Some children make mouth noises and sounds by slapping their bodies--which delights them and drives their mothers crazy. Bobby McFerrin does it now, at age 38, and makes a living at it.
Right now, he's on a 35-city tour as a "rhythmic one-man orchestra," promoting his new EMI-Manhattan record, "Simple Pleasures," just the way the rock stars do.
He isn't rock, although five of the tunes on "Simple Pleasures" are rock songs from the 1950s and '60s. He composed the other five. And he says he isn't jazz, although he improvises and a lot of people first got to know him through jazz. He sang at jazz festivals, toured with Dizzy Gillespie, sang "Round Midnight" for the movie, sounding like a muted trumpet. He also sings the "Cosby Show" theme.
McFerrin says: "I'm trying to expand people's awareness of what I do. I hope my appeal is greater than to jazz fans only. I really like this record. I want it to sell well."
Most songs on the album, his fourth, are overdubbed three times, for lyrics, bass and other harmony. Hearing it, and the Young Rascals' hit "Good Lovin'," with nine overdubs in which McFerrin becomes a whole backup group, one wonders how he could perform alone in concert. Hearing him in concert, running around the stage, being the tornado, the Munchkins and a treble for "Over the Rainbow," one wonders how he does it without overdubs.
"It's almost like being a character actor," McFerrin says. "When I recorded 'Elephant's Child,' I had them bring in plants for jungle stuff. I took off my shirt, socks and shoes. I think of it in that sense--playing characters."
It was Herbie Hancock's idea to have McFerrin instead of an instrumentalist perform "Round Midnight" for the film. McFerrin says: "I always aim for an attitude. It's the key to finding the dynamic--the way to sing the piece. I knew what 'Round Midnight' was about. I was trying to get a lazy, blues-y, smoky sound. It only took three or four takes."
His work-in-progress of Dale Hawkins' 1957 hit "Suzie Q" is on the new album.
"I don't think there is any song I couldn't use my technique for," he says. "Some are a lot harder to figure out. I've been working on 'Suzie Q,' getting to the essence of it."
McFerrin was born March 11, 1950, in New York. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 8. His father, Robert McFerrin, sang while Sidney Poitier acted Porgy in the "Porgy and Bess" movie. His mother, Sara McFerrin, is chairman of the voice department at Fullerton College in Orange County.
As a college student, McFerrin studied theory, composition and counterpoint. He decided he wanted to compose; however, that interest waned. He toured with bands as a pianist for four years.
"I was traveling with a Top 40 lounge band and when I got to Springfield, Ill., the last city on the eight-month tour, I met Debbie, who became my wife. I moved to Illinois and studied conducting with Dan Raunig in Springfield in 1975." The McFerrins married that year. They have two young sons, Taylor and Jevon.
McFerrin suddenly decided to become a singer. "My first move was to find work as a singer in the most available place--piano bars. I did that about a year and a half. I never really sang songs straight. I was always playing with them. I used to do 'Misty' as an a cappella piece and 'Feelings' as a samba.
"We visited friends in Baton Rouge and on the way to a bar piano gig in Naples, Fla., we stopped in New Orleans," McFerrin recalls. He went to hear the Astral Project in a Bourbon Street club. "They blew me away," he says. "They were one of the best bands I'd ever heard. They didn't have a singer. I asked if I could sit in. We hit it off musically and a few months later I was working with them."
Seven months after that, the McFerrins moved to San Francisco. Right away, in 1980, McFerrin met Jon Hendricks, and sat in with his family vocal quartet. Six weeks later Hendricks invited him into the group to replace his son, who was leaving.
In 1981, McFerrin was on the Kool Jazz Festival's "art of jazz singing" program. "From that, I recorded my first record and started touring."
"Musicians and well-meaning friends thought everybody would brush it off as a novelty act and wouldn't be able to listen after 10 minutes," McFerrin says. "My wife believed in me. I don't think I entertained serious doubts. Even when negative thoughts would come in, they would be met by the optimistic side of me."
McFerrin sometimes asks audiences for suggestions for improvisations. One night somebody suggested "The Wizard of Oz," which he has continued doing and has extended from three or four minutes to eight or 10 minutes.
He wants his audiences to feel "Joy. Fun. Lightness." His ideas come, he says, "out of a clear blue sky. Zip. Zop."
McFerrin recently scored his first TV show, "The Bronx Zoo."
His plans for the future include putting together an eight to 12-member "voicestra," which he says would be a vehicle for him to write vocal music.
"I'll be in it and conduct it for a while. Ultimately, they could go out and perform. I could stay home."