By Ed Hannan
They are two of the most renowned vocal singing groups, one hailing from New York City and the other from Huntsville, Alabama.
Yet, that’s about where the similarities end with The Manhattan Transfer and Take 6, who are touring together this fall and will perform at Monomoy Performing Arts High School in Harwich on Sunday, Oct. 9.
Let’s take a closer look at these two legendary groups through their own voices.
Founded in 1969 in New York City, The Manhattan Transfer is perhaps best known for their two biggest hits: 1975’s “Operator” which reached number 22 on the Billboard pop singles chart and 1981’s “The Boy from New York City,” which made it all the way to number 7 on the same chart.
Cheryl Bentyne joined the group in 1978 and has been with the group ever since, enjoying the accolades such as Grammy Award wins for best jazz fusion performance (their cover of Weather Report’s “Birdland”), best vocal arrangement for two or more voices (to group member Janis Siegel for her arrangement of “Birdland”) in 1980.
Two years later, The Manhattan Transfer won Grammy Awards for best pop performance by a duo or group with vocal for “The Boy from New York City” and their song “Until I Met You (Corner Pocket)” won the Grammy for best jazz performance, duo or group. In 1985, the group won Grammy Awards for best jazz vocal performance, duo or group and best arrangement for voices. They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.
Bentyne said the group’s secret to their enduring success is simple. “I believe it’s our love and responsibility to keep harmony singing alive. It is flourishing, I’m happy to say.”
And though The Manhattan Transfer is commonly thought of as an a cappella group, Bentyne clarifies the group has more than vocals. “We are not an a cappella group. We do have instruments behind us. We warm up our voices a half an hour before each show. When off the road, I walk every day and get enough sleep as well as keeping the voice active, even while on a break.”
When you’ve logged as many miles and played as many shows as Bentyne and The Manhattan Transfer have, you play a lot of the same places and see a lot of the same faces over the years.
“As we were leaving China the other day, Lee Ritenous was just arriving, having breakfast in the restaurant. We see musicians quite often in airports. This is where the work is. Each show, each audience is different. We never know, nor do we take for granted any given show on any given night. This keeps life fresh and our music fresh. Yes, we’ve been singing a lot of our music for many years, and touring is hard work, despite people thinking we just go out and have fun. Traveling is tough. Singing is the payoff.”
Take 6 has been working at their craft almost as long, having formed in 1980 on the campus of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. With Grammy Awards in numerous categories in 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1997 and 2002 as well as 10 Dove Awards, a Soul Train Award and two NAACP Image Award nominations, their respect is well-earned.
They’ve worked with Ray Charles, Don Henley, Whitney Houston, Al Jarreau, Quincy Jones, k.d. lang, Queen Latifah, Brian McKnight (more on that connection in a second), Luis Miguel, Joe Sample, CeCe Winans and Stevie Wonder.
Though an a cappella gospel music sextet such as Take 6 lacks the popular acclaim of many of the acts they’ve worked with, their albums sell very well. Their first four albums all made the top 100 of the Billboard album chart. Ten of their albums, including their current album Believe, have reached the top 30 of the gospel album chart.
“One of the most important components with a cappella music, and a lot of people will attest to this, is it’s really about your ears,” says Claude McKnight, Brian’s older brother and founder of Take 6. “It’s about developing what you can hear and then your voice can follow and figuring out how to blend. We had like-minded people who could hear this kind of music and figure out who will sing what part of it.”
The key to their success, according to McKnight, was simple.
“I think, from the very beginning, we just loved doing this. We wanted to be different from other groups on campus we had heard before. There was a uniqueness to what we were doing at the time. We didn’t care whether it was commercial or where it would go. We just loved doing it. We would sing in our dorm room and practice all weekend long. We weren’t trying to be a cookie-cutter group. If you liked it, great. If not, that’s OK.
“We basically started out as a ministry. We wanted to do this as a church or spiritual group. That was bigger than us just wanting to have a group that wanted to sing together. To this day, we continue to be that. The third reason is we actually like each other. That might sound crazy, but if you don’t have respect and like for people you work with, it’s difficult to find longevity.”
Starting their career in college gave them plenty of opportunity for rehearsals.
“That’s the nature of the beast. If you can be in a confined area and hey we want to rehearse Friday night, can you guys come over? That’s different than having to get together and drive to a location and find rehearsal space. When you’re all together and you’re 18 years old and you’ve got nowhere else to go, it’s very easy.”
The McKnight family grew up in Buffalo. Claude’s grandmother was the leader of the church choir. “We all matriculated through that choir from being very young. We’d go to choir rehearsal on Friday nights with Mom and before we could sing, we would hear parts. We’d see how the choir was put together. Our family always sang at family reunions. I’ve heard Brian say in interviews that we didn’t know everybody couldn’t sing until we got to school. Music was always a part of our family.”
The 47-date tour with The Manhattan Transfer is called The Summit.
“We’ve known each other for pretty much our entire career. Both groups are managed by the same company and came up with the idea of putting us together,” McKnight says. “We’ve been together so long so we wanted to join forces and see what we can do, not just on our own, but throughout the show. It’s been really, really cool so far.”
The groups will take turns on stage with one group doing two or three songs, then the next group doing a few songs, and back and forth. “It’s a show where, when you leave, you think, I can only get this live.”
Now’s your chance.