Bobby McFerrin has a mantel overflowing with Grammy awards and platinum records. He has traveled the continents, conducted dozens of the world's great orchestras in classical programs, improvised with the greatest names in jazz and classical music in the finest concert halls, and led his Voicestra choir. But on Saturday, September 11 at 8 p.m., he comes home (he may not have lived in the Bay Area since 1994, but he's still ours) to do what only he can -- stand alone onstage for an entire concert and make everyone glad to be alive.
The solo McFerrin show is the special event kicking off Cal Performances' fall season at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall (tickets $32-$68, 510-642-9988). When he started out in the jazz and cabaret scene in San Francisco, he had no role model for his vision of slapping time with one hand on his chest while allowing the muse to sing whatever came spontaneously through him. McFerrin was already a Bay Area favorite when he recorded a voice-only album, Simple Pleasures, in 1988, multitracking all the parts himself. One song from it, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," soon climbed to No. 1 on the pop charts in nearly every country in the world.
While McFerrin's solo shows are never planned, there are two things he does know: Somewhere, probably as an encore, he'll do his wild ten-minute version of Wizard of Oz where he acts out all the characters and sings all the parts. And he won't sing "Don't Worry, Be Happy." McFerrin admitted in a phone call from his current home near Philadelphia (shared with his wife of nearly thirty years, Debbie, and their twelve-year-old daughter; two older sons live in New York City): "I haven't sung it since November of 1988 at Davies Symphony Hall. I've made one decision about solo performing. The very first piece is off-the-cuff. It's a rule that it's never a tune I know. It could last from one to 25 minutes. I try to be as relaxed and nonchalant as when I'm singing around the house. I won't look at the audience. I'll just start singing, so I am not performing for them. Of course the audience is there, and I am onstage, and I'll be up there for ninety minutes. I've been doing solo work for 21 years, so it's no longer scary like in the beginning, but it's always challenging, and I still get nervous."
The son of opera singers (his father provided the singing voice for Sidney Poitier in the film version of Porgy and Bess), McFerrin was raised in the Episcopal Church and considered the ministry before music took over his life. That musical-spiritual relationship is the foundation of everything he does. His talent for expressing joy and wonder at the mystery of life has made him beloved the world over, whether singing a reverent 23rd Psalm or turning a rock song into a stand-up comedy act.
"Music is medicine," McFerrin explained. "As a kid when I was sick in bed, my mother would bring me medicine and music. I'd take the aspirin or whatever, and she'd turn on the radio, usually to a classical station. I learned the medicinal properties of music, and so onstage the goal is that we take this medicine for the soul and leave the concert in a more elevated state than when we entered."
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