Manhattan Transfer Co-founder Laurel Massé and Her Life in Music
Sometimes, you need to escape the din of everyday life — and even the din of everyday music — to hear and appreciate the unique sounds of a true songbird.
This year, Laurel Massé has been celebrating her 50th year in music, which began on a winter’s day in New York City, when she hailed a cab, driven by her future Manhattan Transfer co-founder, Tim Hauser. But more about that later.
I had the great pleasure of speaking at length with Laurel a while back, and our conversation ran so long, and covered so many topics adjacent to her career, that I needed to remove nearly half of it in order to meet the agreed-upon word limit for the original story in the August edition of the jazz magazine The Syncopated Times (link to that story below).
Not that I’m complaining. But I was not about to let the rest of our memorable talk languish in journalistic purgatory forever, considering her vast experience and encyclopedic knowledge of all genres of music and the music business. You can read about Laurel’s career of recording and performing jazz classics both with and without the Manhattan Transfer in that article, but here is much more of what we spoke about…
Laurel was born into a family that loved music and singing. Her grandfather traveled for many years as a singer with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, giving her a first exposure to jazz.
But the first memory of hearing jazz that she clearly remembers came on her 8th birthday, when her parents — then living in Connecticut — took her to see Count Basie and his big band playing in New York City, at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center.
“And we were there having dinner, and the band took a little break, and he didn’t leave the piano bench, and my parents kind of scooted me up there to ask him for his autograph, which I did do, shyly, and he was very sweet, sat me down on the piano bench next to him, chatted with me a little bit, and I went back to the table. But I don’t have that autograph anymore. So I heard that when I was really young. I heard Freddie Green. I heard the saxophone section. I heard that behind-the-beat leaning back and the beautiful groove like a prowling tiger — I heard that then. And I think it never left me. And when I open my mouth to start to sing swing music, I already knew how. I never struggled with it. I always knew how. And I think it’s because of that. I think I imprinted on that music like a little gosling.”
She later encountered swing again while immersed in an original Broadway cast album of a show not immediately associated with jazz: “The third exposure I had to jazz, or at least jazz-influenced music, would have been wearing out the grooves to West Side Story. And that recording, unlike the film soundtrack…that original cast recording swung so hard — again, it was the swing. I felt it, I loved it. So, these things have registered with me later, but the first time I consciously had to learn a ‘jazz song’ was with the Transfer.”
That aforementioned cab ride in early 1972 brought passenger Laurel and driver Tim Hauser together via pure, unadulterated serendipity. They chatted about various things, including music.
“I met Tim Hauser. And that was in February of 1972. I was working as a waitress in a bar, and it was snowing, and I got off work early because there was nobody coming in, and the owners wanted to close early, and I had made enough money to take a taxi rather than get on public transit or walk. So I flagged a cab, and Timmy was the guy driving the cab this time. He was wearing a cap with 1939 World’s Fair souvenir buttons, and we started talking, and started talking about music, and never stopped talking about music, really. And that’s how I met Timmy, and that was how I first heard jazz and knew that it was jazz. He was extremely knowledgeable about a lot of different kinds of music. And so I wasn’t really a listener of jazz until I was a singer. Janis was much more steeped in jazz than I was. And Timmy was more steeped than Janis.”
The Transfer’s reputation of offering classic swing tunes and a suitably stylish, even wild presentation of costumes and dance moves caught on in New York at the 1970s approached mid-decade.
“I think for people who were young, what we were doing was something totally new. For people who were older, it was something they used to do when they were young. I remember a guy coming up to me after a performance and he said ‘You reminded me so much of when I used to go dancing, with the big bands, and what I really remember best was the moment when they’d stop playing, and you would hear the dancers’ feet on the floor. It was the most thrilling sound.’ And I get it. So we caught that. We were lucky, in timing. It just became prohibitive for those ensembles to tour. Too many people. It was economics. And then with rock & roll, who are you going to book in your room, a 40 piece band or a 4 piece band? Hmm, where are you gonna bring in the young people? I’ll go with the 4 piece band that has guitars in it. That just became prohibitive to do that kind of touring.”
