‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ Singer Is Back, NPR once declared that the 1989 hit song ended Bobby McFerrin’s musical life as he had known it. Whatever Happened to Bobby McFerrin? Don’t Worry, He’s Happy, For a while in the ’90s, before the public knew to turn to Snopes.com on such matters, an urban legend persisted that the song’s originator, Bobby McFerrin, had committed suicide. Surely a song that cheerful could only lead to a heavily ironic end, no?
The No. 1 hit that won the Record and Song of the Year awards at the 1989 Grammys also began turning up in strangely post-apocalyptic contexts. It was used in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, and in Wall-E, where the title robot has a Big Mouth Billy Bass mounted fish that sings McFerrin’s jolly tune amid the dystopian depression. There was only one explanation for this: The song made people so unbearably happy that the only antidote was to associate it with deep unhappiness, whether that involved suicide or the end of the world.
NPR.com wrote a few years ago that the song “ended McFerrin’s musical life as he had known it.” But his real life? Hardly. And his music was, if anything, born again as he balked at trying to make good on that fluke success with another hit-instead resolving to delve deeper into richer brands of outside-the-mainstream music, even if that meant most pop fans only knew him as a one-hit wonder.
So if you like truly happy endings (as opposed to “Be Happy” endings), McFerrin’s ability to thrive as a cultural explorer while going off the pop-culture radar makes for a fine cap to his story.
This week, he returns with a new recording, spiritYOUall, which is-as the punny title suggests-a gospel album. But if you’re thinking gospel means good news, and good news means fast-tempo fun, the collection has more grit and gravity than that. Along with some originals, he covers religious/humanist songs ranging from the Negro-spiritual era on up to Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”; sometimes playing with scatted vocals in his jazzy trademark way, but sometimes going for more of a bluesy, earthy, Americana feel. He’s joined by another big Grammy winner, Esperanza Spalding, for duet and harmony parts, as well as a full band. The days of a cappella overdubbing and one-man-bandsmanship are behind him, for now.
Though the stereotype created by his monster hit has McFerrin being Mr. A Cappella, it shouldn’t come as such a shock that he records with instrumentalists if you know his background. He started out as a pianist and didn’t even think about becoming a singer until 1977, when he was 27, though he “always had a nagging suspicion that I wasn’t a pianist,” he said. Thinking about recording without any accompaniment took another six years beyond that. In 1983, he began performing full 90-minute sets that consisted just of his voice, along with body language and body percussion.