Bobby McFerrin

Robert Keith McFerrin Jr. (born March 11, 1950) is an American jazz vocalist. He is known for his vocal techniques, such as singing fluidly but with quick and considerable jumps in pitch—for example, sustaining a melody while also rapidly alternating with arpeggios and harmonies—as well as scat singing, polyphonic overtone singing, and improvisational vocal percussion. He is widely known for performing and recording regularly as an unaccompanied solo vocal artist. He has frequently collaborated with other artists from both the jazz and classical scenes.

Bobby McFerrin
McFerrin in 2011
Background information
Birth nameRobert Keith McFerrin Jr.
Born (1950-03-11) March 11, 1950
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
GenresJazz, a cappella, vocal, world, classical, smooth jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, conductor, arranger, producer
InstrumentsVocals, piano, vocal percussion
Years active1970–present
LabelsManhattan, Blue Note, Elektra, Sony Classical
Associated actsChick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Yo-Yo Ma

McFerrin's song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was a No. 1 U.S. pop hit in 1988 and won Song of the Year and Record of the Year honors at the 1989 Grammy Awards. McFerrin has also worked in collaboration with instrumentalists, including pianists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul, drummer Tony Williams, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Early life and education

McFerrin was born in Manhattan, New York City, the son of operatic baritone Robert McFerrin and singer Sara Copper. He attended Cathedral High School in Los Angeles and the California State University, Sacramento.


McFerrin's first recorded work, the self-titled album Bobby McFerrin, was not produced until 1982, when McFerrin was already 32 years old. Before that, he had spent six years developing his musical style, the first two years of which he attempted not to listen to other singers at all, in order to avoid sounding like them. He was influenced by Keith Jarrett, who had achieved great success with a series of improvised piano concerts including The Koln Concert of 1975, and wanted to attempt something similar vocally.[1]

In 1984 McFerrin performed onstage at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles as a sixth member of Herbie Hancock's VSOP II sharing horn trio parts with the Marsalis Brothers.

In 1986, McFerrin was the voice of Santa Bear in Santa Bear's First Christmas, and in 1987 he was the voice of Santa Bear/Bully Bear in the sequel Santa Bear's High Flying Adventure. That same year, he performed the theme song for the opening credits of Season 4 of The Cosby Show.

In 1988, McFerrin recorded the song "Don't Worry, Be Happy", which became a hit and brought him widespread recognition across the world. The song's success "ended McFerrin's musical life as he had known it," and he began to pursue other musical possibilities on stage and in recording studios.[2] The song was used in George H. W. Bush's 1988 U.S. presidential election as Bush's 1988 official presidential campaign song, without Bobby McFerrin's permission or endorsement. In reaction, Bobby McFerrin publicly protested that particular use of his song, including stating that he was going to vote against Bush, and completely dropped the song from his own performance repertoire, to make the point even clearer.[3]

At that time, he performed on the PBS TV special Sing Out America! with Judy Collins. McFerrin sang a Wizard of Oz medley during that television special.

In 1989, he composed and performed the music for the Pixar short film Knick Knack. The rough cut to which McFerrin recorded his vocals had the words "blah blah blah" in place of the end credits (meant to indicate that he should improvise). McFerrin spontaneously decided to sing "blah blah blah" as lyrics, and the final version of the short film includes these lyrics during the end credits. Also in 1989, he formed a ten-person "Voicestra" which he featured on both his 1990 album Medicine Music and in the score to the 1989 Oscar-winning documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.

In 1992, various unsubstantiated rumors claimed that McFerrin had committed suicide, thus apparently contradicting the positive message from "Don't Worry, Be Happy".[4]

In 1993, he sang Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme for the movie Son of the Pink Panther.

