Bobby McFerrin
McFerrin in 2011
McFerrin in 2011
Background information
Birth nameRobert Keith McFerrin Jr.
Born (1950-03-11) March 11, 1950 (age 74)
New York City, U.S.
  • Singer-songwriter
  • conductor
  • arranger
  • record producer
Instrument(s)Vocals, piano, percussion, vocal percussion
Years active1970–present

Robert Keith McFerrin Jr. (born March 11, 1950)[1] is an American jazz singer, songwriter, and conductor. He is known for his vocal techniques, such as singing fluidly but with quick and considerable jumps in pitch—for example, sustaining a melody while also rapidly alternating with arpeggios and harmonies—as well as scat singing, polyphonic overtone singing, and improvisational vocal percussion. He is widely known for performing and recording regularly as an unaccompanied solo vocal artist. He has frequently collaborated with other artists from both the jazz and classical scenes.[2]

McFerrin's song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was a No. 1 U.S. pop hit in 1988 and won Song of the Year and Record of the Year honors at the 1989 Grammy Awards. McFerrin has also worked in collaboration with renowned jazz fusion instrumentalists, including the pianists Chick Corea (of Return to Forever), Herbie Hancock (of The Headhunters), and Joe Zawinul (of Weather Report), the drummer Tony Williams, and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma.[2]

Early life and education

McFerrin was born in Manhattan, New York City in 1950, the son of operatic baritone Robert McFerrin and singer Sara Copper. He attended Cathedral High School in Los Angeles,[3] Cerritos College,[4] University of Illinois Springfield (then known as Sangamon State University)[5] and California State University, Sacramento.[3]

His mother Sara (Copper) McFerrin was a soloist and taught voice at Fullerton College in Southern California.[6]


Bobby McFerrin, 1982

McFerrin's first recorded work, the self-titled album Bobby McFerrin, was not produced until 1982, when McFerrin was already 31 years old. Before that, he had spent six years developing his musical style, the first two years of which he attempted not to listen to other singers at all, in order to avoid sounding like they sounded. He was influenced by Keith Jarrett, who had achieved great success with a series of solo improvised piano concerts including The Köln Concert of 1975, and wanted to attempt something similar vocally.[7]

In 1984, McFerrin performed onstage at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles as a sixth member of Herbie Hancock's VSOP II, sharing horn trio parts with the Marsalis brothers.

In 1986, McFerrin was the voice of Santa Bear in Santa Bear's First Christmas, and in 1987 he was the voice of Santa Bear/Bully Bear in the sequel Santa Bear's High Flying Adventure. On September 24 of that same year, he recorded the theme song for the opening credits of Season 4 of The Cosby Show.[8]

In 1988, McFerrin recorded the song "Don't Worry, Be Happy", which became a hit and brought him widespread recognition across the world. The song's success "ended McFerrin's musical life as he had known it," and he began to pursue other musical possibilities on stage and in recording studios.[9] The song was used as the official campaign song for George H. W. Bush in the 1988 U.S. presidential election, without Bobby McFerrin's permission or endorsement. In reaction, Bobby McFerrin publicly protested that use of his song, and stated that he was going to vote against Bush. He also dropped the song from his own performance repertoire.[10]

At that time, he performed on the PBS TV special Sing Out America! with Judy Collins. McFerrin sang a Wizard of Oz medley during that television special.

In 1989, he composed and performed the music for the Pixar short film Knick Knack. The rough cut to which McFerrin recorded his vocals had the words "blah blah blah" in place of the end credits (meant to indicate that he should improvise). McFerrin spontaneously decided to sing "blah blah blah" as lyrics, and the final version of the short film includes these lyrics during the end credits. Also in 1989, he formed a ten-person "Voicestra" which he featured on both his 1990 album Medicine Music and in the score to the 1989 Oscar-winning documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.

Around 1992, an urban legend began that McFerrin had committed suicide; it has been speculated that the false story spread because people enjoyed the irony of a man known for the positive message of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" suffering from depression in real life. But in reality McFerrin knew the song helped spread the message of positivity to the world abroad and was very proud of the work as a whole.[11]

In 1993, he sang Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther Theme" for the 1993 comedy film Son of the Pink Panther.

McFerrin in 1994

In addition to his vocal performing career, in 1994, McFerrin was appointed as creative chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He makes regular tours as a guest conductor for symphony orchestras throughout the United States and Canada, including the San Francisco Symphony (on his 40th birthday), the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and many others.[12] In McFerrin's concert appearances, he combines serious conducting of classical pieces with his own unique vocal improvisations, often with participation from the audience and the orchestra. For example, the concerts often end with McFerrin conducting the orchestra in an a cappella rendition of the "William Tell Overture," in which the orchestra members sing their musical parts in McFerrin's vocal style instead of playing their parts on their instruments.

