Indie artists know how to genuflect across generations. Vampire Weekend have imitated (and been defended by) Paul Simon. A fleet of young independent pop singers have helped spur fresh and much-deserved interest in Kate Bush. Bon Iver recently covered Bonnie Raitt. And Merrill Garbus, the singer behind Tune-Yards, recently told Pitchfork that she’s sorta-kinda-maybe been influenced by Bobby McFerrin.
I like the new Tune-Yards album “whokill,” and with McFerrin performing at the Warner Theatre on Saturday, I thought it might be time to get reacquainted with the man who colonized my tender childhood brainspace in 1988 with the first won’t-go-away pop song that drove me nuts, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” (Hearing Chuck D diss it in the third verse of “Fight the Power” a year later was incredibly validating for a confused ten-year-old who was infatuated with Public Enemy’s urgency but couldn’t comprehend its politics.)
22 years later... I dug through the Post archives and found a 1987 feature on McFerrin written by former Washington Post pop critic Richard Harrington. It’s a portrait of an incredibly inventive singer a year before the breakout hit that would define him.
Bobby McFerrin's Active Voice
May 3, 1987
By Richard Harrington, Washington Post Staff Writer
Saying Bobby McFerrin sings is like saying Wayne Gretzky skates. At best, it's a starting point.
What the 37-year-old McFerrin does, solo a cappella, is amazing to hear and impossible to describe. But it goes something like this:
A slippery bass line ping-pongs against a lithe melody line that swoops between tenor and falsetto, bouncing around with mind-boggling elasticity while McFerrin taps percussive undercurrent rhythms on his chest, clicks his tongue, picks at an imaginary bass, taps his feet and otherwise dexterously melds rhythmic pulse and melodic flight.
McFerrin is a one-man Hi-Lo, though even that venerable singing group would be hard pressed to match his energy, much less his advancement of the art of vocalizing.
Working from a repertoire heavy on the Bs -- Bach, the Beatles, James Brown, "The Beverly Hillbillies" and Bird (Charlie Parker, that is), he explores timbre and tone with a riveting mix of wit and virtuosity, sometimes word-full, sometimes wordless. In concert, he's likely to improvise a song on randomly selected names, or to spin a rhythmic idea off a squeaky chair or other sudden noises, or to condense "The Wizard of Oz" into 10 minutes of zany musical theater in which he embodies most of the characters.
If Walt Whitman were around, he'd say Bobby McFerrin sings the body acoustic. McFerrin has his own description. "I'm My Own Walkman," he sings.
Funny thing, though. Ten years ago, Bobby McFerrin was a lounge combo pianist -- not a singer -- who'd only occasionally be given a spotlight song, such as "You Are the Sunshine of My Life."
"I didn't think of myself as a singer, I didn't want to be a singer," McFerrin said last week before a Kennedy Center concert. "I think a person has to have a vision first before they really become something. With me, it was simply doing a lot of soul searching, and I had some doubts about the future."
In 1977, McFerrin's future was so dim he didn't need shades: smoky cocktail lounges and brightly lit dance rehearsal rooms, hardly the thing for a classically trained pianist who had become entranced by jazz, particularly the spontaneous improvisations of Keith Jarrett. "But in the midst of that, a still-small voice erupted and came out and said, 'You are a singer ... be a singer.' I don't remember the words, but I remember that the feeling was very powerful and very right."
"And I became a singer at that moment."
He became The Voice much more slowly.
In 1979, McFerrin and his wife Debbie moved to New Orleans, where he got a job singing with a band. His move to the solo spotlight was accidental: One night, as McFerrin was struggling to figure out a piano part for Joan Armatrading's "Opportunity," he found himself lining out the song's guitar, bass and melody parts vocally, ricocheting between the highs and lows. "I didn't really think about it," McFerrin recalls. "I was only thinking about getting the point across, giving the illusion that there was more going on than actually was."
Still, for three years, "Opportunity" was the only solo song Bobby McFerrin knocked out. "Then gradually I started doing 10 minutes of solo work, then 20 minutes, and then I started doing less jazz standards and going into other things, writing some of my own stuff. Four years ago I decided to go completely solo."
