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Bobby McFerrin on his father's influence, music and coming back to the Sheldon

In Performing Arts

1:13 am on Wed, 04.24.13

Bobby McFerrin’s wildly eclectic musical career has taken him from early gigs singing with the Ice Follies and working with the New Orleans jazz-fusion band Astral Project in the 1970s to collaborations with classical artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, jazz legends such as Chick Corea. He has also served as creative chair for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and has conducted the Chicago Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the St. Louis Symphony.

Carol Friedman

Bobby McFerrin

When: 8:15 p.m., April 25

Where: Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd.

Cost: $50 orchestra, $45 balcony. Available through MetroTix at 314-534-1111 orwww.TheSheldon.org

Gala: The event is also a gala fundraiser for the Sheldon. Patron tickets start at $500 and include pre-concert cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, dinner, preferred concert seating, complimentary valet parking and a tax deduction. Call 314-533-9900 for this part of the event.

His amazing vocal prowess and technique might be best summed up by the copy posted on his website, www.bobbymcferrin.com, which appears when you click on the link, “Who’s Bobby?” It reads: “Listening to Bobby McFerrin sing may be hazardous to your preconceptions. Side effects may include unparalleled joy, a new perspective on creativity, rejection of the predictable, and a sudden, irreversible urge to lead a more spontaneous existence.”

But despite McFerrin’s unbridled and wide-ranging creativity, he’s undoubtedly best known for a little ditty he recorded in 1988: “Don’t Worry, be Happy.” That unrelentingly infectious song spring boarded him to international fame – and three of his current total of 10 Grammy awards.

The incredible success of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” didn’t typecast McFerrin. He refused to follow up that song with another mainstream-directed tune – deliberately choosing to pursue challenging new musical directions with “Medicine Music,” which featured a 10-member a cappella choir, Voicestra.

McFerrin returns to St. Louis this Thursday, April 25, for a performance at the Sheldon Concert Hall – a venue he played in the late 1980s at the height of his “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” success.

Robert McFerrin Sr.
Robert McFerrin Sr.

An audio recording of 'Deep River' is on YouTube.

McFerrin will be touring to promote a new recording. “SpiritYouAll,” set for release on May 14 and inspired by his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., who grew up in St. Louis and achieved fame as the first black singer at the New York Metropolitan Opera. The senior McFerrin returned to St. Louis in later life and lived here until his death in 2006 at the age of 85.

The track list on “SpiritYouAll” includes seven stirring versions of classic spirituals, included three -- “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Fix Me Jesus” and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” -- that were recorded by Robert McFerrin on his classic 1957 album, “Deep River.” But the CD also includes five originals by Bobby McFerrin that bring in elements of blues, folk and soul. A cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall be Released” completes its musical lineup.

Recently, I asked Bobby McFerrin about the new recording, his current tour, and the inspiration he found in his father’s love of spirituals. McFerrin was already on tour, but was able to respond to my questions via e-mail while flying to a performance in Detroit.

Perkins: What prompted you to record “SpiritYouAll” at this time in your career?

McFerrin: The idea for an album paying tribute to my dad has been around for a long time. So has the idea of an album that paid more attention to the rock/roots/folk side of the way I hear things. So has the idea of an album of music about faith. Finally all those ideas came together. I guess it was just time.

Perkins: Your father was clearly a major inspiration for recording “SpiritYouAll” Can you talk about the influence the spirituals you heard him sing when you were young had on your musical frame of reference and direction?

McFerrin: When I was growing up, I was both fascinated and intimidated by the incredible focus and discipline my father had about music. I still am. And once I started to think of myself as a singer, I finally really appreciated the incredible beauty of his voice.

When he was getting ready to record his album “Deep River,” I remember watching him practice. Hall Johnson would come over to the house -- my dad toured with his group -- and I knew he was an expert on the spirituals, and I knew his grandmother had been a slave and was freed. He had really strong opinions about exactly how the songs should be sung, how to pronounce certain words, where to hang behind the beat.

Above: McFerrin and Esperanza Spalding

See also: The Power of the Pentatonic Scale and My Favorite Things

I don't sing the songs exactly like that, my dad already did that better than I ever could. I had to find my own way. But of course it was all a big influence on me.

Perkins: Who is your band for this tour?

McFerrin: Gil Goldstein on accordion and keyboards, David Mansfield and Armand Hirsch on all kinds of guitars and stuff, Louis Cato on drums and background vocals, and Jeff Carney on bass. And of course the audience, we always get the audience singing!”

Perkins: I understand from reading reviews of your March concerts in London that your daughter, Madison, sang with you there. Is she on the U.S. tour as well?

McFerrin: Madison sang with us in London, and it was great. She's still in school, so she can't come for the whole tour, but she'll do four more shows with us this year. My kids are very talented. Taylor and Madison are both musicians, and Jevon is an actor. I'm going to do a duo concert with Taylor in June.”

Perkins: How has the tour been going?

McFerrin: “It's been fantastic. I feel like I'm enveloped in all this beautiful sound. After so much touring by myself it's an incredible feeling. And traveling around the U.S. has been really heartwarming. Families have been coming together, parents and little kids and hipster teens and grandmas. Love that!

Perkins: From reviews I’ve read on this tour, you are clearly featuring the new recording while leaving plenty of room for spontaneity in the set list. Your willingness to take chances and love of improvisation seems to be a real joy for you in your performances. Was that there from the beginning of your career?

McFerrin: Absolutely. I want the audience to leave with that feeling, the feeling of joy and freedom I get when I sing, the feeling that anything might happen next.

Perkins: I remember a wonderful concert at the Sheldon here in St. Louis in the late 1980s when you shared the stage with your father. Returning to the Sheldon to perform this month… are there any special memories you have of that concert?

McFerrin: That was the first and only time all the McFerrins shared a stage. My mom and my dad and my sister and me. We had a great time.

Perkins: What’s on your agenda after this tour that you might like to mention?

McFerrin: I have some goals. I think it's important to keep setting goals. But I'm keeping them to myself for now!

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