By 1975, they had caught the attention of Atlantic Records founder and president Ahmet Ertigun, who signed them to a contract, leading to extensive touring in the U.S. and Europe.
“I remember a tour we did, might have been our first tour of Europe, when the first record was out. It hit in the U.K. just when a huge wave of big band revival interest, and we got to surf that wave. And we played all over the U.K., and Germany, and Scandinavia, you name it. The tour was just supposed to be a few weeks long, but we kept getting more bookings added as the word spread over there, until the tour went on and on and on…There’s a Todd Rundgren tune called ‘One More Day,’ and he sings, ‘You say we’ll be home for Christmas, but I’m still here today. One more day.’ And it was like that.
“When we finally got home to our own little homes and we put down our little suitcases and poured ourselves a cup of whatever, then the phone rang. The Captain &Tennille backed out of a gig at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, and we had to get right back on the road for a week. Believe me, I thought about leaving the group! (laughs). In New Zealand, I wondered what would happen if I just didn’t get back on the plane, ‘cause it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, but I got back on the plane, ‘cause I was always afraid of what would happen, I guess!”
Then came an opportunity for the quartet to star in their own TV variety show as a summer replacement for Cher’s program.
“And so the four of us looked at each other and thought, ‘I don’t know, it’s four weeks, and we only have this many tunes. So we all moved to L.A. to do this show, at the CBS Television Studios which was fabulous of course. Janis and I shared Cher’s dressing room…and we had her make-up artist.
“Before the four shows were over, we had used up every song we knew. So Janis and I started doing some solo numbers because we could learn them really fast, but those four weeks kind of ate us up! But we did it, it was an amazing experience, and the first time Bob Marley & the Wailers appeared on an American television show.”
As was the custom of variety programs of the era, comedy skits were also part of the show. “They didn’t know how to do a show any other way, really. There was no not doing it. That was not an option then. That was part of what seemed to make up a variety show [e.g. Donny & Marie, The Captain & Tennille, Sonny & Cher]. We had two rooms at opposite ends of a hallway, with a little pile of writers in each room. And one pile of writers were the CBS guys. They had done the Dean Martin Show, had written gags for lots of variety show people. And at the other end of the hallway were Bruce Valanch and Fay Hauser, Tim’s sister, who if you remember how outrageously Bette Midler used to dress, especially when she first went on the Carson show. Fayette dressed her, and Fayette was a great artist in her own right, in many ways…and they were on opposite ends of the hall. And Bruce and Fay were writing like, weird stuff for us, and then we had the old guys’ stuff — and the weird stuff — and we tried to blend them, and running back and forth…
“It was fascinating. Did it help us in the States? A bit. But primarily, our audience at the time was Europe. I think the reason for that was — first of all, there’s a very old and powerful history of cabaret performing in Germany, and of Music Hall in England, and both of those art forms allowed for a lot of different kinds of musical styles in the way American audiences are not used to. And, in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, a lot of African American jazz musicians emigrated to Europe, because the audiences there loved the jazz, and were much more knowledgeable about jazz than American audiences were, that were getting into ’50s rock & roll. And the ‘60s kind of knocked everything out of the water, except for rock & roll. Most of the European audiences seemed better at holding the idea that you don’t do just one kind of music, because we did jazz, we did folk, we did old blues, we did ‘50s, ‘60s doo wop, we did a lot of different kinds of music — I did French pop, too.
“My family lived overseas — I was 10 when we went there and 16 when we came back. One of the thrills of touring with the Transfer was they were going to a place they had never been — I was going home.
“So, that went down much better in Europe. And I remember performing in maybe Gutenberg in Sweden, and looking out at the audience, and I believe we were singing ‘Four Brothers,’ so you know there’s a lot of vocalese in that. So I’m looking at the audience seeing people singing along to the vocalese, for whom English is a second language. It takes having been exposed to that music.”
