Unclassifiable when they began making records, Manhattan Transfer were the Dresden Dolls of their day, sort of. The band was formed through a series of happy accidents — group founder Tim Hauser meeting the outfit's first soprano, Laurel Masse, as a fare in the cab he was driving. The swing/a cappella/big-band goulash they concocted was invariably categorized by critics as "disco Sha Na Na" or "cabaret rock."
This was in the mid-Seventies, an anything-goes time in the first place. When regular joes in the U.S. heard the band's first quasi-tongue-in-cheek single, "Operator," they weren't sure what to make of it, but they knew they liked it. Part doo-wop, part gospel and part Andrews Sisters, the song was a knuckle ball that somehow completed a period marked by the weirdest works of Elton John, and Paul McCartney as a Wing, among others.
Manhattan Transfer performs Thursday, December 20, at Knight Concert Hall at the Carnival Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd, Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets range from $11.50 to $71.50. Call 305-949-6722, or visit www.carnivalcenter.org.
The band didn't crack the American charts again until 1981, although they had a smash hit in Europe with "Chanson D'Amour" (Édith Piaf backed up by a bunch of leering Jimmy Durantes, anyone?). In '81, "Boy from New York City" hit novelty pay dirt harder than ever before in history, opening the floodgates for fixations with zoot suits and general Roaring Twenties abandon among the Reagan-era twentysomething set.
Since then, Manhattan Transfer has kept busy over the years even as it has stayed under the radar of big-league radio. Year 2006 saw two releases: The Symphony Sessions, a collection of the band's hits rearranged for symphonies and pops orchestras, and The Definitive Pop Collection, a two-disc hodge-podge of the group's earlier songs. Thursday's show is holiday-themed, with the band playing songs such as "Santa Baby," "White Christmas," and "Let It Snow."