Sunday, May 31, 2009

Don't Worry, Bobby's Happy

McFerrin’s debut album had been a bit of a dress rehearsal for his sophomore effort, 1984’s ‘The Voice’. For this album there was only need for enough microphones to capture McFerrin’s multi-dimensional vocal contortions, accompanied by his own rhythm section, read - rhythmically slapping and tapping his body and clapping his hands to simulate a full rhythm section accompaniment on several tracks. It must have kept the overheads down at least, in the sense of not having to hire session musicians. The title said it all really, with McFerrin now completely sans rhythm section accompaniment, and studio overdubbing - what you heard is what emanated from the voice, hands, and feet of Bobby McFerrin. On the sleeve credits, Bobby McFerrin’s is the only name listed, alongside the words vocals/percussion. The album (US#24-Jazz) made jazz history, by becoming the first ever solo vocal album, released on a major label. McFerrin glided smoothly across a myriad of music styles, with his now trademark vocal improvisations. Once more, McFerrin wrote about half the tracks, but ventured well beyond traditional jazz fare on tracks like the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, and James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’, as well as his own funky little composition, the appropriately titled ‘I’m My Own Walkman’. Whilst fellow vocal contortionist Michael Winslow was causing a storm in ‘Police Academy’, McFerrin proved equally arresting as a recording artist.

1985’s album, ‘Spontaneous Inventions’ (US#103 - Jazz#6), was yet another showcase of McFerrin’s free-form performance style, and was a mix of solo unaccompanied tracks, and several collaborations with other artists. McFerrin joined jazz pianist Herbie Hancock on ‘Turtle Shoes; vocal quartet Manhattan Transfer and Jon Hendricks on ‘Another Night In Tunisia’ (which earned McFerrin his first Grammy Awards, for ‘Best Arrangment For Voices’, and ‘Best Male Jazz Vocal Performance’); and his free-form, free-wheeling, eccentric comic equivalent, Robin Williams, on the track ‘Beverly Hills Blues’. In 1987, McFerrin’s vocal wizardry received a broader exposure to mainstream audiences, via his one-man performance of the new opening theme for the Emmy Award winning comedy ‘The Cosby Show’, the star vehicle for friend Bill Cosby. During the same period, McFerrin performed the theme for the film ‘Round Midnight’, and the jingle for the Levis 501 Blues television commercial. Though many people may still not have made the connection between his film/television work and the name Bobby McFerrin, that is until the release of McFerrin’s next album.

In June of 1988, Bobby McFerrin released the single ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, the song which would in many respects define McFerrin’s career, at least to the public at large. McFerrin had been tinkering with the tune for a number of years, based around the phrase “don’t worry be happy”. He performed it on occasion at club shows, but improvised different lyrics, and altered arrangements, each time. The initial plan for McFerrin’s next album, centred around him covering a number of 60s pop-rock classics, in his own inimitable style. Whilst working on another track, McFerrin found himself at a dead end for inspiration, and suddenly found himself playing the tune for ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ in an effort to clear the fog. His long term manager/ producer, Linda Goldstein, heard the potential in the tune, and suggested to McFerrin that he should work to finish the song. McFerrin finally came up with a set of upbeat, positive lyrics, and a solid song structure. When he recorded ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, McFerrin was conscious of performing the lead vocal track in a reggae-tinged style, which he thought added to the laid back, leave your worries behind you, kind of message. ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ debuted inside the U.S. Hot 100 during July of ‘88, and soon after received a further boost via its inclusion on the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise film ‘Cocktail’. The producers of the film were looking for a cruisy, Caribbean flavoured song, and ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ felt just right for their purpose. By September 1988, ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ delivered Bobby McFerrin his first, and only, U.S. #1 hit. It also became the first a cappella style song to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (Billy Joel had reached #14 in early 1984 with his song ‘The Longest Time’, lifted from his ‘An Innocent Man’ album), backed by a quirky little promo video, featuring McFerrin, American actor/clown Bill Irwin, and old friend Robin Williams, performing madcap antics to camera. The ‘instrumental’ backing was provided as usual by Bobby McFerrin’s voice, though what differed from previous recordings, was the use of overdubbing (eight tracks in all). The ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ phrase apparently originated from Indian mystic Meher Baba, but Bobby McFerrin’s song popularised it to the point of becoming part of the Western popular culture vernacular. ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ brought a smile to the British at #2, and had Australian’s positively beaming with relaxed optimism, when it smiled at #1 for six weeks late in ‘88.

