Over the past four decades, the voice of Janis Siegel, a nine-time Grammy winner and a seventeen-time Grammy nominee, has been an undeniable force in The Manhattan Transfer’s diverse musical catalog. Alongside her career as a founding member of this musical institution, Siegel has also sustained a solo career that has spawned more than a half dozen finely-crafted solo albums and numerous collaborative projects, amassed a large international fan base and garnered consistently high critical praise.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1952, Siegel learned about the music business at an early age. By the time she was 12, she was singing with an all-girl pop trio called The Young Generation. By the time she and her bandmates had graduated from high school, they’d released two singles: “The Hideaway” (b/w “Hymn of Love”) on Red Bird Records, and “It’s Not Gonna Take Too Long” (b/w “Diggin’ You”) on Kapp Records , both produced by Richard Perry.
“At that time, I was exclusively listening to pop and folk music,” Siegel recalls. “When Motown became popular, I fell head over heels for it, as well as for singers like Aretha Franklin. And of course, I went insane over the Beatles and the British invasion. On the other side of the coin, I also loved Barbra Streisand. And because of living in Brooklyn, I saw a lot of Broadway shows too.” On the jazz side, she remembers John Coltrane as her musical idol during high school and college years.
After graduating from high school, the trio shifted from pop to acoustic folk and rechristened themselves Laurel Canyon. Siegel studied nursing for a couple years, but left college in the early ’70s to focus all of her energies on Laurel Canyon. But it was a chance encounter that steered her into The Manhattan Transfer.
Tim Hauser was a taxi driver with musical aspirations who happened to pick up Laurel Canyon’s conga player one night. The percussionist invited Hauser to a party, where he met Siegel and asked her to sing on some demos he’d been working on. Some of the early swing music that Hauser had been dabbling in was an eye-opener to Siegel, who’d previously been immersed in pop and folk.
Hauser invited Siegel to join a four-part vocal group that he’d been trying to reconstruct. (An earlier version of The Manhattan Transfer with a much different tone and style had existed briefly in the late ’60s.)
When she joined Hauser, Laurel Massé and Alan Paul, the Manhattan Transfer was born. The group’s self-titled debut album in 1975 ushered in a renaissance in vocal-based music and marked the opening chapter of the foursome’s success story.
Over the years, Janis’ unmistakable voice has become one of the group’s most recognizable trademarks. She sang lead on some of the Transfer’s biggest hits, such as “Operator,” “Chanson D’Amour,” “Twilight Zone,” “Birdland,” “The Boy from N.Y.C.” “Spice of Life and “Mystery.” She also gained a reputation as a vocal arranger by writing five of the charts for the group’s acclaimed masterwork, Vocalese, seven charts for the group’s Grammy-winning album Brasil, and won a Grammy herself in 1980 for her arrangement of “Birdland.” In 1993, she and her Manhattan Transfer colleagues received their honorary doctorates from the Berklee School of Music, and in 1999 they were among the first class of inductees into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
But Siegel has been riding a dual career track for nearly three and a half decades. In addition to her stage and studio work with The Manhattan Transfer, she launched her solo career in 1981 on Atlantic Records with the release of Experiment in White produced by Joel Dorn. Her followup solo effort, At Home, earned her a Grammy nomination in 1987 for Best Female Jazz Vocal.
She collaborated with jazz pianist Fred Hersch on the 1989 effort, Short Stories, which Jazz Times ranked “among the most graceful, thoroughly heartbreaking efforts of the modern era, thanks to her rich, emotive vocals. “That same year, the New York Music Awards named her Best Female Jazz Singer. Not one to walk away from a successful formula, Siegel rejoined Hersch in the making of Slow Hot Wind in 1995, and The Tender Trap in 1999. In addition to Hersch, The Tender Trap session roster included high-profile players like Michael Brecker, Hank Crawford, Russell Malone and Matt Wilson.
Through it all, diversity has been a hallmark of Siegel’s career. Some of her favorite collaborations over the years have been with Turkish modern classical composer Ilhan Mimaroglu and the Beaux Arts String Quartet in a musical and spoken word project called “Like There’s Tomorrow,” as well as projects with Richie Cole, Jay McShann, Lew Soloff, Australian flautist Jane Rutter and R&B singer Leon Ware. She also was a happy participant in “A Tribute to the Carpenters” on King Records in 1998, sang a duet (“Two For The Blues”) with Natalie Cole on Cole’s 1996 release, Stardust, and was a featured vocalist on Circlesongs, Bobby McFerrin’s multi-layered world/jazz effort of 1997.
Siegel has also appeared on a number of motion picture soundtracks (Swing Kids, A League of Their Own, Dick Tracy and others) and performed with classical violinist Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg and the Concordia Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in 1998.
