replace original member Laurel Masse in the Transfer.
“I was nervous when I went in,” she remembered, “but when we started singing together, they looked at each other when we started doing ‘Candy,’ the first chord out of our mouths. I knew that music, I knew that era, I knew that sound. Yet I never listened to vocal groups, really; I was more into instrumental music. I give all the credit to my father in terms of listening and knowing how that sound is, and knowing how to lay it down and make it swing. And I was a fan of the group, so I came in ready and hoping it would work, but never getting overly anxious about it.
“I was a waitress, and the next day my manager called me at work and said, ‘you got it.’ It was like it was meant to be, but I wasn’t really trying too hard. It just kind of fit.”
What a fit it was. After her arrival, the group, which also includes Janis Siegel, Alan Paul and Tim Hauser, rose to new heights of popularity with their versions of “Birdland” and “The Boy from New York City.” For twenty eight years they have explored a wide range of musical styles, from jazz vocalese to doo-wop to the Brazilian music of Djavan and Ivan Lins, ‘60s pop and R&B, classic swing and modern pop. They remain the Rolls Royce of vocal harmony groups and have a trophy case full of Grammy awards as proof. Cheryl herself shared a Grammy with Bobby McFerrin for their vocal arrangement of “Another Night in Tunisia” from the group’s Vocalese album.
The quartet maintains a busy touring and recording schedule, often performing with symphony orchestras. In fact, they’ll be here in December with the Virginia Symphony. But it’s Bentyne’s solo recordings that have been generating the most buzz in recent years, especially her three-album string for Telarc—Talk of the Town, Let Me Off Uptown and The Book of Love. All have been produced by her husband, pianist Corey Allen.
“I really trust Corey with me in the studio,” she said when I asked how their musical marriage worked. “We usually have one little spat per record and then we move on. I really listen to him and to Tom McCauley, my engineer. They’re my other set of ears. I don’t know how people can produce themselves in the studio because you have no perspective. I need somebody else to tell me, ‘No, you’ve got it.’ I think any singer will just keep going in the studio until it’s perfect, and then you’ve squeezed the entire life out of it.”
Cheryl Bentyne’s recordings have been filled with life, imbued with the enthusiasm that she obviously brings to everything she does. Talk of the Town was a jazz-filled feast for the ears that she said was “so easy I didn’t trust it.”
Let Me Off Uptown was a tribute to songstress Anita O’Day, whom she was not too familiar with until her manager recommended the concept:
“She had a much bigger influence on vocal jazz than I really knew. All I knew was ‘Let Me Off Uptown’ and ‘Drum Boogie.’ But my manager, Bill Traut, made me copies of about ten CDs, and it just knocked me out.”
Her latest, The Book of Love, tells the story of a love affair from start to finish, infatuation and lust to disillusion and disintegration, with all the stops along the way.
“That left the doors wide open in terms of picking tunes,” she said. “I didn’t have to stay in one era, I didn’t have to do all standards; it was a much bigger plate to choose from. It’s more of a pop standards record than it is a jazz record and we wanted to veer away from a serious jazz record.
“I don’t really know what’s going on in that genre any more. The jazz stations are so convoluted now, there’s no real jazz. It’s such an odd time to be in the music business and be a jazz-slash-standards singer. If you’re not playing a soprano saxophone, or an alto or tenor, it’s really hard to get on the radio.”
When she was young, Cheryl Bentyne would stand in front of the mirror imitating Barbra Streisand. Though she was able to cop the phrasing exactly, it was Streisand’s adventurousness that had the most lasting influence:
“She was doing standards, but they’d do them in a quirky style. They’d take ‘Happy Days are Here Again’ and make it a slow dirge. And I thought how interesting, doing regular straightahead songs but with her twist on them. Everything had to build to this monumental peak, which I don’t think is necessarily as popular any more, so I try not to take it to that high drama place. But her choice of material always interested me. And as a vocalist, I really listened to her voice. She had no break in her voice; she had this pure tone and, honestly, when she opened her mouth, sometimes whatever came out they left on record.
“It isn’t all perfect singing, which I loved about it because she was very untrained to begin with. The more training I have, the more I appreciate her gustiness on record. She did one record where I swear she had a cold! It was a very hoarse voice but she could still sell the song.”
Bentyne also knows how to “sell a song.” Though she has the pipes to do it, she chooses not to oversing. Consequently, her albums hold up beautifully to repeated listenings. And she imparts the lyrics tastefully and with meaning.
“On record,” she explained, “I want the song to carry itself through. I don’t necessarily think belting on a song is the way to go ‘cause it’s real hard to listen to that. My part in the Transfer is the high stuff usually, and you can only listen to so much of that by a soloist. So I love being able to sing down low where I’m really comfortable.”
She may be the classiest singer ever to grace the stage of the rock-laden NorVa, but she should be in the comfort zone Wednesday night. She’s so busy with the Manhattan Transfer that she’s only doing a couple of solo gigs this year and she’ll undoubtedly savor the opportunity to stretch out with her favorite instrumentalists.
“It’s my ‘choice trio’ that’s on my records,” she replied when I asked who’d be with her. “It’s Dave Tull [on drums], Kevin Axt [on bass] and Corey Allen. And Dave Tull actually sings on a couple of songs with me. He’s a great singer…hard to believe I know!
“I’ve got a lot of surprises in store.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.