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“Don’t Worry Be Happy” Revisited: A Little Song Bobby McFerrin Wrote Topped The Charts 30 Years Ago This Week

If you’re going to use the Hot 100 to discern the state of radio-listening (and streaming) Americans, it’s generally better to consider the chart in aggregate, rather than focusing on the top. I think of it like this: Any given chart run has a certain chemical makeup, depending on whatever fumes (infatuation, joy, nostalgia, longing) our creaking capitalist system is belching out at the moment. The big hits, though, are special. If something lands just right, it can live within the mood, extend it, and even infest other areas. “Kokomo,” which I wrote about in the summer, was like that. This anodyne ode to middle-class escape fulfilled its own prophecy: Folks deluged Key West with calls, looking for the mythical Kokomo. Marketers were happy to oblige, renaming bars and resorts in a bid to snare some of this longing. Hardly anyone plays the song anymore, but it still represents something to a certain cohort, even as the movie whose soundtrack it graced — Cocktail — is barely remembered.

Still, “Kokomo” was but the second Cocktail selection to pull this off. Six weeks before it topped the Hot 100, Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” became the ultimate left-field #1, 30 years ago this week. The first chart-topper without any instrumentation, it sounded, almost by definition, unlike anything else on the radio. (Haters of UB40’s “Red Red Wine,” which hit #1 a month later, may disagree.) Like “Kokomo,” “Don’t Worry” was created by the product of a musical family, offered ersatz island flavor, and promised some sort of getaway from modern ills. (As such, it was anathema to Chuck D, who dissed the song in Public Enemy’s earthshaking “Fight The Power.”) Unlike the Beach Boys, however, McFerrin essentially declined to attempt a suitable follow-up. Already a Grammy-garlanded jazz musician, he quickly returned to that world rather than, say, guesting on Baywatch.

Such a move would have been hard to explain to his parents. McFerrin grew up in an august musical environment; his mother Sara was a soloist at the McFerrins’ Episcopalian church. And Robert Sr. was a renowned opera singer and voice instructor. Born in 1921 as the son of a traveling Baptist preacher, Robert Sr. attracted notice at an early age for his singing ability. Still, his goal was to teach English, and when he auditioned for his high school choir, it was reluctantly. The choir director recognized his talent, offering private instruction that included classical vocal technique. (As part of his training regimen, he warned Robert away from gospel and pop.) His studies at Chicago Musical College were interrupted by the draft; after a three-year stint in the Army he returned to complete his degree.

After college, Robert performed on Broadway and with a number of opera companies before setting his sights on the big prize. In 1953, he won a contest sponsored by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The prize included further training and, eventually a contract — though, as a black singer, he was skeptical about his prospects. “I might win the damn thing,” he recalled thinking before entering, “and I would not know what to do.” His intuition was correct: He undertook more than a year of training with no contract offered. It wasn’t until December 1954 that the Met’s general manager, Rudolf Hess, signed him to the roster. A month later, he made his debut as Amonasro, the king of Ethiopia, in Verdi’s “Aida”: the first black man to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Bobby was four.

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In his father, Bobby found the best instructor; in his son, Robert found a capable student. Bobby’s mother recalled him, as a young boy, tapping out the time to his father’s piano playing. Fortunately for him, Robert didn’t follow his choir director’s instructions to leave non-classical music alone: With the help of venerable conductor and arranger Hall Johnson, he taught his son spirituals from the black American church. Bobby could also draw on his family’s collection of classical recordings, as well as the parade of aspiring singers that passed through his living room. Still, when it came time to strike his own musical path, McFerrin stuck with the piano. He was just a high schooler when he formed the Bobby Mack Quartet, and left college when he got a job as the Ice Follies’ touring organist.

McFerrin spend a good chunk of the ’70s in the gigging life: performing for dance rehearsals, playing in lounges. One day, he was working out an arrangement of Joan Armatrading’s “Opportunity” for his group at the time: He found himself vocally pinging between topline and groove, and filed the experience away. As he tells it, the thunderclap of inspiration finally struck on a walk home. While he thought focusing on vocals would make him a better improviser, and a better collaborator, he was also enamored with the work of Keith Jarrett, the jazz titan most famous for his solo piano music.

It took a few years of singing in an empty room before McFerrin felt comfortable singing in front of others, and a few years after that before he booked his first solo gig. His break arrived in 1981, after a performance at New York’s Kool Jazz Festival — “probably the only concert in America,” quipped the Washington Post, “that comes with a warning from the Surgeon General.” He performed alongside heavy hitters like Carmen McRae and Johnny Hartman for the showcase “The Art Of Jazz Singing.” The Times’ coverage noted that “[a]ll the singers are well established except Mr. McFerrin.” Nevertheless, his performance earned him a contract with Elektra Records, and he made his recording debut the next year, at the age of 32.

