Influences: Vocalist and conductor Bobby McFerrin
Singer/conductor Bobby McFerrin is still probably best known for his hit associated with George H.W. Bush, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” But he’s a more complex and genre-defying creature. He hardly deserves to be remembered for an ode to complacency.
The All Music Guide describes McFerrin’s vocal gifts: “Equally adept in jazz, pop, and classical settings, his octave-jumping trademark style, with its rhythmic inhalations and stop-on-a-dime shifts from falsetto to deep bass notes often sounds like the work of at least two or three singers at once.”
He grew up in New York City; his father was baritone Robert McFerrin, a Jackie Robinson figure for the opera world. His mother, Sara Copper, sang with regional opera companies and on Broadway.
After studying music in Sacramento and Cerritos, McFerrin emerged as an idiosyncratic and versatile singer. His 1984 solo jazz-vocal album, “The Voice,” recorded without overdubs, became an immediate landmark and he went on to perform with artists ranging from Herbie Hancock to Robin Williams.
When the Bush campaign used his most famous song without permission in 1988, McFerrin stopped performing the song and moved into a new phase of his career, one more oriented to classical music and including collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He became active as a guest conductor in the ‘90s, often conducting Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” aiming to restore its jazz and blues qualities.
McFerrin will appear July 13 at the Hollywood Bowl with jazz fusion group the Yellowjackets on a bill that also includes jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. Here are five of his key influences:
Fred Astaire: Don't tell anyone, but I use to feign sickness and stay home from school just to watch Fred Astaire dance. Ahh, the joy!! It was contagious.
Miles Davis: The first time I saw Miles Davis’ band play was at a club in L.A. called Shelley's Manne hole in 1971. I walked out molecularly changed. I understood what true improvisation was from that moment.
Pablo Picasso: Picasso painted with the freedom of a child. I try to sing that way.
Robert McFerrin: My father was the greatest teacher of singing I ever saw. He relentlessly pursued the greatness in each of his students. Very demanding. Never sugar-coated anything. He sometimes reduced his singer to tears, but he got results. If you weren't as passionate as he about the art of singing, he had no time for you. Very disciplined. What a great example he was for me when it came to really working hard on my craft. And on top of that, he was a very humble man, always acknowledging that his voice was a gift from God and his job was to take care of it.
Jesus Christ: Without Jesus I could have no joy, I could not change, I could not trust as a child, I could not be disciplined, I could not humbly accept my voice as a gift.
-- Scott Timberg
Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 850-2000, July 13. www.hollywoodbowl.com
Photo: Bobby McFerrin. Credit: Carol Friedman