In Germany they call him Stimmwunder (wonder voice); in America Bobby McFerrin is considered the most innovative jazz vocalist to emerge in twenty years. Singing solo and a cappella, he uses his four-octave voice to “play” a variety of instruments—such as the guitar, the trumpet, and the drums. “I like to think of my voice as being my body,” he told Micheal Bourne in down beat. “That’s my equipment.” A triple Grammy winner, McFerrin recently topped the popular-music charts with his single “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
The son of opera singers (his father was the first black man to perform regularly with the Metropolitan Opera), McFerrin was born in New York City. In 1958 his family moved to Los Angeles. McFerrin attended Sacramento State University and Cerritos College, but dropped out to play piano for the Ice Follies. Over the next few years, he played keyboard with lounge acts and for dance troupes. In 1977 McFerrin decided, suddenly, to become a singer. “I was in a quiet moment when a simple thought just came into my head: ‘Why don’. you sing?’ It was as simple as that, but it must have had some force behind it because I acted on it immediately,” he explained to Bourne. He sang with various bands and was eventually discovered by singer Jon Hendricks. While on tour with Hendricks, McFerrin was again discovered—this time by comedian Bill Cosby.
Through Cosby, McFerrin was booked in Las Vegas and at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles. He later performed at New York’s Kool Jazz Festival and began touring or recording with such jazz greats as George Benson and Herbie Hancock. In 1982 he released his first album, Bobby McFerrin.His fans were disappointed: “He sang with some of his vocal pyrotechnics fully alight,” Horizon’s Leslie Gourse wrote, “but he had loud electronic instrumental accompaniment that essentially was pop.” McFerrin learned from his mistake; his next effort, The Voice, was widely praised. Recorded live during a solo concert tour of Germany, the album is all a cappella and displays the singer’s virtuosity. “McFerrin coaxes up a daffy assortment of vocal effects and characterizations on The Voice, ” Francis Davis noted in Rolling Stone. “His circular breathing technique enables him to sing while inhaling and exhaling, thus allowing him to be his own background choir on ‘Blackbird’.and T. J.’ He slaps himself into a percussive frenzy on ‘I Feel Good’.and creates the sound of static between frequencies on ‘I’. My Own Walkman.’”
McFerrin’s later works have also been well received. Of Spontaneous Inventions Susan Katz of Newsweek wrote: “[It] shows off his ability to Ping-Pong between sweet falsetto melody and what sounds like a walking-bass
Born March 11, 1950, in New York, N.Y.; son of Robert (an opera singer) and Sara (an opera singer and educator) McFerrin; married Debbie Lynn Green; children: Taylor, Jevon. Education: Attended Sacramento State University and Cerritos College.
Pianist with lounge bands and the Ice Follies; singer, 1977—.
Addresses: Home —San Francisco, Calif.
accompaniment….McFerrin delivers a cappella improvisations on everything from Bach to The Beverly Hillbillies’ theme song.” Similarly, his more recent album, Simple Pleasures, contains versions of old pop and rock tunes, such as “Good Lovin’,” “Suzie Q,” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” Interview’s Glenn O’Brien found that “the way he does these near chestnuts makes them new and restores the power that made them parts of your memory banks in the first place.” So far, the album has sold over one million copies, and one of its tracks, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” has become a hit single.
McFerrin has received three Grammy Awards, two for his work on “Another Night in Tunisia,” recorded by Manhattan Transfer. His third, as Best Male Jazz Vocalist, was for ‘“Round Midnight,” the title song of the 1986 movie. McFerrin has also recorded the theme for “The Cosby Show” and the sound track for “Just So,” an animated series of specials that aired on cable television. He has appeared on “The Tonight Show” and “Sesame Street,” and he provides the vocals for Levi’. commercials. McFerrin tours extensively as well. During his concerts, he often improvises his material. Spontaneity is an important part of McFerrin’s music: “I like being an improviser, expecting the unexpected,” he told Bourne. “Even when something is rehearsed, I want it to be spontaneous.”
Bobby McFerrin, Elektra Musician, 1982.