The song also attracted its share of controversy, when the Republican Party decided to ‘borrow’ the song for use in then Vice President George Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign. McFerrin was a staunch Democrat supporter, and immediately requested his manager/producer Linda Goldstein to register his disapproval at the song’s misappropriation. Of particular distaste was the notion that the phrase ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ be aligned to the political philosophy of the Republican party. The song has gone on to be used, in a more appropriate context, in numerous popular television shows (Simpsons, Futurama, Fresh Prince), and films (Flushed Away, Wall-E), as well as television commercials. Speaking of which, McFerrin scored a second hit in the U.K. in early ‘89, with the song ‘Thinkin’ About Your Body’ (#46), the tune to which had been featured in a TV commercial campaign for Cadbury’s chocolate, with the amended lyric, “Thinkin’ about your chocolate”. That particular song had appeared in its original incarnation on McFerrin’s 1985 album ‘Spontaneous Inventions’. For his 1988 set, ‘Simple Pleasures’, McFerrin combined several original songs with a selection of 60s pop-rock classics, along the lines of his original intention. McFerrin reworked songs like Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, complete with vocal electric guitar (Clapton would be proud), the Beatles’ ‘Drive My Car’, and the Young Rascals’ 1966 #1 ‘Good Lovin’, which charted briefly for McFerrin on the Australian charts (#61). The album ‘Simple Pleasures’ (US#5/OZ#21/UK#92) may have used a bit of in-studio overdub trickery, but regardless, McFerrin’s brilliance as a performer shone through undeniably. McFerrin walked away smiling from the 1988 Grammy Awards, holding high the prizes for ‘Best Song of the Year’ and ‘Album of the Year’.

Soon after the runaway success of ‘Simple Pleasures’, McFerrin formed a ten member a cappella group called Voicestra, and they supported McFerrin on his 1990 follow up album, ‘Medicine Music’ (US#146-Jazz#2). The album proved an obvious commercial disappointment, by way of comparison to ‘Simple Pleasures’, and lacked some of the inspired innovation of his earlier works. McFerrin distanced himself further from the mainstream scene on his next couple of album projects, though it was evident that he garnered an almost ubiquitous respect on the American music scene, across the entire stylistic spectrum. 1991’s ‘Hush’ was a collaboration with acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and remained on the U.S. classical cross-over charts for over two years. The musical masters hit a high point with their rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’, a perfect vehicle for their combined virtuosity. McFerrin then returned to his jazz roots for the live album ‘Play’ (US-Jazz#3), in union with jazz pianist Chick Corea.

During the early 90s, McFerrin began working regularly with symphony orchestras across the U.S. including the New York Philharmonic, and Chicago Symphony. The performances regularly combined McFerrin’s role as a conductor, with his own vocal interpretations and improvisations of classical music pieces. In 1994, McFerrin was appointed as creative chair with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and they provided backing for his next album, 1995’s ‘Paper Music’. Ever willing to embrace new challenges, the album witnessed McFerrin interpreted the works of Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky. McFerrin then bounced back to jazz/R&B territory on 1996’s ‘Bang! Zoom’, this time around with the assistance of R&B/jazz group, the Yellowjackets. Further album releases followed over the ensuing few years, covering a gamut of musical styles, some in union with other performers, others featuring McFerrin focussing on solo improvised vocals.

Over the last decade, McFerrin has continued to collaborate with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Pea, and other music luminaries, on albums such as ‘Mouth Music’ (2001), and the acclaimed ‘Beyond Words’ (2002) . He has also maintained a strong involvement in ongoing music education programs, and is a regular guest lecturer at various educational institutions across the U.S., and continues to astound concert audiences the world over with his octave jumping antics, and unique performance style. Though his mainstream pop music success was fleeting, ten Grammy Awards, twenty million in record sales, and critical acclaim across classical and jazz genres, has given both McFerrin and his fans plenty of reasons to be happy.

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