For a few years in the late 1990s, he toured a concert version of Porgy and Bess, partly in honor of his father, who sang the role for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 film version, and partly "to preserve the score's jazziness" in the face of "largely white orchestras" who tend not "to play around the bar lines, to stretch and bend". McFerrin says that because of his father's work in the movie, "This music has been in my body for 40 years, probably longer than any other music."[13]

Bobby McFerrin performing with Chick Corea at the 2008 edition of the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

McFerrin also participates in various music education programs and makes volunteer appearances as a guest music teacher and lecturer at public schools throughout the U.S. McFerrin has collaborated with his son, Taylor, on various musical ventures.

Bobby McFerrin participating at a TED conference in March 2011.

In July 2003, McFerrin was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music during the Umbria Jazz Festival where he conducted two days of clinics.[14]

In 2009, McFerrin and psychologist Daniel Levitin hosted The Music Instinct, a two-hour documentary produced by PBS and based on Levitin's best-selling book This Is Your Brain on Music. Later that year, the two appeared together on a panel at the World Science Festival.

McFerrin was given a lifetime achievement award at the A Cappella Music Awards on May 19, 2018.

McFerrin was honored with the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award on August 20, 2020.

McFerrin was honored with the Grammy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award in 2022. This award is given to "performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording."[15]

Since 2021, McFerrin regularly hosts circlesongs sessions on Mondays at noon at The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, California. “McFerrin calls the sessions “circlesongs,” a practice he documented on the 1997 album of the same name. Combining deep listening with exquisitely acute improvisational skills, he and his veteran crew of vocal explorers — David Worm, Bryan Dyer, Tammi Brown and Destani Wolf — create spontaneous musical forms, often sparked by suggestions or lines from participants. It’s an extraordinary situation where anyone can buy a ticket and get onstage to improvise along with McFerrin…”[16][17]

Personal life

He is the son of Robert Keith McFerrin, Sr.; who was the first Black man to sing at America’s flagship opera company – the Metropolitan Opera. He is the father of musicians Taylor McFerrin and Madison McFerrin, and actor Jevon McFerrin.[18][19]

Vocal technique

As a vocalist, McFerrin often switches rapidly between modal and falsetto registers to create polyphonic effects, performing both the main melody and the accompanying parts of songs. He makes use of percussive effects created both with his mouth and by tapping on his chest. McFerrin is also capable of multiphonic singing.[20]

A document of McFerrin's approach to singing is his 1984 album The Voice, the first solo vocal jazz album recorded with no accompaniment or overdubbing.[21]


As leader

Studio albums

Year Album Peak chart positions Record label
US Jazz
US Cont. Jazz
1982 Bobby McFerrin 41 Elektra/Musician
1984 The Voice 24
1986 Spontaneous Inventions 103 62 6 2 Blue Note
1988 Simple Pleasures 5 12 1 26 92 EMI
1990 Medicine Music 146 2
1992 Play
(with Chick Corea)
3 Blue Note
(with Yo-Yo Ma)
Sony Masterworks
1995 Bang!Zoom 10 Blue Note
Paper Music Sony Classical
1996 The Mozart Sessions
(with Chick Corea)
1997 Circlesongs
2002 Beyond Words 5 Blue Note
2010 Vocabularies 2 EmArcy
2013 Spirityouall Sony Masterworks
"—" denotes releases that did not chart or were not released in that territory.


Year Song Peak chart positions Certifications
US Hot 100
US Adult
1982 "Moondance / Jubilee"
"You've Really Got a Hold on Me"
(with Phoebe Snow)
1988 "Don't Worry, Be Happy" 1 7 11 1 1 2
"Thinkin' About Your Body" 46
"Good Lovin'"
1990 "The Garden"
"—" denotes releases that did not chart or were not released in that territory.

