Cheryl Bentyne was a familiar face around Spokane in the mid-’70s, singing with Seattle’s swinging New Deal Rhythm Band at the old Spokane House hotel. Their set lists included a few tunes by an up-and-coming New York City vocal quartet called the Manhattan Transfer.
“My boyfriend at the time was the trombone player in New Deal, and he gave me the first record. He said, ‘You’re not going to believe this,’ ” Bentyne said by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I had never heard anything like that, four young people singing four-part harmony. … It just sent me crazy.”
Bentyne – who got her start at 13 with her dad’s Dixieland band in Mount Vernon, north of Seattle – finally left the Northwest to try her luck in L.A. It wasn’t working out, and she had just decided to head for New York in early 1979 when her manager heard about an audition for the newly vacant soprano slot in the Transfer, recently relocated to California.
She got the job, and the rest, as they say, is history – close to 40 years of it, covering some 30 albums and 10 collective Grammys in pop, jazz and R&B categories.
“Tim Hauser, who founded the group, used to say when he started it, he thought it would be fun for a few years,” said Bentyne, 61. “I don’t think anyone knew that it would sustain for four decades. It’s really remarkable.”
Now the Manhattan Transfer is returning to Spokane for the first time since a 2003 date with the Spokane Symphony, for a concert on its own Thursday at the symphony’s new home, the Fox Theater.
But this time, it’s without Hauser, who died in October at age 72 following a lengthy illness.
For a while, the group paid homage to him onstage with film footage. But, Bentyne said, “We just decided, we can’t keep doing this. It’s too sad. Everyone wants to grieve with us, which is very, very touching and really understandable, but after a while it just wears you down.
“You have to put it in another compartment in your heart, and then forge ahead. But we always talk about him (in the shows); he’s the reason we’re there.”
His replacement is Trist Curless of the L.A. vocal group m-pact, who previously filled in when Hauser was too sick to perform.
“He’s just an incredible force that really is bringing us to another level,” Bentyne said. “He does great bass lines, he does beat-box, he does an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo in one of our songs with his voice, and he’s a great scatter – he can scat like crazy. Audiences are absolutely embracing him, we’re so grateful for that.”
The show covers all phases of the Transfer’s career, including, of course, “Birdland” – the group’s groundbreaking “vocalese” version, adding lyrics to the original Weather Report instrumental.
“We skipped it one night somewhere because we were tired, and there was a lot of ruckus about that,” Bentyne said. “It’s a hard song to sing, and we always do it at the end of the show, and I look down, and I go, really? I’m not as young as I used to be.”
Still, she said, “It’s completely my favorite song, the most challenging thing in our repertoire, and it’s the most musical, I think.”
The Transfer, which hasn’t put out an album since 2009, has some new projects in the works, Bentyne said, including writing new music and collaborating with other artists like the gospel-jazz sextet Take 6, with whom they share the stage on occasion.
She also would like to rekindle her solo career, which was sidetracked when she sat out much of 2012 while being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Bentyne, whose own albums have paid tribute to the likes of Anita O’Day, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, has another subject in mind: Stephen Sondheim, the musical theater giant. “No one who’s ever written music in our generation comes close to his genius. It’s breathtaking,” she said.
She’s also written some songs about her cancer experiences with an eye toward a one-woman show based on her blog at the time, called Chemo Cocktails 4 Two. “But it’s humorous, too,” she said. “It’s not down-and-out, because it’s fine, I’m all healthy.”
For now, Bentyne is just eager to see where the new-look Transfer takes her. “We’ve had a lot of time (since the last record), and a lot of personal experiences that we want to express now, so it’s going to be fun.”
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.