For Bobby McFerrin, breaking new ground has always been synonymous with his music.
His concerts are a mixed bag of musical styles drawing from jazz, classical, blues, and numerous other styles. He’s performed unaccompanied, scatting and riffing with his four-octave range, and at times, even used his entire body to make percussive sounds.
Yet most people know him for the feel-good a cappella tune Don’t Worry Be Happy, even though the 63-year-old singer says he hasn’t played the song in its entirety since 1988.
“The fans that come to my shows are excited with the music that I’m making, so they understand when I don’t play it,” McFerrin admits.
The 10-time Grammy Award-winning musician recently released his 14th album, spirityouall, a CD that’s dedicated it to the legacy of his father, the former Metropolitan Opera star Robert McFerrin Sr.
The senior McFerrin, who died at age 85 in 2006, had a distinguished career as both a performer and educator. He also provided the singing voice for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess.
The new record combines a selection of Americana, covering such classics as Every Time I Feel the Spirit, and Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
“I wanted to honor him with some of the music he was known for,” he says.
McFerrin remembers his father as a kind yet tough man, especially toward his students. “He was nice, but he wouldn’t sugarcoat anything,” McFerrin recalls. “He would pick apart everything they did, and while it was frustrating, they would become better singers.”
Despite a stroke in 1989, the elder McFerrin appeared on his son’s 1990 album, Medicine Music, and was a soloist with the St. Louis Symphony in 1993 with his son as guest conductor.
The younger McFerrin might be best known for Don’t Worry Be Happy, but don’t be fooled: He’s got a powerful range and an uncanny ability to make music with anything.
“My shows are about music. And the audience is a part of it, too,” he says.
McFerrin says his father was proud of him for writing a hit that reached so many people. But was that song more blessing or curse? McFerrin sees it as a little of both.
“Actually more of a blessing,” he corrects himself.
“Sometimes I go on YouTube and look to see what the fans are putting up from my shows, and I see the number of people that are checking it out. Without that song, I don’t think they’d know who I am.”