The son of opera singers (his father was the first black man to perform regularly with the Metropolitan Opera), Bobby McFerrin was born in New York City. In 1958 his family moved to Los Angeles. McFerrin attended Sacramento State University and Cerritos College, but dropped out to play piano for the Ice Follies. Over the next few years, he played keyboard with lounge acts and for dance troupes. In 1977 McFerrin decided, suddenly, to become a singer. "I was in a quiet moment when a simple thought just came into my head: ‘Why don’. you sing?’ It was as simple as that, but it must have had some force behind it because I acted on it immediately," he explained to Bourne. He sang with various bands and was eventually discovered by singer Jon Hendricks. While on tour with Hendricks, McFerrin was again discovered—this time by comedian Bill Cosby.
Through Cosby, McFerrin was booked in Las Vegas and at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles. He later performed at New York’s Kool Jazz Festival and began touring or recording with such jazz greats as George Benson and Herbie Hancock. In 1982 he released his first album, Bobby McFerrin.His fans were disappointed: "He sang with some of his vocal pyrotechnics fully alight," Horizon’s Leslie Gourse wrote, "but he had loud electronic instrumental accompaniment that essentially was pop." McFerrin learned from his mistake; his next effort, The Voice, was widely praised. Recorded live during a solo concert tour of Germany, the album is all a cappella and displays the singer’s virtuosity. "McFerrin coaxes up a daffy assortment of vocal effects and characterizations on The Voice," Francis Davis noted in Rolling Stone. "His circular breathing technique enables him to sing while inhaling and exhaling, thus allowing him to be his own background choir on ‘Blackbird’.and T. J.’ He slaps himself into a percussive frenzy on ‘I Feel Good’.and creates the sound of static between frequencies on ‘I’. My Own Walkman.’"
Bobby McFerrin is one of the natural wonders of the music world. A ten-time Grammy Award winner, he is one of the world's best-known vocal innovators and improvisers, a world-renowned classical conductor, the creator of “Don't Worry Be Happy”, one of the most popular songs of the late 20th century, and a passionate spokesman for music education. His recordings have sold over 20 million copies, and his collaborations including those with with Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Herbie Hancock have established him as an ambassador of both the classical and jazz worlds.
With a four-octave range and a vast array of vocal techniques, McFerrin is no mere singer; he is music's last true Renaissance man, a vocal explorer who has combined jazz, folk and a multitude of world music influences - choral, a cappella, and classical music - with his own ingredients. As a conductor, Bobby is able to convey his innate musicality in an entirely different context. He has worked with such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic.
'Unconventional' is a good way to describe the career of Bobby McFerrin. Those familiar with McFerrin's shows, whether as a conductor or a vocalist, know that each one is a unique event that resonates with the unexpected. He is that rare artist who has the ability to reach beyond musical genres and stereotypes for a sound that is entirely his own. As one of the foremost guardians of music's rich heritage, he remains at the vanguard with his natural, beautiful and timeless music that transcends all borders and embraces all cultures.
McFerrin's first recorded work, the self-titled album Bobby McFerrin, was not produced until 1982, when McFerrin was already 32 years old. Before that, he had spent six years developing his musical style, the first two years of which he attempted not to listen to other singers at all, in order to avoid sounding like them. He was influenced by Keith Jarrett, who had achieved great success with a series of improvised piano concerts (most famously The Köln Concert of 1975), and wanted to attempt something similar vocally.
In 1986, McFerrin was the voice of Santa Bear in Santa Bear's First Christmas, and in 1987 he was the voice of Santa Bear/Bully Bear in the sequel Santa Bear's High Flying Adventure. That same year, he performed the theme song for the opening credits of Season 4 of The Cosby Show, as well as the music for a Cadbury chocolate commercial.
In 1988, McFerrin recorded the hit song "Don't Worry, Be Happy", which brought him widespread recognition across the world. However, the song's success "ended McFerrin's musical life as he had known it," and he began to pursue other musical possibilities – on stage and in recording studios. The song was used in George H. W. Bush's 1988 U.S. presidential election as Bush's 1988 official presidential campaign song, without Bobby McFerrin's permission or endorsement. In reaction, Bobby McFerrin publicly protested that particular use of his song, including stating that he was going to vote against Bush, and completely dropped the song from his own performance repertoire, to make the point even clearer.