In this last tumultuous semester of my UT undergrad tenure, February melted into March in a haze of Menthols. The only indication to my bleary eyes behind smudged Ray-Bans was my desk piling up with empties of Ruby Red grapefruit juice. Scurrying to myriad appointments, a familiar whistling rang in my ears. Look at Bobby McFerrin – he’s still happy.
As soon as McFerrin’s show tonight popped up on the Bass Concert Hall website, I starting jamming the now 64-year-old icon. Missed the bus? Call on Bobby.
Last Friday, when I triple booked myself in three different parts of town, I thought: “When you worry your face will frown/ That will bring everybody down.” Sure enough, my head bobbed and my feet swung for weeks. The native New Yorker’s a capella life coaching remains infectious. Fall 1988 – the year of George Michael and Rick Astley – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” danced up the charts, the first song of its kind to do so.
Watching the video with Bill Irwin and a mustachioed Robin Williams cracking up at the camera, I can’t whistle around my grin. McFerrin sings to the camera in a white tux with a glimmering golden bowtie. During those moments, it felt like the biggest problem I had was starting the song up again.
No one-hit wonder after his 1982 eponymous debut, McFerrin won 10 Grammys that decade, half in the jazz category. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was essentially his first and last foray into pop music. I’ve always has a strong suspicion the mega-hit wasn’t accidental.
Scoping out his discography, I started digging into McFerrin’s collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, his multi-tonal voice chirping alongside the string-bending maestro. Released in 1992 – the year I was born – Hush is typical McFerrin. He never treads on his musical partners.
In this latest tour 20 years later, McFerrin performs his 2013 release, Spirityouall. My lips twisted with pleasure when I saw he recorded the first two tracks with jazz bassist and Austinite-for-the-briefest-moment Esperanza Spalding. Her rumbling standup is the perfect match to McFerrin’s nimble note hopping.
Vocal talent is one thing, but who has a voice like Bobby McFerrin? It’s not just his instrument, but the way he uses it so dexterously that knocks me flat. It’s like Nina Simone’s scat at the end of “Feeling Good” – her release at the culmination of three minutes of pure joy.
Except McFerrin doesn’t even make you wait three minutes. His art thrives outside the pop box he dominated 30 years ago. Pharrell Williams used the same formula in blowing up the airwaves with his jubilant “Happy.”
Maybe we’re all just suckers for a little positive reinforcement. No matter how well worn the theme, I’ll choose McFerrin any day.
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