The Voice, Elektra Musician, 1984.
Spontaneous Inventions, Blue Note, 1986.
Simple Pleasures, EMI Manhattan Records, 1988.
Christian Science Monitor, April 17, 1987.
down beat, May 1985.
Horizon, July/August 1987.
Interview, August 1988.
Newsweek, October 6, 1986.
New York Times, November 20, 1987.
People, September 21, 1987.
Rolling Stone, March 28, 1985.
Time, October 17, 1988.
Singer, composer, songwriter
Celebrated singer and conductor Bobby McFerrin is a diverse musical artist who has won numerous awards for his performances and compositions, including ten Grammy Awards and a Peabody Award for outstanding contributions to American music. McFerrin started his career in the mid-1970s and developed a unique vocal style combining pop, world, folk, and jazz elements. As his career progressed, McFerrin studied and developed a secondary career as a conductor for classical orchestras. His albums have sold more than twenty million copies worldwide.
Robert McFerrin Jr. was born March 11, 1950, in New York, NY, but was raised largely in California, where his family moved in 1958. McFerrin's father, Robert Sr., was a distinguished opera singer who gained fame as the first African American to sing a principal role with the New York Metropolitan Opera and later as the singing voice for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess. McFerrin's mother, Sara McFerrin, was an opera soprano who was deeply involved in music education and served as professor and later professor emerita of voice at Fullerton College in Fullerton, California.
McFerrin excelled in both clarinet and piano in elementary school. In high school he founded the Bobby Mack Quartet, playing at a number of small venues in Los Angeles. McFerrin attended Cerritos College and California State University at Sacramento, but dropped out before completing his degree when he was offered the opportunity to tour as a piano player with the Ice Follies. He later toured with a number of lounge bands and other musical acts.
Began Jazz Singing Career
In interviews McFerrin recalled that he decided in 1977 to try his skill as a singer. His first major role came with the New Orleans-based Astral Project, a group that specialized in jazz fusion. While touring, McFerrin met Jon Hendricks, a jazz singer whose solo performances, and lengthy career with the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, made him a legend in the vocal jazz community. Hendricks helped McFerrin to branch out from jazz fusion and gain attention from a larger audience.
While touring with Hendricks in 1979, McFerrin met Linda Goldstein, a singer-turned-industry executive who helped him to further develop his image and remained with McFerrin for much of his career, serving as his manager and occasionally his producer. McFerrin also met comedian Bill Cosby, who was enthralled by the young singer and used his considerable influence to get McFerrin a spot performing at the 1980 Playboy Jazz Festival in Las Vegas. This was a major breakthrough for McFerrin, earning him a further invitation to perform at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York, and later invitations to tour with a number of prominent jazz groups and solo performers including Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, and George Benson.
During this time McFerrin began exploring the potential of his voice. In addition to having a four-octave range, McFerrin developed a number of vocal techniques including scat singing, circular breathing, and the ability to imitate a variety of instruments. With this arsenal of vocal skills, McFerrin's performances were unlike anything else in the vocal jazz world.
Experimented with Vocal Improvisation
Working with Goldstein, McFerrin began promoting himself as a solo artist. As he performed, McFerrin began relying less on prepared material and increasingly on improvisation, until by the mid-1980s he was performing entirely improvised concerts. McFerrin began touring as a solo artist in 1983, and audiences responded enthusiastically to his highly interactive shows.
McFerrin's first recording, a self-titled album released in 1982, met with mixed reviews. Some were disappointed that the album was less in keeping with his live performances and more resembled the electronic, jazz pop that was becoming popular at the time. McFerrin and his production team switched tactics for his second album, The Voice, released in 1984, much of which was recorded in Germany, where McFerrin was completing a tour. He was a major success with German audiences and was dubbed "Stimmwunder" or "wonder voice," in the German media. The second album was a bestseller and brought McFerrin into the pop charts for the first time as a solo artist.
