For decades, Bobby McFerrin has broken all the rules. The 10-time Grammy winner has blurred the distinction between pop music and fine art, goofing around barefoot in the world's finest concert halls, exploring uncharted vocal territory, inspiring a whole new generation of a cappella singers and the beatbox movement. He singlehandedly redefined the role of the human voice with his experiments in multi-tracking, his collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea and the Vienna Philharmonic, his improvising choir Voicestra, and his legendary solo performances.
To some people, BOBBY McFERRIN will always be the guy who sang “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” And he is that guy; he wrote and sang that global number one hit more than twenty years ago. But Bobby McFerrin was always an unlikely pop star. He created that lasting ear-worm of a #1 hit early in his career. Then he calmly went back to pursuing his own iconoclastic musical journey, improvising on national television, singing melodies without words, spontaneously inventing parts for 60,000 choral singers in a stadium in Germany, ignoring boundaries of genre, defying all expectations.
Most people don't know that Bobby came from a family of singers. Bobby's father, the Metropolitan Opera baritone Robert McFerrin, Sr., provided the singing voice for Sydney Poitier for the film version of Porgy & Bess, and his mother Sara was a fine soprano soloist and voice teacher. Bobby grew up surrounded by music of all kinds. He remembers conducting Beethoven on the stereo at three, hiding under the piano while his father and mother coached young singers, dancing around the house to Louie Armstrong, Judy Garland, Etta Jones and Fred Astaire. The soundtrack to Bobby's childhood included many genres -- classical, R&B, jazz, pop and world musics —and all of them have been absorbed and assimilated into his own unpremeditated art. “When you grow up with that hodgepodge of music, it just comes out. It was like growing up in a multilingual house,” he says. He played the clarinet seriously as a child, but eventually began his musical career as a pianist, at the age of 14. He led his own jazz groups, studied composition, toured with the show band for the Ice Follies, played for dance classes. Then one day he was walking home and suddenly he understood that he had been a singer all along. He was 27 years old.
Bobby's background as an instrumentalist and bandleader is key to understanding his innovative approach to mapping harmony and rhythm (as well as melody) with his voice. "I can't sing everything at once," he says, "but I can hint at it so the audience hears even what I don't sing." All that pioneer spirit and virtuosity has opened up a great big sky full of new options for singers; so have Bobby's experiments in multi-tracking his voice (Don't Worry, Be Happy has seven separate, over-dubbed vocal tracks; Bobby's choral album VOCAbuLarieS(with Roger Treece) has thousands). But virtuosity isn't the point. "I try not to "perform" onstage," says Bobby. "I try to sing the way I sing in my kitchen, because I just can't help myself. I want audiences to leave the theatre and sing in their own kitchens the next morning. I want to bring audiences into the incredible feeling of joy and freedom I get when I sing. "
Bobby McFerrin loves having no clue what’s going to happen next. Ask him where he went to school, and he just might tell you that he is a graduate of MSU: Making Stuff Up. “There is something almost superhuman about the range and technique of Bobby McFerrin,” saysNewsweek. “He sounds, by turns, like a blackbird, a Martian, an operatic soprano, a small child, and a bebop trumpet.” When he invites his fans to sing along, as he almost always does, few can resist. Inclusiveness, play, and the universality of voices raised together in song are at the heart of Bobby’s art.
Bobby continues to explore the musical universe, known and unknown. His latest album, Spirityouall, embraces Americana and blues influences and taps into deep reservoirs of faith and hope. His expertise and innovation as a conductor of Mozart and Gershwin continue to delight audiences. His choral repertoire is frequently performed by professional and university ensembles and a cappella groups, and his "Circlesongs" method for creating spontaneously composed choral music is practiced by singers around the world. In the words of the LA Times,“Bobby McFerrin’s greatest gift to his audience may be changing them from spectators into celebrants, transforming a concert hall into a playground, a village center, a joyous space.”
"Music for me," McFerrin says, "is like a spiritual journey down into the depths of my soul. And I like to think we’re all on a journey into our souls. What’s down there? That’s why I do what I do."