Constant rehearsing, recording, and traveling within the group had some drawbacks as well. “[The group] becomes an ‘It’ and you become part of the It. And It has its own energy and needs, and sometimes there’s room for people to be taken good care of, and sometimes not so much.
“Janis was always gonna be the one with the gutsy gospel voice, I’m always gonna have to be the creamy white girl’s voice, Alan was always gonna be the guy who did the Fifties stuff — nobody was going to get to grow that much, at least in the very beginning. You get an emotional take on a tune and you just keep playing that take, over and over again. Not so much fun. If the solo doesn’t have a whole lot of singing behind it, or not a whole lot of words in the singing behind it, you don’t have to be in sync with people necessarily, like ‘Walk in Love’ for instance. Then you have more room to play, but still, there was choreography…I had to do the choreography so there was a limit to how much I could change.”
It might seem as if such a hectic schedule of performing could affect the ability to maintain an emotional investment in each song.
“There’s never not an emotional investment [in a song],” she explains. “I wouldn’t say that of the Transfer or any other close harmony group. It’s easier to be fluid and change to reflect what’s going on in the present tense. When you’re singing vocalese, you’re singing words that you wrote, or somebody else wrote — Eddie Jefferson, or Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross — you’re singing their words, the notes you’re singing is somebody’s instrumental solo that got recorded. Those notes exist. You have to sing those notes, and you have to sing those words — in a way its like doing a classical piece, in that everything already exists, and there’s not much you can do to change it, to do it authentically. And if you put that kind of work, and the Transfer did that a lot — in the context of a group, you have even less room to improvise. They do take more solo breaks now, fifty years later. Janis in particular is a fabulous scat singer, but at that time, it was much more of a box.”
A car accident in 1979 necessitated time for Laurel’s physical recovery, as well as considerable re-assessment and soul searching. She decided to leave the group, eventually embarked on a solo career in Chicago, with the help of her friend, singer/pianist Judy Roberts.
There, Laurel formed a tight-knit band and recorded three superb solo albums of jazz standards — Alone Together, Easy Living, and Again — featuring a fair amount of vocalese and scat singing to help her bring her extraordinary 4-octave range voice and talents to full potential.
As we talked, she also reflected on how delivering a genuine, believable performance of a song is more important than possessing superior physical vocal characteristics. “Having a beautiful voice is extra, and wonderful, but not the primary thing. Nobody could say Billie Holiday had a beautiful voice, but boy, could you believe every word that came out of her mouth? Yes!
“Other singers — Maria Callas, for instance — some people didn’t like her voice because it had a certain strident edge to it, that was not considered ‘beautiful,’ but when she stepped onstage as the characters she played, she was that person. She made the words make sense, even if you didn’t speak the language of the words she was singing. That’s genius. Bette Midler has that genius. You walk into a performance of hers, and she makes you feel like she was doing the whole show to you, that it matters you’re there, that it matters deeply. Springsteen makes everybody feel like it matters that they’re there. Is his a beautiful voice? Maybe not! It could be argued that it’s not. But the connection is so powerful, it makes him a great singer.
“When you have an artist who does that, that’s the emotional connection that’s very deep and profound, and you become a storyteller for the community…”
It was inevitable that our conversation would turn to her favorite jazz albums. “I think I would name Sing a Song of Basie as one of my favorite albums ever, and then I’d also name Frank Sinatra with Count Basie Live at the Sands as another one of my favorite records.
“Talk about the perfect, perfect combination of singer and band…What Sinatra had, whether he was in good voice or bad, was the skill of making the words sound like they’ve never been sung before, like he made them up-like it was true, real, the words were fresh in his mouth, and that is that skill I talked about before, making the connection.”
There were also several comparisons to be made between the music industry and recording now, and how it was in the early years of her career.
