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. Addresses: Home-- San Francisco, Calif.

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't 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'm 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 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's 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."

by Denise Wiloch

Bobby McFerrin's Career

Pianist with lounge bands and the Ice Follies; singer, 1977--.

Bobby McFerrin's Awards

Two Grammy Awards, 1986, for "Another Night in Tunisia," on album Vocalese by Manhattan Transfer; Grammy Award, 1987, for Best Male Jazz Vocalist, for "'Round Midnight."

Famous Works

Further Reading

Periodicals

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 7 years ago

I teach 3-5 year olds in a Head Start Program. I have introduced my students to "Don't Worry, Be Happy" to trigger the idea of ignoring peer behaviors aimed at starting classroom conflicts. I hear the students quietly singing the song and in some instances offering to later discuss the situation with that student.I pray these simple lyrics stay with them and help them to think and stop reacting.