Stories » Bobby McFerrin's Musical Tribute to His Father - Wall Street Journal piece

Top 10 for Aug

Bobby McFerrin's Musical Tribute to His Father - Wall Street Journal piece

Bookmark and Share

WALL STREET JOURNAL
Bobby McFerrin's Musical Tribute to His Father.
By JOHN JURGENSEN


At the WSJ Cafe, Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Bobby McFerrin performs an original song from his album "Spirityouall," which also includes his reinterpretation of such traditionals as "Swing Low."

Almost anything gets Bobby McFerrin to make music. He created a rhythmic popping sound with his mouth while walking a hall during a recent interview, then he sang a little fanfare to the clacking tempo of a passing woman's high heels.

Bobby McFerrin, known for a capella, worked with a band this time.

His famously agile voice box has filtered music from around the world and multiple genres, from jazz to classical, but the Grammy-winning singer found the source for his latest project at home. Due Tuesday, "Spirityouall" is a collection of Christian spirituals inspired not only by Mr. McFerrin's personal faith, but also by recordings his musician father made 56 years ago. (You can hear two songs from the album at WSJ.com/Speakeasy.)

Robert McFerrin Sr. was the first black male principal singer to join the New York Metropolitan Opera, in 1955. He later dubbed Sidney Poitier's singing parts in the Hollywood version of "Porgy and Bess." He was also a celebrated interpreter of the Negro spiritual. A few years after joining the Met he released a collection titled "Deep River."

Mr. McFerrin reworked three songs from that album for "Spirityouall," including "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and his rendering of these standards is anything but traditional. To demonstrate his father's version of "Everytime I Feel the Spirit," the singer rapped his fingertips on a table, mimicking the measured rhythm of a piano. "It's a very gospel-y, very tent-meeting kind of sound," he said. The son's take is breezy folk and bluegrass, in which his voice spills into a scatting call-and-response with singer Esperanza Spalding. She also plays bass on the album, which includes a cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."

Though he has conducted symphony orchestras and collaborated with everyone from Chick Corea to Yo-Yo Ma, Mr. McFerrin is best known as a one-man band who pinballs his voice through four octaves or uses it for percussion. In 1988, his surprise smash "Don't Worry Be Happy" became the first a cappella track to hit No. 1. And for his most recent album, 2010's "Vocabularies," he joined with more than 50 international vocalists. On "Spirityouall," layered overdubs of his voice sometimes create a choir effect, but the album marks the first time he has recorded with a band in over a decade.

A trembling slide guitar sets the blues tone of "25:15," one of Mr. McFerrin's five original songs on the album. The title and repeated lyric-"Don't you know that my eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare"-come from the Book of Psalms. For Mr. McFerrin, who spends at least two hours each morning reading the Bible and praying in his home studio in Philadelphia, the song's melody sprang from his effort to memorize a longer passage with his usual method of singing it in his head. Even before "25:15" got the blues treatment, he sometimes performed it during solo vocal concerts. "It's very fluid. You can start singing the phrase at any point in the song," he said.

Mr. McFerrin grew up Episcopalian in Los Angeles, where he sang hymns of the Church of England. As a young boy, he first learned the American spirituals passed down from slaves from his father, who studied them with mentor Hall Johnson, a composer and choral director who dedicated his career to preserving the legacy of those songs. "I can still see my dad sitting at the piano bench and Hall instructing him on how to sing these pieces and what they meant," Mr. McFerrin said.

Sara McFerrin, Bobby's 88-year-old mother, recalls long sessions with Johnson "pointing his finger straight at Bob [Sr.] and beating the time out. He worked very slowly and he talked a long time." She added, "His grandparents were slaves. He would sort of paint the picture for us."

Robert McFerrin, whose "Deep River" album is now a collector's item, died in 2006, after a decline from Alzheimer's disease. "He lost all of his memory except for his music," said his son. "He could sing anything, but he just couldn't speak to you."

A version of this article appeared May 10, 2013, on page D8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Bobby McFerrin's Musical Tribute to His Father.