Not even the pain of recovering from surgery for a broken hip could keep Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from expressing his love for the Manhattan Transfer. Although he wasn’t able to pay tribute to the group during their final concert Friday in Los Angeles, as he was intending to when the injury occurred, he came through on that mission on Sunday night, via a statement of appreciation he shared from his hospital bed.
It was previously reported only that Abdul-Jabbar broke his hip at “a concert.” What not even fans of the Transfer knew, as they gathered at Walt Disney Concert Hall Friday, was that the Lakers legend had been on the premises and suffered an injury somewhere between parking and making it backstage. His job for the evening had been to read a letter sent by Vice President Kamala Harris honoring the group, along with sharing his own remarks.
Although the duty of reading that letter befell someone else after Abdul-Jabbar was rushed to a nearby hospital, he still wanted to send his love to the retiring vocal quartet, even as he recovered from surgery.
In the statement of appreciation given to Variety by Deborah Morales, Abdul-Jabbar said:
“The Manhattan Transfer first took the stage the same year I first took the NBA court. I’ve been listening to their unique blend of R&B, jazz, blues and pop ever since. Their artistry has lifted me when I needed lifting, soothed me when I needed soothing, and gave me joy when I needed to be joyful. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The Manhattan Transfer could not have asked for more, although they lamented the near-miss in convening again with their most towering fan. “We were so close. So close!” said original member Janis Siegel late Sunday, after inquiring about whether there were any updates on his condition.
Abdul-Jabbar is well-known as a jazz aficionado, so his appreciation for the pop-jazz vocal group would come as no surprise, even among those who weren’t aware that he has attended concerts by the Manhattan Transfer in the past and even been captured singing with them backstage. Curious fans were speculating which concert the great had been attending when he was injured, and some had wondered if maybe the ballplayer was secretly a Depeche Mode fan (that group was doing an arena show down the street), with the smarter, savvier money falling on the Transfer gig.
“The first time he came to see us was at the Blue Note [in New York in 2009],” Siegel says, “and we were all flabbergasted that he was there, and not only that, but he seemed to know our music and he was a fan. He sang ‘Trickle, Trickle’ [a song from the 1979 album ‘Extensions’] with us in the dressing room, I recall.” (Indeed, there are short video snippets of that singalong.) “He was very knowledgeable about music in general, and then he would come to see us here and there. I just remember him being very warm.” (The photo at the top of this story is from that first encounter, with Abdul-Jabbar flanked by Alan Paul, Cheryl Bentyne, Siegel and the late Alan Paul, who died in 2014.)
Abdul-Jabbar sang along with the Transfer again backstage, this time with Take 6 also, at a “Summit” show uniting those two vocal groups in 2015. This time the ballplayer-turned-pundit was capture on video testing his chops on “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”
“When the ‘Summit’ show was announced, we were all enthralled that he came to hear them for this show and professed his love for what they do,” says the Transfer’s longtime manager, Ed Keane. “As I understand and have seen, Kareem’s support of music, in particular jazz and the artists who’ve been identified with it and played it and lived it, were important to him growing up in New York as well as in his L.A. life. My hearing of this extended back to my days managing and booking T.S. Monk; I had understood his dad Thelonious, like John Coltrane, was one of those influences’ that Kareem enjoyed so much.”
The Manhattan Transfer members have said Friday night’s tour capper was their last show, after a run that extended more than 50 years. Although the quartet have sounded pretty determined about that, it remains to be seen if Abdul-Jabbar — having missed the finale in an especially painful fashion Friday — might try to pull a personal favor in asking for some kind of do-over, after he’s recovered.
The letter from the nation’s VP ended up being read by musician and producer Mervyn Warren, the producer of the 2018 “The Junction” album. He told Variety he’d personally bought a third-row ticket as soon as their final show went on sale, little knowing he would be drafted to fill in at the last minute for the sports legend.
In the letter Abdul-Jabbar had been slated to read, Kamala Harris wrote, in part: “For 50 years, the Manhattan Transfer has used its talent to spread positivity across languages, cultures and genres. Your music is a reflection of the ingenuity of the American people… As trailblazing artists, each member of the Manhattan Transfer’s uplifting and beautiful voice has made a profound impact on music lovers across our nation and around the world. Your work will continue to encourage the next generation of performers… Doug and I send our best wishes as you enter this next chapter.”
For a full account of Friday’s concert, and a conversation with the group members about saying farewell, read Variety‘s account of the night here (“The Manhattan Transfer Calls It a Night With a Final Show at Disney Hall: There’s ‘Grieving,’ but ‘We Think We’re Going Out on Top’”).