The mid and late 1980s were a successful time for McFerrin. He won two Grammy Awards in 1985, one for the vocal arrangement of "Another Night in Tunisia," which he performed with the jazz group Manhattan Transfer, and the other for best male vocal jazz performance. McFerrin won another Grammy Award in 1986 for the song "Round Midnight," which appeared on the soundtrack of the film of the same name. The following year he recorded the soundtrack for The Elephant's Child, a film version of a story by Rudyard Kipling, and won a Grammy Award for best recording for children. McFerrin followed up on the success of his sophomore release with Spontaneous Inventions, another collection of jazz and vocal arrangements.
Released "Don't Worry, Be Happy"
It was in 1988, however, when McFerrin became a household name. The song "Don't Worry, Be Happy," a radio-friendly pop song from his fourth album Simple Pleasures became one of the most popular songs of the year, immediately catapulting McFerrin into the spotlight. The album won three Grammy Awards, including record of the year, song of the year, and best pop vocal performance, and introduced McFerrin to a larger audience. "Don't Worry" topped pop charts in the United States and Europe and, for a time, McFerrin was one of the best-selling artists in the nation.
Though he might have capitalized on this success with a string of pop albums, McFerrin took the opposite approach and withdrew from public life for a time while he undertook a study of classical music and conducting. McFerrin studied with a number of well-known conductors including Gustav Meier, Leonard Bernstein, and Seiji Ozawa.
McFerrin began conducting small orchestral groups and, because of his celebrity status, major orchestras showed interest in having him sit in as a guest conductor. In 1990 he conducted the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and in 1991 performed and conducted a special engagement with the New Jersey Symphony. Despite some concerns about his qualifications as a conductor, McFerrin's performances as a conductor met with both fan and critical praise, and offers from other symphonies began to mount. As a conductor, McFerrin followed tradition in leading his orchestras through standard classical arrangements, but sometimes broke from tradition as well, performing vocal interludes or singing along with the orchestra for one or more songs.
At a Glance …
Born Robert McFerrin Jr. on March 11, 1950, in New York, NY; son of Robert and Sarah McFerrin; married Debbie Lynn Greene, 1975; children: Taylor John, Jevon Chase, Madison Grace.
Career: Singer, 1977—; composer, 1983—; Creative Chair, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, 1994—.
Awards: Grammy Award, best vocal arrangement, Recording Academy, 1985; additional Grammy Awards for best jazz vocal performance (male), 1985; best jazz vocal performance (male), 1986; best recording for children, 1987; best jazz vocal performance, 1987; best jazz vocal performance (male), 1988; best pop vocal performance (male), 1988; song of the year, 1988; record of the year, 1988; and best jazz vocal performance, 1992; Emmy Award, best original score, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1989; George Peabody Medal, outstanding contributions to music in America, Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, 2002.
Addresses: Agent—Original Artists, 853 Broadway, Ste. 1901, New York, NY 10003; William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Collaborated with Other Artists
During this time McFerrin also created and conducted a vocal orchestra, called Voicestra, which appeared on his 1990 album Medicine Music. On this album McFerrin experimented with a variety of new sounds and song styles, including Gospel and Latin. McFerrin also took the opportunity to record duets with his father, Robert Sr. The song "Common Threads" was one of the songs McFerrin wrote for the documentary of the same name, which explored issues surrounding the AIDS epidemic. He won an Emmy Award for best original score for his work on the film.
McFerrin released an album of jazz standards and vocal compositions with friend and collaborator Chick Corea in 1991, and the following year switched gears to release an album with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Both albums featured McFerrin's signature blend of vocal sound effects and instrumental imitation, but also stretched the artist's repertoire as he delved into complex cooperative compositions with his guest musicians.
In 1994 McFerrin accepted a position as Creative Chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, in St. Paul, Minnesota. By this time McFerrin had served as guest conductor for more than forty orchestras and had built a reputation as a competent and innovative leader, though some still thought that he lacked credibility because of his unconventional training. McFerrin performed his first concert with the orchestra in November of 1994, and some members of the news media criticized the concert, theorizing that McFerrin's appointment was an effort to build audience numbers rather than raise the quality of the music.