Bobby McFerrin was largely a sop to the times, opening with an Orleans cover and featuring a duet with Phoebe Snow. But on the penultimate track, the instrument-absent “Hallucinations,” he gave a taste of the jazz to come, dubbing a vocal duet filled with bassy pops and trumpet-style trills. 1984’s The Voice (recorded during a series of live dates in Germany) jumped from that into unprecedented realms: It was the first jazz record performed without instruments, and — even more crucially — without overdubs. McFerrin’s technique was in full flower. These were not melismatic workouts, though McFerrin, as people say, had the range. They were full-bodied songs, with McFerrin jumping from basslines to melodic flights and back again in a blink. He had chops, he had charisma, and he had groove. Listen to his “Blackbird” cover and you can hear the, uh, roots of Rahzel’s beatbox showstopper “If Your Mother Only Knew.” (The nonpareil Roots Crew member has cited McFerrin has his primary non-rap inspiration.)

The industry noticed. He won five Grammys in three years, an impressive haul even granting the diminished state of jazz in the ’80s. The music was entering its conservatorship phase: Players moved from clubs to festivals and concert halls; smooth jazz and revivalism ruled the day. You made your money where you could. One of those Grammys was for providing the music to a forgotten Rudyard Kipling adaptation narrated by Jack Nicholson. In 1987, he re-recorded The Cosby Show’s theme for its fourth season. (Cosby had given McFerrin an early break by getting him added to 1980’s Playboy Jazz Festival.) Around the release of his fourth solo LP, 1988’s Simple Pleasures, he inked deals to appear in commercials for Levi’s and Ocean Spray. Simple Pleasures was itself a commercial move: Half the record is covers of pop/rock classics in his inimitable style.

But none of those moves got him anything like the fame of Simple Pleasures’ leadoff cut. McFerrin had been rattling the bones of the tune in live performances for some time: a little melody, a title he’d chanced upon while walking in New York.

It was a phrase popularized by Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master who had developed a sizable American following prior to his death in 1969. I say “phrase” and not “saying” because, in 1925, Meher Baba ceased speaking. “Don’t worry, be happy” was something he would send his Western adherents, and because they were Western, the phrase started appearing on posters and cards. (Wikipedia claims that McFerrin was inspired by one such poster hanging in jazz duo Tuck & Patti’s apartment. That lacks a citation, but it’s fun to think of think of “Don’t Worry Be Happy” being born in St. Vincent’s aunt and uncle’s home.) McFerrin reportedly called it “a pretty neat philosophy in four words,” and he wasn’t alone in thinking so. Meher Baba’s most famous devotee was the Who’s Pete Townshend, who structured an entire rock opera (1969’s Tommy) around the man’s teachings, and later titled a song after his two heroes: Baba and Terry Riley.

Thankfully, the phrase didn’t send McFerrin off to write his own “Underture.” Instead, he created possibly the sunniest song about survival ever written. He tosses out scenarios straight from the blues — no girlfriend, late rent, no cash — and smashes them with optimism straight from the spiritual tradition. By now, McFerrin was an old hand at overdubs, and he fleshed out the simple, lilting topline with a host of embellishments. There’s the soothing multi-tracked coos, straight out of doo-wop. There’s the infernally catchy whistling that starts the track, and his astounding approximation of a popping bassline. And, of course, there’s the vague Jamaican syncopation of his pats and snaps, and the even more vague Caribbean accent he affects — you could make the perverse argument that “Don’t Worry Be Happy” was America’s first reggae #1. According to McFerrin’s longtime manager and producer Linda Goldstein, he was actually going for a Spanish accent, inspired by a recent viewing of The Three Amigos. True or not, America heard Jamaican — a YouTube upload of the song, credited to Bob Marley, has over 100 million views. Marley never recorded “Don’t Worry Be Happy” — due to dying in 1981, for starters — but you can still find people who swear he performed the song.

And McFerrin’s arrangement was so full, there were certainly people who would swear the track used instruments. Forget #1s: à cappella songs have always been a rarity on the radio. Canadian vocal group the Nylons had a minor 1986 hit in their home country with their vocal cover of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”; in ’93, Huey Lewis & The News scored an Adult Contemporary Top 10 with an instrument-free take on the Impressions’ “It’s Alright.” The year before, the R&B group Shai released two versions of their hit “If I Ever Fall In Love” — one with a band, one without — but neither one could overtake Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” for the top spot. (If you count synth manipulation, Imogen Heap’s internet-immortal “Hide And Seek” was a minor à cappella hit on the Digital Songs chart in 2005.) And every so often, Pentatonix land a production-assisted hit on the Hot 100.

