As a kid, Bobby McFerrin used to prepare for school quizzes by singing the answers so he would remember them. The renowned vocalist carried the habit into adulthood as a way to retain certain information.
And so it was that, when he saw a poster of Indian mystic Meher Baba one day in his native New York and liked its phrase “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” he sang it.
“I would do it in clubs, it wasn’t finished, I didn’t have all the lyrics and stuff figured out but I would just sing the refrain and just improvise, playing with it a little bit,” the 10-time Grammy Award winner recalled in a telephone interview to tee up his gig at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival this Friday.
“When I was in the studio recording Simple Pleasures, it wasn’t even on the docket as a tune, I wasn’t even considering it. It never even came to my mind until, while I was working on some other piece and I got stuck, I couldn’t figure out what to do with it,” he continued on the line from Philadelphia.
“I dismissed the engineer and everybody and I went in the back and I wrote out the lyrics, I called everyone back and I sang it, and I think the whole thing took about 45 minutes. I didn’t pay much mind to it.
“I thought it was kind of a nifty tune but I had no IDEA it was going to do anywhere near what it did as far as sales and popularity.”
Twenty-five years after its smash success (it earned McFerrin three Grammys and was the first a cappella song to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart), Don’t Worry, Be Happy still gets airplay with its positive message and McFerrin’s cheerful whistles, coo-coos and woo-woos.
McFerrin said he still thinks about the song, in which his voice acts as all the instruments: “Can’t help it. Just about every concert that I do, somebody yells out ‘Don’t worry, be happy,” he said with a warm chuckle.
But he hasn’t performed the full tune live in about 20 years.
“The last time I did it was in November of 1988, something like that, because I didn’t want to be tagged with it,” he explained.
“I wanted people to see the other parts of me, so I stopped performing it. Every once in a while the theme will slide in there through a solo that I’m doing in improvisation.”
McFerrin’s current tour lands at the Edmonton International Jazz Festival today, the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival on Sunday and the Montreal International Jazz Festival on June 30. It comprises tunes from his latest album, Spirityouall, a title reflecting his belief that “everyone is a spiritual being.”
The album’s gritty bluegrass feel is one McFerrin has been longing to play for many years, he said, recalling the time he was being honoured at a reception and was “captivated” by an Irish band playing that style of music at the venue.
“I went and sat the entire reception by this band and ignored everybody there,” he said, laughing. “I’ve always wanted to be in a band that swung the way that these guys did.”
The album’s inspiration came from his dad, Robert McFerrin, an operatic baritone who used to sing such tunes in church and taught him “a very strong work ethic.”
“I sang in the children’s choir in church and I was an acolyte, my mother was a soprano soloist at the church that we attended,” said McFerrin.
“My father went to a different church because I guess he needed something a little more lively, because his father was a Baptist minister. The Episcopalians tend to a little bit sombre.”
Faith remained an important part of McFerrin’s life and today, “it’s a daily conversation,” he said.
“At one point I was thinking seriously of a monastic career and in some ways I’m still pretty hermitish, because I like quiet, I enjoy my own company.”
At age 64, McFerrin said he’s his “most manic and wild and crazy” onstage, performing with his four-octave range and unique technique of singing both melodies and accompaniment.
“But then when I’m off the stage, I usually walk off the stage into a waiting car, I get back to my hotel room and soak in a tub, read a book, go to sleep,” he added with a laugh. “That’s kind of my thing.”
McFerrin said he doesn’t perform barefoot like used to.
It’s a habit he got into for a bit (you can see his exposed tootsies in the Don’t Worry, Be Happy video) after a foot cramp forced him to take off his shoes and socks while he was conducting an orchestra.
“Here I’m conducting Beethoven or whatever it was and all of a sudden my foot starts to cramp up and I got distracted and I thought, ’That’s not a good idea, to be distracted when you’re conducting Beethoven and Mozart and all.”’
But he does still try out new things onstage.
On his current tour, for instance, he’s performing with daughter Madison.
The recent graduate of Berklee College of Music reminds him of all the theory and harmony that he learned in school, he said.
McFerrin also recently performed a duo gig with Roots leader Questlove, using turntables, drums and an electronic drum set.
“I’m always looking at not only educating other people but educating myself. I’m still learning,” he said. “I’ve still got a huge brain capacity to absorb a whole bunch of stuff and I want to put as much stuff in my brain as possible.
“I’m always trying to find new ways of doing stuff. I LOVE to sing.”