Performed and Conducted Classical Music
In 1995 McFerrin released the album Paper Music, which was his first classical music release and featured songs with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The following year, McFerrin again teamed with Chick Corea for an unusual album featuring jazz versions of Mozart compositions in which Corea and McFerrin improvised and took turns addressing the melody. McFerrin's forays into classical music proved enormously popular, if not universally accepted, and he was asked to collaborate with other orchestras including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. In 2003 McFerrin toured with the Vienna Philharmonic, playing to sold-out crowds across Europe.
McFerrin's transition to classical music during the 1990s marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life, but he never abandoned his jazz and soul roots. McFerrin released the album Bang!Zoom in 1996, which featured collaborations with jazz fusion group the Yellowjackets in addition to more of his solo and original compositions. The album was also the first in which McFerrin recorded songs inspired by African vocal and traditional music, which had long formed part of his performance repertoire.
Though McFerrin remained on the performance circuit, he took a break from recording between the 1997 release of Circlesongs, which featured selections of his work with Voicestra, and his 2002 release Beyond Words, which featured songs taken from a variety of ethnic and cultural traditions including Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and American jazz. That same year, McFerrin was awarded a Peabody Award for outstanding contributions to music in the United States. Taking a page from his mother's career, McFerrin has also remained involved with music education and community outreach. Working with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, McFerrin created CONNECT, the Chamber Orchestra's Neighborhood Network of Education, Curriculum and Teachers, to help bring classical music to schools.
McFerrin's numerous engagements, including annual tours, conducting, and collaborating on various projects, have kept him busy, but he has repeatedly stated that his family is his primary concern. McFerrin and his wife of more than thirty years have raised three children while he developed his career. In 2003 he told the Telegraph, "I like simple things. I'm a student of the Bible, a musician and a husband and father. That's it really." His musical philosophy is also simple one. "You're successful every time you perform because everybody is moved—one way or the other," he told Jet. Calling McFerrin's, "A voice that in itself can express a world of music," the German media company Deutsche-Welle noted on its Web site that "Wherever Bobby McFerrin is, you can be certain that music isn't far behind. The man himself is music: every motion, his speech, his whole way of communicating."
Bobby McFerrin, Elektra/Asylum, 1982.
The Voice, Elektra/Asylum, 1984.
Spontaneous Inventions, Blue Note, 1986.
Simple Pleasures, EMI Manhattan Records, 1988.
Medicine Music, EMI, 1990.
Play, Blue Note, 1991.
(With Yo-Yo Ma) Hush, Sony Classical, 1992.
Paper Music, Sony Classical, 1995.
(With Chick Corea) The Mozart Sessions, Sony Classical, 1996.
Bang!Zoom, Blue Note, 1996.
Circlesongs, Sony Classical, 1997.
Beyond Words, Blue Note, 2002.
Down Beat, May, 1985.
Jet, February 17, 2003, p. 55.
New York Times, June 29, 1990; August 15, 1991; November 11, 1994; August 2, 1995.
Washington Post, November 29, 2006.
"Bobby McFerrin," Grammy Awards, http://www.grammy.com/GRAMMY_Awards/Winners/ (accessed May 25, 2008).
"Jamming with the Vienna Phil," Telegraph (London), September 2, 2003, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2003/09/02/bmbobb02.xml (accessed May 26, 2008).
"A Musical Voyage of Discovery," DeutscheWelle, May 24, 2008, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,3318855,00.html (accessed May 25, 2008).
"Who's Bobby?" Bobby McFerrin, http://www.bobbymcferrin.com/whos_bobby.php (accessed May 25, 2008).