But in 1988 as in 2018, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” sounds like nothing else. Because the music industry likes nothing more than pop songs with a high degree of professionalism, McFerrin added three more Grammys to his collection: Pop Vocal Performance (Male), Record Of The Year, and Song Of The Year. It didn’t hurt that the song’s accompanying video was brutally charming. Alongside comedians Bill Irwin and Robin Williams, McFerrin goofs around a gigantic apartment, shoeless in a white tux. (At one point, he lounges on a limo that Williams … tries to buy drugs from? It’s unclear.) He was an entertainer in full, a point that was hammered home on the Grammy telecast, when he and Billy Crystal performed a hammy yet technically brilliant bit on the history of music.

As someone who was a kid when “Don’t Worry Be Happy” was a hit, I remember it being inescapable. I have memories of the title on bumper stickers and T-shirts, a slightly more mercenary echo of those Meher Baba posters. A lot of people took the song as blinkered cheerfulness: For years, critics loved to rag on someone’s don’t-worry-be-happy vibe. It didn’t help that the least cool people alive — George H.W. Bush’s campaign team — tabbed the song as the vice-president’s electoral theme. Like so many artists before and after, McFerrin protested, and Bush glommed onto “This Land Is Your Land” instead. Bush’s appropriation is sometimes cited as the reason McFerrin stopped performing the song, but I haven’t found a definitive statement. Really, there were lots of reasons he quit performing it. First of all, even for someone with his dexterity, the arrangement was too daunting to reproduce. Also, he saw the stage as a playspace to explore the planned accidents of improvisation. And, finally, he probably knew there was no chance in hell of capturing the popular imagination with a similar idea, so why remind people of the original?

That didn’t stop EMI hoping for a follow-up hit. 1990’s Medicine Music was still accessible for a pop audience, but it didn’t have Simple Pleasures’ classic-rock covers, and it didn’t have a novelty smash. What it had was a delightful cameo from Robert Sr., as well as the title tune to the landmark AIDS documentary Common Threads, for which Bobby had provided the score. To drum up excitement, the label was stuck sending a shirtless McFerrin doppelganger to a record wholesaler convention. “He had that one fluke track,” an anonymous EMI executive told Entertainment Weekly, “but whoever dealt with him in the past realizes his core audience is only 300,000 to 400,000 jazz freaks.” (As you can tell from the numbers, this truly was another age.)

Bobby McFerrin was now playing with house money. To commemorate his 40th birthday, he made his conducting debut with the San Francisco Symphony, which led to similar gigs for some of the world’s most renowned orchestras. In 1994, he became the creative chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Throughout all this, he maintains a full performance schedule, working with professional collaborators and audiences to improvise something new, and hopefully wondrous. On top of these careers, there are those of his children. Taylor is a DJ, producer, and beatboxer whose debut album was released on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. (He made his recording debut at one, when his mom held him during a backing vocal session for his father’s first album.) Jevon, like his grandfather, is an actor, working as an understudy for Hamilton and Motown: The Musical. And Madison, like her father, is an à cappella musician, though she moves in the liminal space between indie pop and R&B.

McFerrin’s non-biological progeny are numerous, as well. His influence is present pretty much any time a bunch of undergrads convene an à cappella group. He loomed over Björk’s landmark (mostly) vocals-only record Medúlla as a sort of inverse influence: Her only rule for the record was that nothing sound like Bobby McFerrin. (Nevertheless, he is felt, especially during Rahzel’s appearances.) And, like everyone who captures the cultural imagination, he pops up in the smallest places. Music supervisors continue to enlist “Don’t Worry Be Happy” to boost a goodtime vibe (Flushed Away, Casper: A Spirited Beginning) or to provide stark irony (Jarhead, Dawn Of The Dead). A teenage Justin Timberlake wrote an original song heavily indebted to “Don’t Worry Be Happy” to convince his parents to let him get an ear piercing. The Dominican-American musician Twin Shadow namechecked a McFerrin show as one of his early inspirations; he grew up in Florida, and had to draw from whoever was on the radio, or managed to play nearby. If you catch a McFerrin concert these days, you might catch a snippet of his weird, wonderful hit. It’s returned to its origin: just another ingredient, just another facet of McFerrin’s unique career.