McFerrin comes from a musical family. His father, Robert McFerrin, was the first black man signed by the Metropolitan Opera (he later moved the family to California, where, among other things, he dubbed the voice of Sidney Poitier in the film version of "Porgy and Bess"). McFerrin's mother Sara was a professional soprano and now chairs the voice department at Fullerton College. His sister Brenda is also a singer, in the jazz-cabaret mold.
"Now that I think about it, I probably did start off [as a singer] as a kid, being surrounded by singers," McFerrin says, "but I didn't acknowledge it, and I refused to until I was 27. My wife told me for years that I had a good voice, but when I used to do songs, I didn't really do anything with them ... I wanted to be a piano player, to write and compose for groups. I wanted to distinguish myself from everyone else in my family."
Later, McFerrin would seek to distinguish himself from other singers. When he first started making a name for himself, he would be compared to vocal masters such as Eddie Jefferson, Slim Gaillard and Jon Hendricks. But these were late discoveries, not influences, he says -- though he did spend nine months in 1980 working with Hendricks.
"Jon gave me a sense of my place in vocal jazz history," McFerrin explains. "He said, 'What you're doing is important, but read up on your history, find out who the great singers are ... you're part of a chain, respect that.' " Still, McFerrin says, only part of him is part of the chain, "because I don't even think of myself as a jazz singer. I used to, but I don't anymore."
Besides the fact that such a title can be the kiss of death for a young artist, McFerrin was resisting people's "expectations that I was going to carry the torch and become a real 'serious' jazz singer. I discovered in my performances that's not what they were all about ... Now I'm even dismissed as a jazz singer because some critics feel I don't take myself seriously enough. I'm just very serious about the fun that I have."
Even before his stint with Hendricks, McFerrin began to look for the voice within, believing that "90 percent of music is mishmash mush that sounds the same, and I wanted to avoid that at all costs ... I wanted to do something that I felt was uniquely my own, not copying somebody else. I know that I'm a very impressionable person; as a pianist I was so taken by Keith Jarrett's work that I started sounding like him -- but there's only one Keith Jarrett. It would bug the heck out of me when bass players started playing like Jaco Pastorius. I'd think, 'Where are you in all this stuff?"
One might have asked the same about McFerrin's debut album, a fairly standard affair that made him sound like an Al Jarreau clone and on which Bud Powell's "Hallucinations" was the only a cappella piece. It was all right, but it wasn't special -- and by then, McFerrin was ready to go it alone.
"When the idea of being a solo singer came out of the blue," he says, "it scared the heck out of me. It took me six years from the vision to actually doing it, and by that time I had enough of a reputation where some club owners would take a chance."
Typically, most of those club owners and promoters were in Europe. Still, when McFerrin arrived there sans band, half of them canceled the dates. But the other half honored their commitments and suddenly Bobby McFerrin had the best reviews of his life, a slew of concert offers and even a new nickname, "Stimmwunder" ("Wonder Voice" in German).
He now had some tapes of his solo performances, which the Musician label put out under the title "The Voice." Finally, he was being recorded the right way -- but at a steep price.
"After the first album, Musician was hot on me being the new Al Jarreau," McFerrin winces, recalling an offer of a $ 100,000 budget to record in a Hollywood studio. Then he told label head Bruce Lundvall that solo "was where my heart was," at which point the budget shrank to $ 7,500. He still occasionally gets nudged toward pop, McFerrin says. "I'll tell you, if I ever have a hit, it's going to be by accident, it's not going to be because I tried."
On the other hand, there seems to be nothing The Voice won't try. McFerrin admits that he is still occasionally surprised by what comes out, that "anything goes, even if it doesn't go or falls flat on its face. I used to worry about mistakes, but I don't anymore. When I mess up, that's okay."
Breathing is one of the perils of solo a cappella singing. You're left with little privacy for such an elementary need, a problem that confronts McFerrin especially on the occasional classical pieces he does, such as the Bach "Ave Maria."
"It demands such concentration, and there's no place to breathe in it since it wasn't written for voice," says McFerrin. "I started thinking about this five or six years ago with some pieces that were continuous. To disrupt a phrase by gasping for breath just wasn't working musically, so the only thing is to intone as you inhale. Even though you lose some of the quality, you don't break up the phrase as much; you can get by."