—Micah L. Issitt
Genre: Jazz, Classical
Best-selling album since 1990: Circlesongs (1997)
Bobby McFerrin uses his entire body and more voice than most singers when he improvises with vocalists and instrumentalists of diverse genres. The son of opera singers Sara and Robert McFerrin, Sr. (the first African-American male soloist at the Metropolitan Opera), McFerrin had piano lessons, played clarinet, and took music preparatory classes at the Juilliard School as a child. He cites Gershwin, Bach, Puccini, Verdi, Joe Williams, and Count Basie as his "first loves." He studied piano, composition, and orchestration at Sacramento State University and Cerritos College, where the pianist and soundtrack composer Dave Grusin was one of his teachers. As a teenager he formed a high school quartet that had a nationwide tour with the Ice Follies, and he played piano in a lounge band. McFerrin was especially drawn to Miles Davis's jazz-fusion breakthrough album Bitches Brew (1969), and he was fascinated by pianist Keith Jarrett's performances of lengthy concerts without prepared music. Yet McFerrin resisted committing to a musical career until he was twenty-seven years old, when, "during a period of intense inner searching about my creative self," he recalls hearing "not a thunderbolt, just a still, small voice saying 'You are a singer.'"
In 1978 McFerrin joined the New Orleans fusion band Astral Project and toured with the singer/lyricist Jon Hendricks. He won acclaim and notice for performances at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in 1980 and the Kool Jazz Festival in New York in 1981. In 1982 he performed at the Kool festival on a program introducing a generation of "young lions," including Wynton Marsalis and more than a dozen other emerging talents, recorded by Elektra/Musician. In 1983 McFerrin toured Europe as an unaccompanied vocalist using no prepared material, as documented on The Voice (1984).
McFerrin continues to refine his solo practice. He thumps his chest or stamps his feet for percussion and begins a wordless melody or a mid-register phrase from a Beatles' tune, a Bach invention, a bebop theme, The Wizard of Oz, or a kindergarten ditty such as "Itsy Bitsy Spider." He alters the timbral qualities of selected syllables by manipulating his throat, tongue, cheeks, teeth, and nasal passages. Simultaneously he summons pure high head tones as grace notes and dips into tenor, baritone, and/or bass registers until he is a split personality singing like a street corner choir or a persuasive imitation of a conventional jazz ensemble.
McFerrin also pursues creative collaborations. In 1986 he won two Grammys: for his complex vocal chart and performance of "Another Night in Tunisia" with the vocal quartet Manhattan Transfer on his album Spontaneous Inventions (1986), and for his duet with the pianist Herbie Hancock on the film soundtrack 'Round Midnight (1986). He won a Best Recording for Children Grammy for The Elephant's Child (1987).
McFerrin's greatest fame and fortune arose from his reggae-inflected, multitracked single "Don't Worry, Be Happy," from Simple Pleasures (1988), which also includes layered one-man-band renditions of songs by 1960s rock bands. The track won 1988 Grammys for Song of the Year, New Song of the Year, and Best Pop Male Vocal, and it was adopted by George H.W. Bush's campaign in the 1992 presidential contest against Bill Clinton, although it was later withdrawn at McFerrin's request.
Overwhelmed by continuous touring and publicity demands, McFerrin suspended performing to study conducting with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. On his fortieth birthday in 1990 he led the San Francisco Symphony. He won a 1992 Grammy for a second rendition of the jazz classic "'Round Midnight" with pianist Chick Corea and mixed his original compositions with classical works in a duet program with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma on Hush (1992). In 1994 McFerrin was appointed music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, with which he runs a music education program; the album Paper Music (1995) is his conducting debut with that ensemble. The Mozart Sessions (1996) features Corea and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
McFerrin directs Voicestra, a fourteen-piece improvising choir heard on Medicine Music (1990) and Circlesongs (1997); Hard Chorale, a quartet; and a jazz group, Bang! Zoom. He is largely unconcerned with genre distinctions and believes that anyone can make music with the voice. In concert McFerrin typically directs sections of the audience in ostinato patterns against and over which he and amateur volunteers perform solo. Although he may want to deny the uniqueness of his musical gifts, McFerrin is one of a kind.
The Voice (Elektra, 1982); Spontaneous Inventions (Blue Note, 1986); The Elephant's Child (Windham Hill, 1987); Simple Pleasures (EMI, 1988); The Best of Bobby McFerrin (Blue Note, 1990); Medicine Music (EMI, 1990); Hush (Columbia, 1992); Play (1992); Bang! Zoom (Blue Note, 1995); The Mozart Sessions (Sony, 1996); Circlesongs (1997); Beyond Words (Blue Note, 2002).