Every Song Is a Cliff-Hanger for Improviser Bobby McFerrin, a One-Man, No-Instrument Band
Preparing dinner at his San Francisco home, Bobby McFerrin, 37, is simultaneously chef and jongleur. He taps a rhythm on the kitchen counter with his cheese grater, thumps out a refrain on the refrigerator with his fingers. Then he tilts his head and sings, "Oooh wah, oooh wah doop!" As he bounces lightly from a slippery bass to a lithe falsetto, a range of almost four octaves, McFerrin tap-dances across the kitchen tiles and swoops into the dining room with food in hand.
At home or onstage, making the seemingly commonplace come alive with infectious joy is McFerrin's specialty. Winner of the Grammy this year for best male jazz vocal performance for 'Round Midnight, McFerrin can be categorized variously as a brilliant scat singer, a cappella (without accompaniment) singer, comedian and one-man band. But improvisational wizardry is the best description of what he does, as has been evident on his 19-city, eight-week tour. In a song-and-dance routine based on the Wizard of Oz, McFerrin musically re-creates all the yellow brick road characters, including Dorothy and the evil witch. During other numbers, he relies on members of the audience for inspiration—for example, dancing with a photographer and mimicking a noisy motor-driven shutter by loudly clicking his tongue. At the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, he even persuaded some audience members to bite crunchy potato chips in unison so he could hear what a chorus of junk-food junkies might sound like. "Audiences feel they can trust me," says McFerrin. "I let them know it's acceptable for us to make fools of ourselves."
Helping people laugh at themselves is clearly a catharsis for McFerrin as well. Before each performance he says a prayer backstage asking God to help him connect with the audience. But when a show is over, he blocks it out of his mind. "Forgetting is important," he says. "There are some moments I wish I could keep, but from experience I know they can't be duplicated."
McFerrin was not always so breezy, and it took him a while to find his highly individual vocation. His father, Robert Sr., broke the color bar for men at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955 by landing a leading role in Aida, and his mother, Sara, is a highly regarded voice teacher. But McFerrin rebelled at the idea of singing, and broke into the music business as a pianist. He dropped out of Cerritos College in the early '70s to spend two years as an accompanist for the Ice Follies before diving into the gypsy life of jazz combo musicians. Then in 1977, after seriously considering becoming an Episcopal minister, he experienced a spiritual epiphany. "There was a moment's clarity," he recalls, "when I stopped struggling and it just sort of popped into my head: 'You are a singer.' " Following a modest commercial success with his 1982 debut album, Bobby McFerrin, he decided to commit himself to an idea he had been pondering for several years: He thumbed his nose at plans to make a predictable follow-up album, dumped his backup trio just before a 1984 tour of Europe, and went solo. "Oh, man, that was very scary," he says, "because I was really putting myself on the line." European critics responded with a chorus of raves, including the Germans, who had already dubbed him Stimmwunder, or "Wonder Voice."
These days McFerrin travels with nothing but one carry-on bag and improvises some of his best material for his wife of 12 years, Debbie—his business partner—and his sons Taylor, 6, and Jevon, 2. A daily Bible reader, he knows without doubt that he has found his true calling. "I consider myself a healer, using music as a potent force to bring people joy," he says. "A happy heart is good medicine, and I feel like I'm a channel for fun."
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