NEW YORK — For Bobby McFerrin, breaking new ground has always been synonymous with his music.
His concerts are a mixed bag of musical styles drawing from jazz, classical, blues and numerous others. He's performed unaccompanied, scatting and riffing with his four-octave range, and, at times, even used his entire body to make percussive sounds.
Yet most people know him for the feel-good a cappella tune “Don't Worry Be Happy,” even though the 63-year singer says he hasn't played the song in its entirety since 1988.
“The fans that come to my shows are excited with the music that I'm making, so they understand when I don't play it,” McFerrin admits.
The 10-time Grammy Award-winning musician recently released his 14th album, “spirityouall,” a CD that's dedicated it to the legacy of his father, the former Metropolitan Opera star Robert McFerrin Sr.
The senior McFerrin, who died at age 85 in 2006, had a distinguished career as both a performer and educator. He also provided the singing voice for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 film version of “Porgy and Bess.”
The new record combines a unique selection of Americana, covering such classics as “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” as well as African-American spirituals.
“I wanted to honor him with some of the music he was known for,” he says.
McFerrin remembers his father as a kind, yet tough man, especially when it came to his students. “He was nice, but he wouldn't sugarcoat anything,” he says.
“After a student sang for my father, he wouldn't say, 'Oh, that was nice, but ... .' He would pretty much say, 'I didn't like that,' and immediately ask, 'Where were you breathing?,' or 'Do you know what that note means to the song?'” McFerrin recalls.
“If a student had him for a private lesson, it would be doubtful that they would finish the song by the time the lesson ended. He would pick apart everything they did, and, while it was frustrating, they would become better singers. I've seen my father turn decent voices into very good ones by his technique.”
Despite a stroke in 1989, the elder McFerrin appeared on his son's 1990 album, “Medicine Music,” and was a soloist with the St. Louis Symphony in 1993 with his son as guest conductor.
The younger McFerrin might be best known for “Don't Worry Be Happy,” but he's got a powerful range and an uncanny ability to make music with anything.
“My shows are about music. It's classical. It's jazz. Negro spirituals. And the audience is a part of it, too,” he says.
McFerrin says his father was proud of him for writing a hit song that reached so many people. But asked if that song was more a blessing or a curse, McFerrin sees it as a little of both.
“Actually more of a blessing,” he corrects himself.
“Sometimes I go on YouTube and look to see what the fans are putting up from my shows, and I see the number of people that are checking it out. Without that song, I don't think they'd know who I am.”