Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Evolution Of A Vocal Virtuoso

If you hadn’t heard it already, you would logically deduce that a song with the title, ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’, would be a cheerful, light hearted offering, and with the 1988 chart topper of that name, that’s exactly what was delivered. What was delivered in addition, was a virtuoso vocal performance from the extraordinarily talented Bobby McFerrin.

McFerrin arrived in the world during 1950, and grew up in a musical family. Both his parents were opera singers, and his father was an acclaimed baritone with the New York Metropolitan Opera. McFerrin senior also provided the singing voice, dubbed for Sidney Poitier’s character, in the 1959 film version of ‘Porgy and Bess’. Young Bobby opted initially to concentrate his formal studies on piano, rather than vocals. His earliest performance experience came in high school, where he formed the Bobby Mack Jazz Quartet, and then went on to undertake formal training at the famed Juilliard School, and later Sacramento State College. McFerrin then dropped out of college, and spent some time playing piano for dance workshops at the University of Utah, and tutoring the Osmonds. When ’Little Jimmy’ enrolled in his tutorial, McFerrin decided he’d be happier pursuing music as a fulltime profession, rather than covering the finer points of vocal cadence in ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’. NOTE FROM MANAGEMENT: Whilst it is true that Bobby McFerrin worked for a time at the University of Utah, his association with said Osmond brethren is unsubstantiated rumour and innuendo.

McFerrin may have had opera singing parents, but he grew up on a diet of almost straight jazz, with the legendary Miles Davis being of particular influence on McFerrin’s musical sensibilities. Davis’ seminal album ‘Bitches Brew’ was released in 1969, and would prove a major influence on many up and coming musicians at that time - nineteen year old Bobby McFerrin was no exception. He set about gaining some on the job experience, and initially toured with a stage production of the Ice Follies, with whom he played keyboards (though not whilst skating). McFerrin then spent the first half of the 70s performing with a string of cover bands, cabaret acts and dance troupes, occasionally providing some vocals, but most often at the piano, and all the while absorbing knowledge from a wide range of musical styles and talented musicians, and fine tuning his extraordinary interpretative skills. On a summer’s evening in July 1977, Bobby McFerrin was walking down a hill in Salt Lake City, when a voice inside his head (possibly his own) told him, epiphany style, to become a solo singer, and the very next night McFerrin performed his first solo gig in the piano bar of the Salt Lake City Hilton. It was time for the next stage of evolution in Bobby McFerrin’ career. He based himself for a time in New Orleans, where he provided vocals for a group called Astral Projection, prior to relocating to San Francisco in the late 70s. McFerrin was then recruited by legendary jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks, to perform with his then current project. Hendricks had been one third of the 50s era jazz vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, who had also been a major influence on McFerrin.

Over the course of the 70s, Bobby McFerrin had worked on developing a vocal style, virtually unique in scope and nature. His vocal chords somehow managed to conceal a virtual one man band, and McFerrin had developed a virtuoso ability to faithfully reproduce all manner of sounds and tones, and replicate a seemingly limitless range of musical instruments, using only his voice. He could bend and shape his voice across several octaves, in a remarkable display of vocal gymnastics, jumping from falsetto to deep bass notes in an instant, and then back again. For anyone who closed their eyes, it would sound like several singers were performing in a seamless a cappella style, but it was all the work of just one man, with a distinctive set of vocal chords, and the depth of knowledge in musical technique required to effectively wield such a unique gift across a range of music styles - from jazz, through pop, to classical, and all stops in between. Humour also became a big part of his performance craft, and McFerrin regularly invited people on stage (including hecklers) to suggest voices and sounds for him to imitate - anything from a car, to jazz quartet, to Curtis Mayfield - McFerrin’s vocal repertoire seemed to know no bounds.

It was in 1979, whilst playing with Hendricks’ at a San Francisco club, that McFerrin came to the attention of comedian and actor Bill Cosby. Cosby was not only bowled over by McFerrin’s vocal virtuosity, but the singer’s innate sense of showmanship, and zany wit. Cosby arranged for McFerrin to appear at the prestigious Playboy Jazz Festival for 1980. Needless to say, McFerrin wowed the audience, and was soon in high demand to appear at other festivals. In 1981, he played an unaccompanied performance at the Kool Jazz Festival, to much acclaim, with audience and critics alike hailing the arrival of a jazz-vocal genius - one that had been more than a decade in the making. The Kool Jazz triumph led to a recording contract with the Elektra label, but McFerrin had no intention of recording as a straight up jazz vocalist. Instead, he wanted to carve out a unique niche as a stand alone vocal performer.

When he entered the recording studio to lay down tracks for his 1982 self titled debut album, McFerrin still utilised backing players for most of the instrumental tracks. Produced by Linda Goldstein, McFerrin was joined on several tracks by pianist Victor Feldman, and in a duet with drummer H.B. Bennett on the track ‘All Feets Can Dance’. Singer Phoebe Snow (see future post) also joined McFerrin on the duet ‘You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’, whilst Randy Jackson dropped by to play bass on several tracks. The ‘Bobby McFerrin’ album (US#41-Jazz) featured a diverse selection of song styles, including a version of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’, though around half were written by McFerrin himself. McFerrin’s brilliant performance style was also a hit with European audiences, who attended his shows in droves during a 1982 tour. Upon returning home to the States, McFerrin dispensed with any kind of backing musicians, and embarked on a tour during 1983, on which he performed completely unaccompanied.

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