To say that McFerrin was born into a musical family is an incredible understatement. His father was the first African American singer hired as a regular member in the New York Metropolitan Opera. His mother, also a singer, made a career as a soloist for numerous Broadway shows and regional opera companies before becoming a professor emeritus of music. Needless to say, it did not take long for McFerrin to show an interest in songwriting and performance. He played a wide variety of roles in the early years of his career, which included offering support as a studio musician and performing songs for advertising and TV programming. By the early 1980s, McFerrin had released his debut album and was regularly touring around North America and Europe. Audiences were taken aback by his ability to create layered instrumentation effects and harmonies with nothing but his single voice. The one-man orchestra slowly built a name for himself.
In 1988, McFerrin found overnight fame with the song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” In many ways, this song reflects both the high and low points of McFerrin’s career. On the one hand, the song allowed him to be heard and recognized all over the world. Yet on the other, the song gave listeners constrictive expectations of his music and pigeonholed him as a pop reggae singer. Refusing to be limited creatively, McFerrin embarked on a series of some of the most ambitious projects in the history of music. These included founding an improvisational troupe called Voicestra and serving as guest conductor for such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and London Philharmonic. His performances as conductor often involve reinterpretations of classical favorites featuring incorporations of a capella performance. McFerrin loves to live outside the box, constantly challenging himself, fellow musicians, and even audiences to create something unique and memorable.
In recent years, McFerrin’s most important mission has been to pass along the traditions of classical, jazz, and world music to the next generation. He has offered support for numerous youth music and arts education programs. He served as co-host in the 2009 award-winning documentary The Music Instinct alongside Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain On Music. McFerrin has also spoken and performed demonstrations for the World Science Festival and virally popular TED Talks, notably to highlight the universality of music though his own unique and highly infectious style. In his career spanning over thirty years, McFerrin has won ten Grammy awards, performed all over the world, and collaborated with artists like David Byrne, Yo-Yo Ma, and Herbie Hancock.
Bobby McFerrin can create music of impossibly layered, rich texture and then, in the next instant, deconstruct a song into its most simple and basic form. He shows the listener that music is for more than mere consumption – that it is something to be examined, played with, savored, and learned from. In McFerrin’s world, every person is part of the same band, and life sounds better with everyone singing along.