Bobby McFerrin - No worries, he's happy

Bobby McFerrin has a recurring dream. The singer whose Don’t Worry, Be Happy hit reached millions of homes and personal stereos in the late 1980s is sitting in a concert hall, waiting for the orchestra to begin, when someone announces that the conductor is too ill to perform. “Is there,” asks this voice, “anybody here who knows this programme well enough to conduct the orchestra?”
And the person who says, even to themselves and with the roles slightly altered, ‘I can do that’ is McFerrin’s target audience. People who sing in the car, around the house or anywhere apart from on a stage are the people McFerrin wants to hang out with on a gig. If you just want to sit and quietly marvel at McFerrin’s vocal dexterity, that’s fine, too, but those who are prepared to join in are McFerrin’s people.
Partly it’s because he was able to live his dream of becoming a conductor – in the wake of Don’t Worry, Be Happy’s success and after much studying, McFerrin became a kind of celebrity conductor hired by orchestras around the world – and he’s in a position to let other people live theirs. Mostly, though, it’s because he loves the sound of the human voice.
In a move that he now can’t believe he got away with so easily, McFerrin famously liked the human voice so much that he decided to do away with instruments during the recording of his aborted second album. Released in 1982, his first, self-titled album had heralded a major talent. Tracks such as his version of Van Morrison’s Moondance and his own Sightless Bird, a song he’s apparently returned to playing on the piano in the past few weeks after some twenty-five years’ neglect, had critics and jazz fans cooing. His record company, Elektra Musician, thought they had the next Al Jarreau on their hands and made the corresponding budget and big-time producer available for the pitch at stardom.
“It was interesting making that first album,” says McFerrin. “Because what record companies want to hear is the hit. They actually put me together with Phoebe Snow, who was pretty big at the time, to record the song [Smokey Robinson’s You Really Got a Hold on Me] that they thought would do the business. And it did nothing. Then, when it came to doing the second album, I finally had to say in the studio, I’m sorry, this isn’t working. That took some guts because they had really pushed the boat out and were expecting big things in return.”
For some time before signing for Elektra, McFerrin had been working on voice-only solo material. There were hints on that first album, particularly on the experimental Hallucinations, but by the time the follow-up was in production the urge to go with a performing style that had been inspired by watching pianist Keith Jarrett improvise whole concerts by himself had taken full hold. At a meeting with his record company’s boss, Bruce Lundvall, to discuss where they were going to go next, McFerrin recalls saying, “God wants me to do a solo album.” To which Lundvall responded, “Well, who am I to argue with God?” 
“It was that easy,” says McFerrin, although actually making the transition from singer in front of a band to singer with no band at all – or, indeed, singer who is the band – took a lot of work. “My tape recorder was my constant companion for about six years. I recorded everything and analysed how I could do this better or that differently. I’d really admired Keith Jarrett’s bravery in going out there and discovering new music every time. But with the voice, you can only make one note at a time. I had to create the illusion that there were two or three things going on at once and it was only driving back to the hotel after a gig in Boston with a guy I really admired, a drummer called Alan Dawson, who without prompting, confirmed that I had mastered that illusion that I felt I could go out an do a whole show by myself.”
In the end, McFerrin produced “the hit” his own way and confounded doubters by being able to reproduce the sound of his records – a scarily accurate impersonation of Cream singing and playing Sunshine of Your Love was one of Don’t Worry, Be Happy’s companion tracks – onstage.
“I didn’t set out to, if you like, catalogue the sounds of all the instruments,” he says. “That just kind of evolved. I mean, as a kid, I’d mimic other people and various sounds but what really influenced me was languages. I was fascinated by the fact that all the languages in the world sound completely different and yet they’re all generated by the same mechanism and the range of sounds that the human voice is capable of, just through speech, makes for a kind of music in itself.”
These days, McFerrin has scaled down the conducting work that was one spin-off of Don’t Worry, Be Happy’s success – despite all the work he put into it, eventually growing to love it and receiving good feedback, he’s decided he’s not cut out for it – and is happy to concentrate on reaching the audience that has grown out of “the hit” and myriad other projects such as his tours with pianist Chick Corea. Just as he had no plan when he followed his parents into singing (his father was the first black man to sing with the New York Met and dubbed Sydney Poitier’s part in the film of Porgy & Bess), he has no plan when he goes out alone on to the concert stage.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do. I could’ve been the singer in a white suit with a red rose in my lapel, singing jazz standards an orchestra. Actually, I might still do that,” he says. “Whatever I do, though, my goal is joy, to have fun myself and make it fun for everyone else. I like to arrive two minutes before I’m due onstage and just get on there and improvise, get to know the people and the room. After that, everything’s up for grabs.”

From The Herald, January 15, 2010.

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