I am well on my way to secretly memorizing all of the answers in the “Trivial Pursuit” board game in my home — don’t tell my wife — but there is one bit of trivia I haven’t seen addressed.
Where did Bobby McFerrin decide he wanted to be a singer?
“[Living in Salt Lake City] was a very important time for me,” McFerrin told the Tribune in an e-mail interview. “That’s when I realized I was really a singer. It was March 11, 1977. I was walking home from playing a dance class and suddenly, I got it. I went home and looked in the phone book for the number of a local hotel lounge and by the end of the week I had my first gig as a singer. I also met the dancer and choreographer Tandy Beal in Salt Lake City; she’s remained a touchstone in my life, one of my favorite collaborators.”
The University of Utah gave the young, unemployed McFerrin a job as a piano accompanist in the department of modern dance, more than three decades ago.
It was a decade before the worldwide success of his a cappella hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” that he found himself in Salt Lake City needing work. He had followed a band member to the city in the late 1970s, but a job playing for a nightclub’s house band didn’t pan out. Newly married, McFerrin answered an ad to be an accompanist at the U.
It was in that gig, while watching the dancers, that the pianist began to sing in earnest, learning about how to use his body as an instrument from dancers.
While he always thought of himself as a pianist first and a singer second, McFerrin needed to supplement his income. So he called every hotel and club in the Salt Lake City phone book, seeking work as a lounge singer. The Hilton hired him, and the rest is history.
McFerrin returns to Utah on March 25, and he answered questions about teaching singers, grace and joy, and his forthcoming album “spirityouall,” due out in May.
When you talk to students, what do you impart to them?
Here’s what I like to tell singers: Sing for 10 minutes every day. No matter what. Don’t listen to other singers for a few years — it’s too hard to hear your own sound. Learn some Bach. Here’s what I like to tell everybody: Remember that all of life is improvising. Don’t forget to play. Get right with yourself and the people you love and the people you work with and the music will benefit.
You have said, “What I want everyone to experience at the end of my concerts is . . . this sense of rejoicing. I don’t want the audience to be blown away by what I do, I want them to have this sense of real joy, from the depths of their being. Then you open up a place where grace can come in.” How do you define joy and grace?
I’m very lucky. I don’t try to define them. I try to live them, musically and personally. I seek them out. I encourage others to seek them. I think that’s my mission as a concert artist, though I hope it doesn’t sound too pretentious. I am instigating joy and grace wherever I can.
How does “spirityouall” honor your father?
This album is so deeply connected to my father, but it’s also so far from anything he ever would have done. The discipline and purity with which he approached the craft of singing imprints everything I do. And I had the incredible chance as a child to hear Hall Johnson (who was maybe the foremost authority on singing the spirituals and the grandson of a former slave) coaching my father on how to sing the spirituals, telling him about pronunciation and floating around the beat. Really incredible. But I could never have tried to make an album singing these songs the way my father sang them. I couldn’t do that nearly as well as he did. I had to find my own way.
How can music, such as the music on “spirityouall,” help us through life’s trials and triumphs?
I just think we sing our way through. If I get onstage and I feel angry at something, the more I sing the more that feeling gets worked out. I can’t hold on to it. When I’m done I feel better. There’s no better example than the spirituals of singing through trials and tribulations, sending coded messages, talking about pain and hope and life or death situations, calling up all our strength to get to a better place. We just sing our way to a better place.
Are there spirituals that lift you up, personally?
Absolutely. Every song on this new album does that for me. And there are lots more. I’m an improviser, so I always think you know in the moment what song you need to sing, what song you need to hear. Sometimes it’s a song you’ve known all your life. Sometimes you need to make it up as you go along.
When • Monday, March 25, at 7:30 p.m.
Where • Peery’s Egyptian Theater, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden
Tickets • $33 at SmithsTix, weberstatetickets.com or 801-626-8500
Info • Presented as part of Weber State University’s Cultural Affairs series