In addition to his vocal performing career, in 1994, McFerrin was appointed as creative chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He makes regular tours as a guest conductor for symphony orchestras throughout the United States and Canada, including the San Francisco Symphony (on his 40th birthday), the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and many others. In McFerrin's concert appearances, he combines serious conducting of classical pieces with his own unique vocal improvisations, often with participation from the audience and the orchestra. For example, the concerts often end with McFerrin conducting the orchestra in an a cappella rendition of the "William Tell Overture," in which the orchestra members sing their musical parts in McFerrin's vocal style instead of playing their parts on their instruments.

For a few years in the late 1990s, he toured a concert version of Porgy and Bess, partly in honor of his father, who sang the role for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 film version, and partly "to preserve the score's jazziness" in the face of "largely white orchestras" who tend not "to play around the bar lines, to stretch and bend". McFerrin says that because of his father's work in the movie, "This music has been in my body for 40 years, probably longer than any other music."[5]

McFerrin also participates in various music education programs and makes volunteer appearances as a guest music teacher and lecturer at public schools throughout the U.S. McFerrin has collaborated with his son, Taylor, on various musical ventures.

In July 2003, McFerrin was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music during the Umbria Jazz Festival where he conducted two days of clinics.[6]

In 2009, McFerrin and psychologist Daniel Levitin hosted The Music Instinct, a two-hour documentary produced by PBS and based on Levitin's best-selling book This Is Your Brain on Music. Later that year, the two appeared together on a panel at the World Science Festival. McFerrin was given a lifetime achievement award at the A Cappella Music Awards on May 19, 2018.

Vocal technique

As a vocalist, McFerrin often switches rapidly between modal and falsetto registers to create polyphonic effects, performing both the main melody and the accompanying parts of songs. He makes use of percussive effects created both with his mouth and by tapping on his chest. McFerrin is also capable of multiphonic singing.[7]

A document of McFerrin's approach to singing is his 1984 album The Voice, the first solo vocal jazz album recorded with no accompaniment or overdubbing.[8]


As leader

  • Bobby McFerrin (Elektra Musician, 1982)
  • The Voice (Elektra Musician, 1984)
  • Spontaneous Inventions (Blue Note, 1986)
  • The Elephant's Child (Windham Hill, 1987)
  • How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin & How the Camel Got His Hump (Windham Hill, 1987)
  • Simple Pleasures (EMI-Manhattan, 1988)
  • The Many Faces of Bird: The Music of Charlie Parker with Richie Cole, Lee Konitz (Verve, 1987)
  • Lady Fair with Gary Wiggins (Imtrat, 1989)
  • Medicine Music (EMI, 1990)
  • Play with Chick Corea (Blue Note, 1992)
  • Hush with Yo-Yo Ma (Sony Masterworks, 1992)
  • Bang!Zoom (Blue Note, 1995)
  • Paper Music (Sony Classical, 1995)
  • The Mozart Sessions (Sony Classical, 1996)
  • Circlesongs (Sony Classical, 1997)
  • Beyond Words (Blue Note, 2002)
  • Vocabularies (Emarcy, 2010)
  • Spirityouall (Sony Masterworks, 2013)

As sideman

Grammy Awards


  1. Bobby Solo, (official website)
  2. Bobby McFerrin's Improv-Inspired 'Vocabularies'. NPR. Retrieved July 1, 2011.
  3. "The Echo & Dissonance of George Bush's 1988 Campaign Music". Carl Anthony Online, October 13, 2012. Retrieved November 12, 2012.
  4. "Don't Worry, Be Dead". Retrieved July 1, 2011.
  5. Cori Ellison, "'Porgy' and Music's Racial Politics", December 13, 1998, The New York Times; available online here . Retrieved July 15, 2010.
  6. Russell Carlson (June 21, 2003). "Berklee Honors Rollins, Holds Summer Clinics". JazzTimes.
  7. "Jazz, at Ritz, McFerrin", The New York Times, December 12, 1984
  8. Scott Yanow, "Bobby McFerrin – The Voice", AllMusic Review.
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