With a four-octave range and a vast array of vocal techniques, McFerrin is no mere singer; he is music’s last true Renaissance man, a vocal explorer who has combined jazz, folk and a multitude of world music influences – choral, a cappella, and classical music – with his own ingredients.
Born to opera singer parents in New York in 1950, where his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., was the first African-American male soloist at the Metropolitan Opera, his family moved to Hollywood in 1958 when McFerrin Sr. was hired to be the singing voice for Sidney Poitier in the movie Porgy and Bess. McFerrin’s first love was the clarinet, but he switched to the piano when the onslaught of braces forced the aspiring reedman to abandon his first beloved instrument.
In 1977, McFerrin decided to come out from behind the piano to test his skill as a vocalist, and in 1978, he started singing with the group Astral Project in New Orleans and then toured with legendary jazz vocal pioneer Jon Hendricks. He also met jazz vocalist turned music entrepreneur Linda Goldstein, who has been his manager and often producer since 1979. In 1983 he did his first tour of Europe as an unaccompanied vocalist, performing without any prepared material. Audiences were bewildered at first, and then blown away. Tapes of those concerts were made into the album The Voice, a landmark recording that served notice of the arrival of a major musical talent the German critics called ‘Stimmwunder,’ which means ‘wonder voice.’
At the same time, he began a wide range of collaborations, winning his first Grammy in 1985 for Another Night in Tunisia with the Manhattan Transfer. Further Grammy awards came for Bernard Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight (1986) and How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin , with Jack Nicholson in 1987.
By 1988, he had taken his unaccompanied improvisations from the Hollywood Bowl to Carnegie Hall and to the premiere concert halls of Europe and Asia, thus solidifying his reputation as a musical phenomenon. He then released the album Simple Pleasures, which was his homage to the music of the 1960s. A joyous ditty created on the spot in the recording studio became the phenomenal hit ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy.’ Simple Pleasures was nominated for a 1988 Grammy for album of the year, while Don’t Worry, Be Happy won both the Record of the Year and the coveted Song of the Year awards. It might just as well have been named Song of the Decade, as ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ hit the #1 spot on pop charts in nearly every country in the world.
In 1990, on his 40th birthday, Bobby McFerrin was given the opportunity to conduct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He then recorded Hush, with friend and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, which stayed on the Billboard classical charts for over two years and went gold. By 1994, McFerrin had been named creative director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and released the album Paper Music, the critically acclaimed collection of classics that marked his first recording as a conductor.
‘Unconventional’ is a good way to describe the career of Bobby McFerrin. Those familiar with McFerrin’s shows, whether as a conductor or a vocalist, know that each one is a unique event that resonates with the unexpected. He is that rare artist, who has the ability to reach beyond musical genres and stereotypes for a sound that is entirely his own. As one of the foremost guardians of music’s rich heritage, he remains at the vanguard with his natural, beautiful and timeless music that transcends all borders and embraces all cultures.