“I will say that nothing that I’ve learned from being in the first seven years of the Transfer, and to the mid-1980s — none of the stuff that I’ve learned even exists anymore. Record companies are so different. The whole industry is so different, and unless you are quite up there, I think, you don’t really get help in promoting your product. Now, in the old days, which Courtney Love accurately, perhaps, likened to sharecropping, you got that promotion, but you had to pay it back out of your royalties. Like working for a railroad and having to buy your stuff at the company store. You were never gonna come out ahead. But at least you could get it done. You could play a venue because the record company did some publicity for you, you could have a record in the heavy boxes to lug because the company paid for that. You had to pay them back, but you had the product in your hands. That’s changed. I don’t think the whole category of Artists & Repertoire — matching the right artists with the right repertoire — as far as I can tell, that no longer exists, which is unfortunate. There’s a lot of other functions that don’t exist.”
She continued with what she calls Laurel’s Grand Theory of Record Companies: “Most record companies were started by a guy usually — two guys sometimes — or women later on, but the beginning of Columbia, the beginning of Warner Brothers, Atlantic, those were just a couple of guys who loved a certain kind of music, and couldn’t find enough records that they liked, so they decided to put themselves in business and record artists that they liked. So, for the Ertigans it was Ruth Brown, Aretha when she came to Atlantic…Jack Holzman started Elektra with the Doors and other acts like that. Over time, those founding guys with a vision kept moving up the hierarchy of their own companies, became CEOs, but weren’t actively working how the company worked anymore. And what happened in my view — and I could be wrong — those founding people with a vision got replaced by lawyers and accountants. Everything changed, and the vision was gone. Those guys are gone. If, today, a group called themselves Manhattan Transfer and presented a demo with material that we had on our demo or on our first album, and presented that to a record company, they would never get a deal. But the good news is that, today, you can do a lot yourself.”
And, of course, the process by which we even listen to music has changed greatly between then and now. Those of a certain age lament the days when an artist would present his or her work on an LP or CD, treating it as a true creative work the listener could hold and peruse while taking in new sounds from a favorite artist. Downloading and streaming music without physically having it between two covers is a much different experience.
“I miss the luxury of having the liner notes written in a font size I can actually read!” Laurel says. “That was good. And I love getting a CD of an artist that I really admire, because it’s listening to the music that’s really wonderful…the other side of that particular coin, though, is that if you’re going to have that object in your hand, you have to not only be able to pay for the studio, and pay for the other musicians, but also pay for the manufacture of the physical thing that someone will have in their hands, and sometimes that’s the difference right there, if you have the three thousand, six thousand, or ten thousand dollars to put into that physical thing that you’ll have to be lugging in big heavy boxes to your gigs. And so as an older person now, I have come to accept the good part about the streaming, that if somebody can buy my music on bandcamp, they can be in another country, click a button, and they’d have it, and that’s really great, and more importantly, I didn’t have to manufacture it, and I didn’t have to lift the boxes! The lifting of the boxes ages musicians more than the lifestyle.
“I have a very dear friend, Jerry Yester, put out a solo record decades ago called Just Like the Big Time, Only Smaller. And lately I’ve been thinking that’s where I’m at — it’s just like the big time, only smaller! We have some societal training of what success is anyway, what is meaningful work, all that stuff. It’s very skewed here in the States, especially for artists. Very, very skewed. ‘If you’re such an artist, how come I’ve never heard of you?’ That kind of attitude. So it can take a long time to learn, but at a certain point I thought, ‘wait a minute- the quality of work I do has no relationship to the quantity of work I get. If I’m not working for a chunk of time, it doesn’t mean that I’m not any good, but we’re taught to think that it does. It could mean a million things. It could mean that club is into a different kind of music — it’s like when you don’t get cast for a play. I’m a 5’9" redhead, maybe they were looking for a 5’ 2” blonde, in which case it doesn’t matter how good I am. I’m not what they see in their heads. If somebody wants Beyonce to do a concert, they are never going to give a passing thought to me doing it instead. On the other hand, ‘just like the big time — only smaller’ — if somebody really wants me to come and sing a cappella, Beyonce won’t do. She doesn’t do that.
“What I tell my students, and more importantly their parents when I have young students, when they ask, ‘Well how much can they expect to make?’ I tell them, ‘You can expect to make nothing. So, if you don’t love it, if you’re not called to do this, if this is not the thing you were born to do, do something else.’ ‘Cause you can expect nothing, and get everything, who knows. You don’t go into this to make money.”
