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Bobby McFerrin

Vocal virtuoso Bobby McFerrin is a musical icon whose innovative wide-octave-jumping approach to a cappella and vocalese has earned him critical and commercial acclaim across the pop, jazz, and classical worlds. A multiple Grammy Award winner, McFerrin is best recognized for his chart-topping Billboard Hot 100 hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy" off 1988's Simple Pleasures, which took home four Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Male Singer. Along with his pop success, he has explored a wide array of styles, including leading his ten-member Voicestra on 1990's Medicine Music, pairing with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma on 1992's Hush, and collaborating with jazz pianist Chick Corea on 1992's Play, 1996's The Mozart Sessions, and 2002's Beyond Words. Along with his own albums, he has worked with a bevy of name artists, including Manhattan Transfer (with whom he won his first Grammy for "Another Night in Tunisia), Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Béla Fleck, and more. He also explored choir music on 2010's VOCAbuLarieS and paid homage to his father, noted singer Robert McFerrin, on 2013's Spirityouall. Along with an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, McFerrin is a 2020 NEA Jazz Master and a 2023 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner and has conducted various symphonies around the globe. Robert Keith McFerrin, Jr. was born in 1950 in New York City where he grew up in a musical family the son of two classical singers. His father Robert McFerrin was a noted operatic baritone and the first Black man to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City; his 1957 album Deep River also brought Black spirituals into the world of high art. His mother Sara Copper McFerrin was a soprano and vocal teacher. They encouraged his musical development, playing records of Beethoven and Mozart music along with jazz and pop albums by Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Etta James, and others. From a young age he took classical piano and clarinet lessons before studying piano at California State College at Sacramento and Cerritos College. Following his time there, he toured as a pianist with the Ice Follies and performed with various cover bands and cabaret acts. It was in 1977, while living in New Orleans, that he became more well known as a vocalist, performing as a member of the group Astral Projection. However, it was after moving to San Francisco in 1979 that he began forming his own solo projects, a creative vision built on his virtuoso skills as a solo vocalist. He met his future manager, jazz singer Linda Goldstein, who helped him get his career going, including high-profile appearances at the 1980 Playboy Jazz Festival and the 1981 Kool Jazz Festival. He caught the attention of music executive Bruce Lundvall and eventually signed a contract with Elektra. In 1982, he released his debut, the eponymous Bobby McFerrin, which was not a major chart success, but did grab audiences' attention. It was 1984's The Voice that proved his breakthrough, showcasing McFerrin's groundbreaking style that did not rely on accompaniment or overdubbing. A year later, he made his Blue Note debut with Spontaneous Inventions, a live jazz-oriented production that featured collaborations with Herbie Hancock, Robin Williams, and the Manhattan Transfer, the latter of whom joined McFerrin and Jon Hendricks for a "Another Night in Tunisia," which won the Grammy for Best Vocal Performance, Male. A studio version from the Manhattan Transfer album Vocalese the same year also took home a Grammy for Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices. The song's popularity led to McFerrin's music being used for high-profile TV shows and commercials. McFerrin further built upon his popularity with 1988's Simple Pleasures. Once again produced by Goldstein and McFerrin, the album spawned the worldwide smash hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy," which spent two weeks on top of the Hot 100 and helped push the album to number five on the Billboard 200. The album also took home four Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Male Singer. McFerrin also performed at the awards show, opening the ceremony with an improvised routine alongside host Billy Crystal. On the heels of his success, McFerrin chose to slow down somewhat in order to focus more on his family with wife Debbie and his four children, Madison, Taylor, and Jevon, all of whom grew into performers in their own right. It was around this time that he formed his ten-member a cappella ensemble Voicestra with which he recorded 1990's Medicine Music. With 1992's Hush, McFerrin shifted gears to collaborate with acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma; the record remained on the Billboard Classical Crossover charts for over two years. The jazz release Play, a collaboration with pianist Chick Corea, appeared in 1992 as well. McFerrin returned to classical territory in 1995 with Paper Music, a collection of interpretations of works by Mozart, Bach, and Tchaikovsky recorded with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, (which he joined as Creative Chair a year prior). For 1996's Bang! Zoom, he teamed with members of the Yellowjackets; a second collaboration with Corea, The Mozart Sessions, appeared later that same year. With 1997's Circlesongs, McFerrin returned to his roots, recording an entire album of improvised vocal performances. In 2002, he released Beyond Words, his first work for the Blue Note label in nearly a decade. It featured a band composed of Chick Corea, Richard Bona, Omar Hakim, Cyro Baptista, and Gil Goldstein. The following year, he appeared at Italy's Umbria Jazz Festival where he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music. Outside of recording, McFerrin has pursued a variety of projects. He has appeared as guest conductor for various ensembles including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, and the Vienna Philharmonic, among others. He also headlined a touring production of Porgy and Bess, inspired to do so in part by his father, who sang the role of actor Sidney Poitier in the classic 1959 film. In 2009, he co-hosted the PBS documentary This Is Your Brain with psychologist Daniel Levitin, on whose book the program was based. Returning to recording, McFerrin released VOCAbuLarieS in 2010 which found him backed by a choir. Spirityouall, released in the spring of 2013, was a tribute to his father. In 2020, McFerrin was named an NEA Jazz Master, and in 2023 he was bestowed a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
© Matt Collar /TiVo


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