"One of the musical worlds great adventurers."
Bobby McFerrin. In one phrase, that best describes him:
He is different.
Sometimes you think you know someone, but you don't. We can't know-it-all and unless you are doing serious research or pay close attention it is very likely that you don't. I thought I knew all there was to really know about Bobby McFerrin, but I certainly did not. Now I do and so will you if you read the rest of this blog.
Today I ask the question: Whatever happened to Bobby McFerrin?
"I wrote that song in an hour. Didn't do a single thing to promote it...the tune took off all by itself. I don't sing it in concert, and haven't in 25 years, for two reasons. First, people identify me with that song and think that's what I do and it is just a little fraction of what I do and also I was sick of singing it before anybody really heard it."
In 1988, McFerrin recorded the hit song "Don't Worry, Be Happy", which brought him widespread recognition across the world. However, the song's success "ended McFerrin's musical life as he had known it," and he began to pursue other musical possibilities – on stage and in recording studios. Even before that mega hit, McFerrin had been doing many non mainstream things. Something he has continued to do to this day.
Don't worry. Be Happy. We have all heard that song. To death. I think even Bobby McFerrin would agree; We have heard it enough. He has sang it enough. But, for most of us, that is all we know or have heard from McFerrin.
Bobby McFerrin Jr. was born in Manhattan, New York City on March 11, 1950. He is also ten-time Grammy Award winner. I certainly did not know that. I thought he was a one hit wonder and this would be a piece of cake blog to breeze through. One hit wonder, then fade away never to be heard from again. How about...not!
What made you think to do that?
I didn't think. I just opened up my mouth and it came out.
In many ways, when Bobby McFerrin improvises, "does his thing" you can hear the genesis of a song like Don't Worry, Be Happy. It is just one long riff. Improvised. It is nothing special, but it caught on. Not that McFerrin hung his career around it. In fact, the opposite is true. He did everything he could not to do that.
"When I decided I was a singer, I spent six years exploring my voice before I actually did my first solo voice concert....I didn't listen to other singers, because I am very impressionable. I wanted to find out what my sound was."
The one thing that he did that everyone knows, and what started to become, is the one thing that Bobby McFerrin never wanted to be: Pigeon holed.
"I believe that most singers have a pretty good idea of what they want to be. I want to be a pop singer. I want to be a Jazz singer or I want to be a country singer. They kind of have that idea generally. I didn't really have any models to follow....Well, for me, I can look back at my musical history and that I was a music student at a time when music students were really beginning to explore music genres."
His father was an operatic baritone and his mother the singer Sara Copper. He attended the California State University, Sacramento.
"The musical information I have in my head is just all these different (musical) languages I heard growing up."
Singing was in his blood, but he didn't start out wanting to be a singer. But at age 27, he had what he describes as a "light bulb moment."
"It was July 11, 1977...I was living in Salt Lake City. It was a beautiful day. I was employed by the University of Utah dance department as an accompanest. And in between classes I walked home to get some lunch....between the campus and my house, which is like a 25 minute walk, I realized that I was a singer....I think I resisted it for a long time because my mother and father and sister were singers and I wanted to differentiate myself from them."
McFerrin had always been basically a piano player. He had played in bands growing up. There was always a piano in his house growing up and he played that, and he was making his living doing that. But he had this uneasy feeling in the back of his mind that he wasn't really a piano player. He was a singer. And, according to him, he realized that on that day. So, when he got him, he flipped through the yellow pages, found a hotel that played live music, asked to speak to the manager of the piano bar and asked if he could come in and audition for him. The manager said he was actually never there, but had just unusually been there at the exact moment that McFerrin called. He told him to "come in tomorrow."
McFerrin played 5 songs for him, the only 5 songs he knew, and he was hired and started in a month. And his singing career was born. He did piano bars for about a year and a half.
From there, he met a drummer at a Jazz festival in Colorado, asked if he could sit in with his band and sang the last song of the night with them. They asked him to sing another. Two weeks later, he was living in New Orleans and working with that band.
Asked why he didn't do what most do in his position (which is aim to be and become a pop singer), McFerrin has this to say,
"I thought about it...I wasn't too sure (what to do). The solo voice thing came to me on stage. It was very persistent. I kept coming back to that. But I resisted it for a while, because for me it was really frightening."
Now we get back to "Don't Worry Be Happy". It is the pivot point of his career which can't be avoided. But he did a lot before that and so much after it. I will summarize what he has done over his career, which is vast and diverse, to this day.
McFerrin was often a voice you heard but didn't know the face or where they voice came from. And he seemed very happy with that.
In 1984 McFerrin's approach to singing is clear in The Voice, the first solo vocal jazz album recorded with no accompaniment or overdubbing.
In 1986, McFerrin was the voice of Santa Bear in Santa Bear's First Christmas, and in 1987 he was the voice of Santa Bear/Bully Bear in the sequel Santa Bear's High Flying Adventure.
Also, in 1987, Bobby performed the theme song for the opening credits of Season 4 of The Cosby Show.
In 1989, he composed and performed the music for the Pixar short film Knick Knack. McFerrin recorded his vocals "blah blah blah" in place of the end credits (meant to indicate that he should improvise). McFerrin spontaneously decided to sing "blah blah blah" as lyrics, and the final version of the short film includes these lyrics during the end credits. In typical McFerrin fashion, he just opened his mouth and the words came out. Something he still does to this day when he performs on stage.
McFerrin always opens his shows, which are just him on stage, no other singers or any musicians, with two complete improv pieces. For which he has no idea until he begins what he is going to sing.
"I want to do the riskiest thing first."
Also in 1989, McFerrin formed a ten-person "Voicestra" which he featured on both his 1990 album Medicine Music and in the score to the 1989 Oscar-winning documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. The song "Common Threads" has frequently reappeared in some public service advertisements about AIDS.
In 1993, McFerrin sang Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme for the movie Son of the Pink Panther. Again, you can hear how he uses his voice as a tool, as an instrument. He is one of the few people alive who can do it the way he does.
For a few years in the late 1990s, he toured a concert version of Porgy and Bess, partly in honor of his father, who sang the role for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 film version, and partly "to preserve the score's jazziness" in the face of "largely white orchestras" who tend not "to play around the bar lines, to stretch and bend". McFerrin says that because of his father's work in the movie, "This music has been in my body for 40 years, probably longer than any other music."
McFerrin has also worked in collaboration with instrumental performers, including pianists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul, drummer Tony Williams, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
He makes regular tours as a guest conductor for symphony orchestras throughout the United States and Canada, including the San Francisco Symphony (on his 40th birthday), the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and many others. In McFerrin's concert appearances, he combines serious conducting of classical pieces with his own unique vocal improvisations, often with participation from the audience and the orchestra.
McFerrin also participates in various music education programs and makes volunteer appearances as a guest music teacher and lecturer at public schools throughout the U.S. McFerrin has collaborated with his son, Taylor, on various musical ventures.
In 2009, McFerrin and musician-scientist Daniel Levitin served as co-hosts of The Music Instinct, a two-hour award-winning documentary produced by PBS and based on Levitin's best-selling book This Is Your Brain On Music.
Bobby McFerrin is certainly more than a one hit wonder. He did have one big hit, but really, he never wanted that, or any more than that. He doesn't let it define him, although others try to define him that way. A look under the surface shows what he does and what he is really about.
He is different, and he isn't worried about it. And in fact, he is happy about it.