A Transfer Of Talent
The Manhattan Transfer founding member Erin Dickins has sung with legends of the industry — and while she still performs internationally, she’s cookin’ up a new career from her home in Easton.
Interview by Jonathan Westman / Photography by Grant L. Gursky
Erin Dickins knew of the Eastern Shore; her father was a Naval Academy graduate and retired to Annapolis with her mother when his military career concluded. While living in Hawaii, she attended a wedding at the Inn at Perry Cabin. Ready for a change of scenery, believe it or not, she moved here soon afterward with her first husband, settling in Easton.
In a candid conversation at her home, Dickins fondly shared stories of her years as a young singer (so young she needed her mother to sign her first Capitol Records contract), her time with The Manhattan Transfer, a new culinary career, which includes a cookbook and spice collection, and much more.
Take us back to the early 70s. What was the music scene like, and how did The Manhattan Transfer originally come about?
The ’70s was a different scene musically than it is today. It was very free. My mother had sent me to school in Virginia to keep me out of New York, because she was afraid I would end up in the music business. So, the first chance I got, I went to New York for a semester of work. The Manhattan Transfer came about when I ran into Tim Hauser and Marty Nelson through a publisher friend of the family. We sang together, and it was Heaven, and that was that. I was under age when I signed the first record deal with Capitol Records. My mother had to sign the contract, which was kind of interesting — poor thing!
What was touring like? How many stops would you play, and where did that take you?
It was really great. A lot of college campuses and a lot of bigger clubs, in New York and all over the country. We were definitely sort of a cult band. We basically toured the whole country, and there were only six of us, so we had a stretch-sort-of Dodge van with mattresses. We’d put our guitars in the back and go. We would probably do three days on, two days off, and our guitar player would drive all night, because he had the stamina. It was great fun. It was really a family. Not like [the business is] now.
What did you learn about yourself in those days?
I didn’t really figure out who I was until I left the group and started finding my own voice. [The Manhattan Transfer] wasn’t really the place for me to find my authenticity. I did later. I think what really did that for me was when I worked with Leonard Cohen, because he was such a mentor and so terribly authentic.
After you left the group, where did life take you?
To New York City, as a studio singer. I got to sing with everybody, including Valerie Simpson, Melissa Manchester, Bette Midler and Luther Vandross. I did backgrounds on tons of records and lots of radio and television commercials. I did, “Have you driven a Ford lately?” and I did “Kentucky Fried Chicken: We do chicken right.” I did that for maybe 10 years or so. Then the business started changing, so I did what any New Yorker who felt like a change would do — I moved to Hawaii!
Were you looking for such a drastic change, or were you called there?
I was burned out. It’s such a tough business. You’ll be in the same room, and they’ll say, talking about you, “The nose isn’t right.” It’s so competitive in such an ugly way. Also, radio and television commercials were dying off, and people were recording in their homes. And so any New Yorker, you know, where else are you going to live? Boston? That’s not a real city. You’re either going to Paris or Honolulu. So, I thought that would be interesting and a great experience for me because it’s one of the seven chakras of the planet. Everybody there is either in drug rehab or into some huge spiritual movement. There’s tremendous energy there, tremendous musicians. I thought I was going to give up music. It lasted about two months.
I read that you opened a restaurant in Manhattan that was the hotspot for the music industry.
It was in a brownstone between Broadway and Eighth, the perfect location for the Theater District. Twenty studio musicians teamed together to buy it. We named it after a booking practice and called it Possible 20, because when you’re booked for a recording session in New York, they’ll book you for three hours, and if they say possible 20, then you can’t charge double time if they hold you over for 20 minutes. It was a great bar and a great scene and wonderful food. It was a big hang for us and for the Theater District. I cooked a bit and worked with designing the menu and the wine list. Then we opened a space upstairs, a Tex-Mex restaurant we called Jose Sent Me, that I cooked in, as well.
Is that where your culinary passions began, or were you classically trained, or did you just jump into the kitchen because you had to?
I always loved it. My mom was a great cook, so while I was too stupid to get her recipes, I did have a flair for how one cooks improvisationally. It’s the same way with music. It’s nurturing and it brings people together and is love-filled and improvisational — all the things music is. I studied at the New York Restaurant School and studied charcuterie and kind of taught myself Escoffier, the method. I can’t say I’ve cooked every recipe. You’d have to be 103 to do that, but the basics of building on sauces, glaces and demiglaces… I don’t know how you cook not knowing that, because that translates into any cuisine.
It remains a passion. I love nothing better than great music, people sitting around the counter in my kitchen and just passing out food.
How did you discover the Eastern Shore of Maryland?
I knew about the Shore because my parents moved to Annapolis when my dad retired. He was a Naval Academy graduate, and he couldn’t wait to get back. In fact, he had a band when he was in school called The Bars & Tonics — and the band got back together. I mean, how cool is that? He was in his 70s, and his band got back together! I came from Hawaii for a wedding at the Inn at Perry Cabin — for my great friend Jesse Frederick. My husband at the time just saw the charts and said, “We’re moving,” which was fine by me. I was ready to come back.
You’ve had the opportunity to play locally, the Milton Theatre for example. What are those experiences like today, given your past and all you’ve accomplished?
What’s fun about a smaller environment is that it feels like family. Everybody knows you. That kind of feeling, that audience feedback, is very different than being on a big concert stage.
Tell us about your latest album, Vignettes (2017).
It was the scariest and most exhilarating thing I ever did. I’ve spent a lifetime having producers, other artists and managers telling me what I can’t do as a jazz singer or even as a rock singer. So, I decided to self-produce, and it’s terrifying, because you hold yourself to a standard that no one else will. I did each track as a collaboration with one musician. It was recorded all over the world. I worked with my friend, Bruce Hamada, on an Annie Ross thing, a vocalease thing, which is just bass and voice. I worked with Jim Croce’s son, A.J., in Nashville. I worked with Steely Dan’s Elliott Randall in London. And John Lissauer, who’s a great friend and producer from New York, produced Leonard Cohen, notably the song “Hallelujah.” So, I asked John to do a track, and we decided, of course, to do Leonard Cohen. We chose a song that he wrote with Leonard. I did a big-band thing in Texas and an incredible French tune in New York with Rob Mounsey. It was a remarkable experience.
You’ve accomplished so much. What’s left for you to do?
Clean the house. Get the dog groomed. Clean my studio. I’d like to record again. I have a couple of ideas for records. I’d like to do a tribute to Gene Pistilli, who was in Manhattan Transfer with me and a successful songwriter in Nashville. And I’d like to go down to Austin and work with my friend Danny Levin, too. That would be fun!