I have no idea about Bobby McFerrin’s net worth. A quickie Google search tosses out an estimate of $4 million as of 2019. That means he probably won’t have to be busking on street corners to feed himself in his old age, but if even close to accurate, it is certainly no great shakes in the firmament of the uber rich, even within his own rarefied world of popular singers and entertainers. (Bruce Springsteen: $500 million, Jay-Z: $1.4 billion, Tom Hanks: $400 million).
But capital comes in many forms, and to survey McFerrin’s life and body of work is to behold wealth of such staggering proportions as to make a lie of any list proclaiming “The World’s Richest People” that does not include his name.
There we were, bouncing around the kitchen, caught up in McFerrin’s infectiously playful spirit that is unafraid to bend music to his utterly unique sensibilities of vocal play.
Freed from material want and able to commit his entire life force to the creativity that propels it, McFerrin could serve as a kind of poster child for humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” schematic from the 1970s.
According to Maslow, the human project is to navigate through successive levels of actualization, starting from basic biological survival, working through psychological and relationship needs, then ending in ultimate personal fulfillment and its crown of self-transcendence.
Picture Buddha, coyly singing McFerrin’s monster 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which almost embarrassingly propelled him to a kind of fame he never sought but which also freed him financially to finally get on with answering the siren call of his deepest creative expression.
Thirty+ years later, McFerrin is revered worldwide by multiple generations of devoted, rhapsodic fans, not to mention his fellow musicians. To him would flow the ultimate compliment one sometimes hears at memorial services: “Has anyone ever said a bad word about Bobby McFerrin?”
Married for 45 years, he has three grown children with flourishing music careers of their own. While he has never stopped making the inimitable solo music that is his hallmark, he also finds time to conduct various choral ensembles and even symphony orchestras in a manner that reminds no one of Leonard Bernstein, but which fits like the proverbial glove with his singular artistic vision.
And underneath it all, a quietly avowed religious sensibility that comes through every joy-bathed concert and interview.
To be sure, McFerrin seems to have been born under an acute alignment of stars. He is the son of two classically trained singers, his father the first African American to sing with the New York Metropolitan Opera, and his mother, a singer and musical polymath in her own right, ultimately becoming a college vocal music professor in California. Whether McFerrin’s particular genius owes more to his genetic endowment or early environment is better left to one of those spirited armchair debates with no possible resolution, but suffice to say music has saturated his entire life, no doubt beginning in his mother’s womb.
And let us say this, too: No one rises to McFerrin’s station of professional supremacy, no matter their genes or upbringings, without the huge amounts of commitment, sweat and toil that act as essential finishing agents to whatever good fortune smiled upon them at birth.
Nominally an Episcopalian from his youth but much more “a spiritual person who follows Christ, who follows Jesus as my spiritual master,” he told the Washington Post in 2013, McFerrin regards his singing as prayer, an offering of his heart, from the very core of who he most is. He speaks in calm and humble—if frequently humorous— tones, hearkening back to his father as a model during a 2018 podcast with the musician and producer Questlove:
“I used to go to my father’s recitals, and he always ended with Negro spirituals. He had a way on stage where he invited an audience in. It was really genuine and comforting.. I felt that the best thing for me to be on stage was to be as relaxed as possible…You have to relax your audience. They have to feel very comfortable with you. And I allow them to be participants with me, so it isn’t only myself singing, but it’s the audience engaged and singing along with me. So my solo technique is more about us than me.”
McFerrin doesn’t remember when he wasn’t singing. Not for him the plebeian childhood concerns about whether to become a firefighter, doctor or programmer. But it surprises many people to know he was hardly the overnight, beloved musical success he seems to have been since about forever. (Like him, I also have trouble remembering when he wasn’t singing.)
Born in 1950, he had hardly even seeped, much less burst, into popular consciousness through his 20s, during which he supported himself playing cover songs in clubs and serving as an occasional sideman or backup singer. But all the while, he had been honing his craft of astonishing vocalise, exploring and experimenting with the question of just what could be done with the human voice and the four-octave range he was harnessing in preparation for a solo career that would be heavy on improvisation and audience engagement.
His inspiration from afar: the solo pianist Keith Jarrett, who was attracting wide acclaim at the time for sitting down at his grand piano without an idea in his head about what he would play or how he would play it, and then waiting to see which keys his fingers and his soul felt compelled to strike. All while thousands of people had paid good money to sit in front of him and listen.
McFerrin’s eponymous debut album met with mild success and a place in my collection as he was turning 32. One couldn’t help but admire the sheer audacity of someone trying to cover Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” but McFerrin aced it.
Ditto for the swooping and spiraling “Dance With Me,” no doubt making good on its invitation to most everyone who heard it. There we were, bouncing around the kitchen, caught up in McFerrin’s infectiously playful spirit that is unafraid to bend music to his utterly unique sensibilities of vocal play.
Another prime example of exactly that is here below, his voice-and-body-as-instrument approach achieving a kind of apotheosis that surely had Paul McCartney, another rich man beyond conventional imagining, beaming in delight. Bird-flutterings with tongue, cheeks and lips, anyone?
In a long-ago interview with an online magazine, McFerrin was asked, “Movies you’re fond of?”
Came the four-word answer, “Anything with Fred Astaire.”
I knew Bobby McFerrin was a man of my own heart from the very first, but truly, that answer seals it. Astaire, whose work we cited here just weeks ago, was every bit the body-instrumentalist too, though his primary expression was through movement rather than song. (A fine singer himself, however.)
And like McFerrin, an avowedly religious man, an Episcopalian convert, his basic decency adorned with astonishing talent and a sincere desire to share the joy of it with all who might gather round him.
It’s a shame their careers didn’t overlap; I could see them dueting, trading lines back and forth in a rich musical banter as Astaire glides intermittently away, McFerrin accompanying him through one octave and another, up, down and sideways, in an artistic meeting where the human body is exalted, in all its expressive potential and need, food for the deep soulfulness that yearns for others to join in, a circle unbroken and joyful amidst the clamor of the world.
A McFerrin original here, written in 1990 and conducted many times since as a tribute to his mother, who died in 2019 at age 95.
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