As sideman

Grammy Awards


  1. ^ Larkin, Colin, ed. (May 27, 2011). Encyclopedia of Popular Music (5th Concise ed.). Omnibus Press. pp. 1978–1980. ISBN 978-0-8571-2595-8. Archived from the original on July 3, 2023. Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  2. ^ a b Ankeny, Jason. "Artist Biography". AllMusic. Archived from the original on January 22, 2022. Retrieved January 22, 2022.
  3. ^ a b North, Cheryl (November 17, 2014). "Jeremy Denk, Bobby McFerrin: Two talented wits bring their music to San Francisco". The Mercury News. San Jose. Archived from the original on October 25, 2020. Retrieved October 21, 2020.
  4. ^ Epstein, Benjamin (August 23, 1996). "McFarrin [sic] Well". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on October 27, 2020. Retrieved January 23, 2022.
  5. ^ "History and Traditions – About". University of Illinois Springfield. Archived from the original on January 23, 2021. Retrieved January 23, 2022.
  6. ^ "STAFF STORIES: SARA MCFERRIN". Fullerton College Centennial. Archived from the original on January 14, 2023. Retrieved January 14, 2023.
  7. ^ "Bobby Solo". Bobby McFerrin Official Website. Archived from the original on December 28, 2013. Retrieved December 27, 2013.
  8. ^ Jackson, Blair (June 24, 2010). "Classic Tracks: Bobby McFerrin "Don't Worry, Be Happy"". MIX. Future plc. Retrieved January 11, 2023.
  9. ^ "Bobby McFerrin's Improv-Inspired 'Vocabularies'". Weekend Edition. NPR. Archived from the original on April 16, 2022. Retrieved January 23, 2022.
  10. ^ "The Echo & Dissonance of George Bush's 1988 Campaign Music". Carl Anthony Online. October 13, 2012. Archived from the original on November 14, 2012. Retrieved November 12, 2012.
  11. ^ Mikkelson, David (November 3, 2002). "Bobby McFerrin Suicide Rumor". Snopes. Archived from the original on July 3, 2023. Retrieved July 1, 2011.
  12. ^ February 1, Andrew Gilbert (February 1, 2023). "Bobby McFerrin on a lifetime of breaking into new musical universes". Datebook | San Francisco Arts & Entertainment Guide. Archived from the original on March 3, 2024. Retrieved May 1, 2024.((cite web)): CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ Ellison, Cori (December 13, 1998). "'Porgy' and Music's Racial Politics". The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 22, 2018. Retrieved February 6, 2017.
  14. ^ Carlson, Russell (June 21, 2003). "Berklee Honors Rollins, Holds Summer Clinics". JazzTimes. Archived from the original on October 17, 2017. Retrieved April 20, 2017.
  15. ^ "Lifetime Achievement Award". GRAMMY. Retrieved January 13, 2024.
  16. ^ "Bobby McFerrin on a lifetime of breaking into new musical universes". SF Chronicle. February 1, 2023. Retrieved January 13, 2024.
  17. ^ Ullman, Alexander (May 11, 2022). "Bobby McFerrin's 'Circlesongs' and the Politics of Play | KQED". Retrieved February 3, 2024.
  18. ^ Allen, Meaghan (July 10, 2017). "Madison McFerrin: a cappella with a twist". B-Side. Archived from the original on May 9, 2021. Retrieved May 9, 2021.
  19. ^ Bream, Jon (June 12, 2018). "Returning to Minnesota, Grammy-winner Bobby McFerrin gives first interview in 4 years". Star Tribune. Minneapolis. Archived from the original on May 9, 2021. Retrieved January 23, 2022.
  20. ^ "Jazz, at Ritz, McFerrin". The New York Times. December 12, 1984. Archived from the original on October 15, 2018. Retrieved February 6, 2017.
  21. ^ Yanow, Scott. "Bobby McFerrin – The Voice (1984): Review". AllMusic. Archived from the original on March 7, 2022. Retrieved March 7, 2022.
  22. ^ a b c d "Bobby McFerrin – Awards". AllMusic. Archived from the original on November 19, 2012. Retrieved January 22, 2022.
  23. ^ a b "Discography Bobby McFerrin". Archived from the original on September 4, 2022. Retrieved September 4, 2022.
  24. ^ a b "BOBBY MCFERRIN – full Official Chart History". Official Charts Company. Archived from the original on January 22, 2022. Retrieved January 22, 2022.
  25. ^ a b c d "Bobby McFerrin Top Songs / Chart Singles Discography". Music VF. Archived from the original on December 27, 2021. Retrieved December 27, 2021.
  26. ^ "Don't Worry, Be Happy in Canadian Top Singles Chart". Library and Archives Canada. Archived from the original on June 21, 2017. Retrieved December 27, 2021.
  27. ^ "American certifications – Bobby Mc Ferrin – Don't Worry Be Happy". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved September 4, 2022.
  28. ^ Ryan, Gavin (2011). Australia's Music Charts 1988–2010 (PDF ed.). Mt Martha, Victoria, Australia: Moonlight Publishing. p. 182.
  29. ^ "British certifications – Bobby McFerrin – Don't Worry Be Happy". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved March 19, 2022.