In a style where originality is the norm, singer Bobby McFerrin stands out as a true trailblazer whose vocal range, style and technique still sounds as fresh as it ever did.
In this article some key highlights from his career.
When it comes to singing, jazz or otherwise, there is no one like Bobby McFerrin.
A complete original, his revolutionary concept must have seemed ludicrous – or even impossible – at the time. Undeterred, McFerrin would spend some six years developing and refining his vocal technique.
With his incredible four octave range, impeccable timing and technique, and intuitive way of interacting with his audience Bobby McFerrin has gained worldwide popularity for his style which incorporates a capella singing, improvisation and even providing his own harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment.
Early Life & Career
McFerrin was born into a musical family on March 11, 1950 in Manhattan, New York City, although he grew up in Los Angeles.
His mother, Sara Copper McFerrin was a classical soprano soloist and his father was Robert McFerrin Sr, an operatic baritone.
McFerrin began his musical education studying clarinet and piano, taking classical studies in both.
He would often find work as a pianist, but it was not until he was 27 that he decided to become a singer and released, almost six years later in 1982, his eponymous debut album to widespread critical acclaim.
Since then, Bobby McFerrin has continued to develop his extraordinary vocal techniques and live performance style which finds the singer getting his audience involved in the accompaniment to his own vocal scat singing improvisations.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
In 1988, Bobby McFerrin had a huge surprise hit with his song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’.
Conceived as an exercise in the studio while recording his fourth album, Simple Pleasures the motif was was developed from a piano riff and the who song was written and recorded within a few hours.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy was a massive hit and won ‘Song of The Year’ at the 1989 Grammy Awards.
Rather than launching his career to greater heights, the reverse seems to have been the case. Not wanting to be defined by that single hit song, McFerrin took time off, spending time with his family and taking stock of his career.
Upon his return to music, McFerrin made the surprising move to turn to classical music, having been invited to conduct a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with the San Francsico Symphony Orchestra for his 40th birthday.
Bringing together his classical studies on clarinet and piano, along with composition and arranging from his college days, McFerrin has shown himself to be an incredibly well-rounded musician, conducting many of the most famous orchestras in the world including The New York Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and The London Philharmonic.
Returning to vocal music again, McFerrin released two very different albums in 1992.
The first of these was titled ‘Play’ and was a duet recording with pianist Chick Corea performing jazz standards and a couple of original compositions.
The other recording was again a duet, this time performing classical compositions with cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.
The last 20 years have found him continuing to pursue both his interest in classical music as well as jazz, converging perhaps with his Voicestra project (tweaked and renamed over the years to be called “Hard Choral” “Gimme 5” and “Motion”) that features singers from different disciplines with highly improvised shows.
With such a breadth and range of music out there, here’s our brief guide to essential Bobby McFerrin.
Bobby McFerrin: Recommended listening
Bobby McFerrin (Elektra/Asylum, 1982)
This is where is all began.
Compared with what was to follow, this now seems a somewhat cautious entry by McFerrin’s record label Elektra Musician. Whilst he was accompanied by a rhythm section for most of the session, the track ‘Hallucinations’ by Bud Powell, although overdubbed, gave an indication of what McFerrin he capable of.
The performance of ‘All Feets Can Dance’ is another immensely enjoyable excursion into different territory, and McFerrin’s reading of Horace Silver’s ‘Peace’ shows what a fine ballad singer he is.
The Voice (Elektra/Asylum, 1984)
An extraordinary album of performances recorded live while on tour.
This is the first jazz recording made by a singer that featured no accompaniment, singing a capella without overdubs. McFerrin’s ability to jump octaves from bass notes to falsetto while improvising his own accompaniment is incredible.
The track ‘I’m My Own Walkman’ sums things up nicely but is not the whole story.
McFerrin’s rendition of Charlie Parker’s ‘Donna Lee’ on the medley featuring ‘Donna Lee/Big Top/We’re In The Money’ is pure unadulterated invention, as the wonderful rendition of ‘I Feel Good’.
Spontaneous Inventions (Manhattan/Blue Note, 1986)
McFerrin’s third outing is also a live recording, this time featuring some guests. It’s none the worse for that and Bobby is in impressive form as well as company.
The duet with Herbie Hancock on ‘Turtle Shoes’ is inspired, as is ‘Another Night In Tunisia’ featuring McFerrin with the Manhattan Transfer. I’s an astonishing arrangement and performance that quite rightly won a Grammy for both Best Jazz Vocal and Best Vocal Arrangement.
There is also a wonderful duet with McFerrin and saxophonist Wayne Shorter on ‘Walkin’’, whilst the singer’s version of ‘I Hear Music’ gives another insight into how this incredible performer communicates with the audience.
Simple Pleasures (EMI/Manhattan, 1988)
This time out, McFerrin embraced the recording studio, making full use of not just his voice (the only ‘instrument’ heard on the album), but also the opportunity to use overdubbing to produce a multi layered sound.
The album features Bobby’s hit song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ a last minute composition that made him an international star but also broke him as an artist, with McFerrin taking time out to consider his next move.
Aside from the ‘single’ the album does have a good-natured, radio play feel about it. The vocals are no less astonishing, but it does seem as if the label (if not McFerrin) were looking to broaden his appeal.
The version of ‘Sunshine of your Smile’ by the British rock group Cream has an amazing improvised solo by McFerrin, and other noteworthy tracks include the catchy title track and ‘Good Lovin’’ that was a hit for the Young Rascals.
Play (with Chick Corea) (Blue Note, 1992)
This album is a pure delight from start to finish.
McFerrin is always best on live recording as opposed to the confines of the studio, and his delight in playing with Chick Corea is evident from the outset.
The title is apt, as the two musicians do indeed play, and to an incredibly high standard.
Opening with Corea’s ‘Spain’ the duo delivers a tremendously moving and exciting performance.
McFerrin takes great pleasure in toying with both the tune and the audience on ‘Autumn Leaves’, and also manages to extract something new from Thelonious Monk’s ‘’Round Midnight’ with a wordless vocal that is achingly tender, and exquisitely accompanied by Corea.
Spirityouall (Sony Music, 2013)
A very different album from McFerrin, this showcases the mellower side of the singer with a set of familiar 21st Century songs.
A carefully-crafted studio album, McFerrin is accompanied by some fine musicians, but none finer that Esperanza Spalding who plays bass and duets on vocals with Bobby on four songs.
These include an uplifting ‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’ and a gentle ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ with a lovely vocal from Bobby and Esperanza.
A spiritual and heartfelt album that cannot fail to move you.
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