The No. 1 hit that won the Record and Song of the Year awards at the 1989 Grammys also began turning up in strangely post-apocalyptic contexts. It was used in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, and in Wall-E, where the title robot has a Big Mouth Billy Bass mounted fish that sings McFerrin's jolly tune amid the dystopian depression. There was only one explanation for this: The song made people so unbearably happy that the only antidote was to associate it with deep unhappiness, whether that involved suicide or the end of the world.
NPR.com wrote a few years ago that the song "ended McFerrin's musical life as he had known it." But his real life? Hardly. And his music was, if anything, born again as he balked at trying to make good on that fluke success with another hit—instead resolving to delve deeper into richer brands of outside-the-mainstream music, even if that meant most pop fans only knew him as a one-hit wonder.
So if you like truly happy endings (as opposed to "Be Happy" endings), McFerrin's ability to thrive as a cultural explorer while going off the pop-culture radar makes for a fine cap to his story.
This week, he returns with a new recording, spiritYOUall, which is—as the punny title suggests—a gospel album. But if you're thinking gospel means good news, and good news means fast-tempo fun, the collection has more grit and gravity than that. Along with some originals, he covers religious/humanist songs ranging from the Negro-spiritual era on up to Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released"; sometimes playing with scatted vocals in his jazzy trademark way, but sometimes going for more of a bluesy, earthy, Americana feel. He's joined by another big Grammy winner, Esperanza Spalding, for duet and harmony parts, as well as a full band. The days of a cappella overdubbing and one-man-bandsmanship are behind him, for now.
Though the stereotype created by his monster hit has McFerrin being Mr. A Cappella, it shouldn't come as such a shock that he records with instrumentalists if you know his background. He started out as a pianist and didn't even think about becoming a singer until 1977, when he was 27, though he "always had a nagging suspicion that I wasn't a pianist," he said. Thinking about recording without any accompaniment took another six years beyond that. In 1983, he began performing full 90-minute sets that consisted just of his voice, along with body language and body percussion.
"Initially, I had pictured myself fronting big bands, doing what Harry Connick or Michael Bublé do nowadays," he told the Guardian in 2010. "But I always had this idea of performing solo at the back of my mind. The weird thing was that, although I could visualize myself solo, on stage, I couldn't imagine what it might sound like."
A eureka moment arrived one day when he started singing a Joan Armatrading song to himself, jumping around in his four-octave range. "I started singing the bass riff with my chest voice and then jumping up to my falsetto voice to sing the tune. It's a form of yodeling, I guess...And then I started tapping the rhythm on my chest and it all came into place."
In 1988, "Don't Worry"—a mock-Jamaican melody inspired by a maxim attributed to Meher Baba—appeared on the soundtrack of the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. Upon its first release, it peaked at No. 88, but upon being re-released, the unlikeliest of singles soared to No. 1, accompanied by a video that eschewed Cruise's starpower in favor of cameos by comic actors Robin Williams and Bill Irwin.
Soon-to-be President George Bush adopted the song, briefly, as a campaign song. McFerrin vocally protested that usage and loudly declared that he was voting for the other guy; some reports at the time even had McFerrin taking it out of his concert repertoire, just to make sure no one got the wrong message. Bush's campaign apparently got the right one and moved on to other musical choices.
As did McFerrin himself. In contrast to other performers with '80s-era MTV smashes who might be remembered as "one-hit wonders," the singer doesn't even usually perform "Don't Worry" in concert. His response to being a pop star as the '80s turned into the '90s? Learning how to conduct an orchestra.
"My whole goal this whole time was to be a working musician," he told NPR. "It wasn't about being famous or being a celebrity. It's just work."
But McFerrin's idea of work is awfully playful. Prior to recording the new album of spirituals, he was juggling several different equally ambitious conceits. Sometimes he would do entirely improvised shows with a 12-piece a cappella vocal group. Other times he would conduct a symphony, albeit including a segment where the musicians would put their instruments down and sing their parts.
He's been most comfortable collaborating with Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea, and other jazz and classical musicians...or classical audiences, as when he gets a crowd to sing "Ave Maria" while he performs Bach's "Bach's Prelude No 1 in C Major" as counterpoint. You can just imagine fellow '80s hitmakers like Missing Persons and OMD thinking: Why didn't we think of that?
The new album brings him back to his childhood, since three songs on it were also recorded by his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., on a 1957 album, "Deep River" And Other Classic Negro Spirituals. (The senior McFerrin was the first black man to join the Metropolitan Opera Company, so the junior McFerrin not realizing he was a singer until he was 27 may count as a "duh" moment.)
It may sound odd to say this of an album rooted largely in the music of slavery, but spiritYOUall may be the closest thing to a pop album McFerrin's recorded in a long time. "Pop" is probably not the right word, but its rootsy, folky feel might make it fit in instantly on the kind of stations that play acoustic-leaning acts like Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, or the Lumineers. "I wanted to do something with a band, and a lot simpler...People are more aware of my jazz and classical and world music roots, but the rock and blues and soul influences have always been there, too," he said recently.
McFerrin and his wife Debbie have three adult children—Taylor, Jevon, and Madison; the oldest and youngest of which are, not surprisingly, third-generation musicians. ("The middle child has a very good voice, but he’s into acting," McFerrin said.)
"My family is a source of great joy, and of course that gets expressed through music. We’ve always sung together a lot, just going about the day. I miss that now that my sons are living on their own and my daughter’s away at college. A long time ago I wrote the song 'Simple Pleasures' about my family, and my kids sang it for me last year at my birthday party."
His youngest daughter is attending Berklee, but McFerrin favors a different university.
"I always say I learned everything I know at MSU: Making Stuff Up," he told Insight News. "No matter what style of music you play, improvising is great for your flexibility and your ears. Be spontaneous; it forces you to connect every note you play to your soul, to your mood, to the environment you are in, to your audience."
In other words, don't worry, be hep to the moment.
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- Bobby McFerrin