The art of self-promotion can make a difference, but Laurel contends that some artists are also naturally more skilled at it than others.
“I had a friend who worked for Steve Paul at the Blue Skies record company back in the 70s, or early 80s in NYC. And one of the things he did was find artists for the record label. Johnny and Edgar Winter were on that label, I do believe. And he told the story to me about this artist who always came in with a new demo…another outfit, new style, relentless. That aspiring young singer was Madonna.
“Now, Madonna is not a great singer. People say she’s a chameleon. She’s not a chameleon, she doesn’t change her singing — she changes her outfits. But she has an extraordinary talent for organization and self-promotion. And I have come to think of that as a separate talent, and some people have a little bit, some people have none, some have a ‘it’s gonna work out fine’ bit, and some have an extraordinary bit of it. And I think she’s one that has an extraordinary bit of it. Her voice doesn’t back it up, but everything else she has always done — she’s smart, she runs her career really well, and that talent for self-promotion and relentlessness, that’s what got her where she is.”
Laurel cited another performer who, upon bursting onto the scene, reminded more than a few people of a young Madonna.
“Lady Gaga had to manifest that same talent for relentlessness and self-promotion, and being in the public eye in a different age where there are more eyes to be in front of. Her voice backs it up, though. So, she can change genres anytime she wants to, she’ll always sound good.
“When they were coming up, they didn’t have people doing all of that for them, they were just very good at doing it for themselves, and we don’t all have that gift. So we do what we can. Some people sing really great, some people don’t sing really great cause they can’t, and self-promotion is also talent. You can learn it to a certain extent, but there’s gotta be a gift there, too.”
We concluded our talk, having covered so many topics of interest, yet with the feeling that there was still so much more to delve into. Perhaps another time.
Thank you to Laurel for such an enjoyable, educational, and memorable conversation.
Until next time…
Here’s the link to the interview article with Laurel as published in The Syncopated Times:
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Read my articles about the Sant Andreu Jazz Band at the links below (and retro reviews of several pop/rock performers and albums) at the “Garry’s Blog” page on my website, www.GarryBerman.com.
“The SAJB’s Koldo Munne Steps into the Jazz Spotlight” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-sajbs-koldo-munn%C3%A9-steps-into-the-jazz-spotlight-238b3231626f
“A Tale of Two Albas” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tale-of-two-albas-904849a5e697
“Jan Domenech’s New Chapter as a Jazz Musician” https://garryberman.medium.com/jan-domenechs-new-chapter-as-a-jazz-musician-e1f0da8b19b9
“Joan Chamorro and the SAJB: Past, Present, and Future” https://medium.com/@garryberman/joan-chamorro-and-the-sajb-past-present-and-future-573eedcbff76
“Josep Traver: Guitarist of All Trades” https://garryberman.medium.com/josep-traver-guitarist-of-all-trades-608296f9d00a
“When American Jazz Pros Meet Spanish Jazz Kids” https://garryberman.medium.com/when-american-jazz-pros-meet-spanish-jazz-kids-25c7f5023571
“Claudia Rostey: The Life of an 18-year-old Bacelona Jazz Trombonist” https://garryberman.medium.com/claudia-rostey-the-life-of-an-18-year-old-barcelona-jazz-trombonist-d13b82c770a3
“The Magic of the Voice: The Singers of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-magic-of-the-voice-the-singers-of-the-sant-andreu-jazz-band-208dfb629221
“Jobim is Alive and Well in Barcelona” https://garryberman.medium.com/jobim-is-alive-and-well-in-barcelona-d384b40d8c2e
“Did Someone Say Anastasia Ivanova?” https://garryberman.medium.com/did-someone-say-anastasia-ivanova-dd6f67277c64
“Struck by (musical) Lightning” https://garryberman.medium.com/struck-by-musical-lightning-6583ecb0de13
Sant Andreu Jazz Band CDs are available at: https://jazztojazz.com/ , eBay, and Amazon.com.