I Wish You Love, released in 2002, marked her debut in the Telarc label and her reunion with legendary producer Joel Dorn. In some ways, the album also marked a return to Siegel’s roots, as it included jazzy renditions of a number of songs conceived in New York’s fabled Brill Building a hotbed of songwriting talent in the early ’60s. It was in that building that Siegel wrote and recorded her earliest songs with the Young Generation. But the Brill Building concept expanded dramatically once the I Wish You Love sessions got under way. Crafted with a distinctly late ’50s nightclub vibe, the album was a collection of pop and jazz hits – all penned during the fertile musical period from the late’50s to mid-’60s, and all associated in some way with women and the female perspective.
Her 2003 recording, Friday Night Special, combined Siegel’s rich, emotive vocals with an unusual selection of songs and a first-rate organ/tenor band featuring Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond B-3 and Houston Person on tenor saxophone. Produced by Joel Dorn (who produced Experiment in White and I Wish You Love), Siegel’s second Telarc release ranges from soul-jazz and bluesy grooves to funky rhythm & blues and romantic ballads.
Siegel’s eighth solo recording, Sketches of Broadway, spotlighted classic Broadway hits by Irving Berlin, Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and others. Produced by Gil Goldstein, Sketches of Broadway offers eleven showstoppers, including the opener “Show Me” (from My Fair Lady), “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (Oklahoma!), “I Have Dreamed” (The King and I), “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning”(And The Moon At Night) (Annie Get Your Gun) and “Sorry/Grateful” (Company).
Her latest studio recording, released on Telarc records in 2006, is the Latin- flavored A Thousand Beautiful Things which features the talents of Edmar Castaneda on Colombian harp, Edsel Gomez on piano, John Benetiz on bass, Steve Hass on drums and Brian Lynch on trumpet. Edsel Gomez provided the arrangements for this formidable NY/Latin band, to songs written by contemporary songwriters such as Björk, Annie Lennox, (who wrote the title tune) Nellie McKay, Suzanne Vega, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder.
In an age when buyers and sellers are quick to jam music and musicians into convenient little boxes, Siegel – either as a solo artist or in a group setting – has already built a career on defying preconceptions and stereotypes. A Thousand Beautiful Things is another step in Siegel’s ongoing pursuit of following eclectic musical passions.
Siegel’s most recent collaborations and projects outside The Manhattan Transfer are many and varied. She is currently a touring member of the improvisational vocal group, Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra, made an appearance as a ’30s-style Boswellian (as in The Boswell Sisters) cowgirl on the debut album by Frank Vignola and Joe Ascione, titled 33 1/3, and was a participant alongside Luciana Souza, Mulgrew Miller and the late James Williams in a tribute to jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. Janis Siegel was also a member of the ensemble cast debuting Cy Coleman and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s jazz song cycle, “Songs For A New Millenium” at the Kennedy Center. She appears with her duo partner Fred Hersch on “2 Hands 10 Voices”, a benefit album for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a cause close to her heart, and also contributed three cuts to NY drummer Steve Hass’ CD “Traveler”. The summer of 2003 found her an eager participant in the Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl Tribute To Ella Fitzgerald. Siegel performed to rave reviews with an all-star ensemble including Dame Cleo Lane, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kevin Mahogany and Canadian jazz singer Denzil Sinclaire. In March 2008, she was asked again to pay tribute to her idol in a program called, “LA Phil Presents A Tribute To Ella.” at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. And in 2010, she was a member of a troupe, alongside Dee Dee Bridgewater and Al Jarreau that celebrated “Ella” at The Kennedy Center.
These days, you can find Janis in the place she loves most, the studio, producing various ventures for other artists and singing on projects ranging from patriotic Americana, to tributes to Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton. The fall of 2008 found her in the studio singing and producing a tribute to the great Johnny Mercer. This project featured Janis’ girl trio, JaLaLa, which is comprised of former MT partner Laurel Massé and Lauren Kinhan from the New York Voices. Jalala is gearing up for recording their second CD, and for touring in 2012. Siegel also tours with her west coast based trio consisting of Alan Pasqua on piano, Darek Oles on bass and Steve Hass on drums.
Siegel – who has made a home in Manhattan with her son, Gabriel, and generally follows her own muse, isn’t about to get backed into the hopeless corner of trying to be all things to all people. Some styles are timeless and universal, regardless of prevailing trends. “I think people will always respond to emotion and to great songs sung well,” she says. “And I think the vocalists in particular will always be in demand. There’s nothing that approximates the human voice. In the end, when you come down to it, people want to feel something.”