As for improvising with solo voice, McFerrin says, "The only thing I can think of is to use the breath as musically as possible, taking gasps in certain places that make musical sense, or in some places doing silent breathing so people don't even notice a breath is being taken. But it's trial and error."
There are other evolutions. With a new record -- in which he provides an engaging sound track as Jack Nicholson reads Rudyard Kipling's "Tne Elephant's Child," and then does a whole side of children's tunes -- McFerrin explores multitracking for the first time, with a "very simple, very rhythmic" African sound.
Since then, McFerrin has recorded two more Kipling stories without actually meeting the elusive Nicholson. "He did his parts in the studio and then I did mine. Too bad ... It would have been nice to bounce off what he was doing as he was doing it."
In the meantime, his own children, Taylor, 6, and Jevon, 2, can bounce off Daddy's "Spontaneous Inventions," which also happens to be the name of his most recent adult album, a collection of solo pieces and unrehearsed concert duets with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and comedian Robin Williams.
McFerrin briefly toyed with the idea of a multitrack solo album. "But it just doesn't seem like that's what I should be doing," he says. "If I'm going to do multitrack stuff I should just get a group together, like Voices-stra, that won't detract from what I'm doing solo."
Voices-stra -- for which McFerrin has been holding auditions -- will be an eight-voice ensemble combining arrangements and improvisation. McFerrin envisions it as "a theater group that uses vocal accompaniment to their own movement. I want to move to more theatrical things, seeing myself less as a jazz vocalist and more as a vocal performance artist, for lack of a better term."
Having done one very successful Levi's 501 commercial, he's been signed for another -- "on camera this time," a sure sign that McFerrin has arrived. And there are plenty of collaborations in the works: a voice-guitar-drum project with John Scofield and Jack DeJohnette; a joint concert with avant-garde clown Bill Irwin; a studio duet with pianist Lyle Mays, and another performance with composer Meredith Monk.
"My primary interest is vocal artistry of all kinds, even spoken word," McFerrin says. "I've started telling stories, getting into characters, using my voice in as many ways as possible, flexibly ... is that a word? I'm interested in doing anything that's going to expand me as an artist. Maybe Bill Irwin and I will play on each other's body."
Meanwhile, he may be heading toward Top 40 in spite of himself. A third Grammy Award -- for McFerrin's rendition of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" with Herbie Hancock -- and a show-stopping performance on this year's awards telecast propelled "Spontaneous Inventions" into Billboard's Top 100, unusual for a "jazz" album, unheard of for such an off-the-wall project.
But don't tell McFerrin you enjoy his uncanny evocations of such instruments as the soprano sax or the muted trumpet.
"At no time have I mimicked any instruments at all," he bristles. "There are some approximations, impersonations. I like to go in character. For instance, on ''Round Midnight,' I actually tried to feel like I was a lone horn player playing in a smoky room, with just the thrill of a smoky melody. I remember closing my eyes and really trying to get into that picture."
Children's songs are a staple of his repertoire. "Taylor comes home from school with all these songs. And there are some songs I like in concert because there's choreography that goes along with them like 'The Itsy Bitsy Spider' and 'Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.'
And there are lessons as well. "One of the things that gets in the way of singers today," McFerrin continues, "is that when they learn to improvise, they have forgotten all the things that they would just do as children. As you get older, you get jaded, or you have 20 vocal teachers who say 'Chin up, neck back, buttocks in, head high, shoulders front, feet forward.' By the time you're trying to figure out what to do, you're standing like this" -- and he assumes what could be called the "I'm About to Be Shot Against This Wall" position.
"I just say abandon yourself and have fun with your pieces and see what happens."
Have fun, and do it on your own. "Ninety percent [of the singers] I run across wouldn't even think about singing a piece by themselves unless they've got an accompanist there to fill up the spaces," McFerrin says. "If you really want to know what a song is all about, if you really want to get into it, sing it by yourself, fill up all the spaces yourself, whether it's with silence or something."
With Bobby McFerrin, it's silence or Something Really Else.