It’s Another Song of Arkansas: Robert McFerrin, Sr.
March 18-24, 2019
By Stephen Koch
He would have turned 98 this month, his son taught us not to worry and be happy, but few know the name Robert Keith McFerrin. He was born March 19, 1921, in Marianna in Lee County and went on to international acclaim as a baritone opera singer, a music teacher – and for fathering a subsequent generation of musicians, including Bobby McFerrin Junior.
The son of a Baptist preacher, the senior McFerrin was the fourth of eight children. He gained attention for his singing and whistling talents early on but was only allowed to sing gospel music. He attended grade school in Memphis, Tennessee. It was only when McFerrin began high school in St. Louis, Missouri, that he began formal, non-gospel music instruction.
In the 1940s, McFerrin attended Fisk University for a year, was drafted and served in the army, and then returned to college. And he kept singing. He moved to New York City in 1948 and married vocalist Sara Copper in 1949. That same year, he made his operatic debut in Verdi’s Rigoletto.
McFerrin also sang in the world premiere of ‘Troubled Island’, composed by fellow Arkansawyer William Grant Still. McFerrin’s January 1955 debut with the Metropolitan Opera as Amonasro in ‘Aida’ was the first time a black male had sung with the New York company. Unlike Marian Anderson’s celebrated debut just three weeks earlier as the first black female to sing a principal role at the New York Met, McFerrin’s debut went largely unheralded.
In 1958, McFerrin and family moved to Los Angeles, California. He had been contracted by acclaimed film director Otto Preminger to sing the part of Porgy in Preminger’s film version of George Gershwin’s opera, ‘Porgy and Bess.’ In addition to singing the part, McFerrin worked with actor Sidney Poitier, who played Porgy on-screen, to teach Poitier to correctly lip sync the songs. The soundtrack and film were both successes; McFerrin subsequently set up a vocal studio and stayed in California for 15 years before returning to St. Louis to perform and teach.
Despite the senior McFerrin’s many operatic accomplishments on his own, the McFerrin name is better known through his musical children, particularly in the pop and jazz worlds. Daughter Brenda McFerrin is a vocalist, while Robert McFerrin Junior, or Bobby McFerrin, is a multiple Grammy-winning vocalist and conductor as well. In 1988, the junior McFerrin enjoyed an international pop smash with his song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ which also displayed Bobby had inherited his father’s talent for whistling. It was the first a cappella song to ever hit number one in the U.S. -- in addition to addition to adorning countless t-shirts, ball caps and Big Mouth Billy Bass animatronic singing fish.
Of his father, the younger McFerrin said, “His work influenced everything I do musically.”
Robert McFerrin Senior suffered a stroke in 1989 that affected his speech, but not his singing. He continued to perform for years afterward. In 2003, Opera America awarded McFerrin a lifetime achievement award.
Arkansawyer Robert McFerrin died November 24th, 2006, in St. Louis, where he had lived since the 1970s. Having shaped many lives through music and teaching, McFerrin was 85 years old.
Stephen Koch’s weekly “Arkansongs” radio program is syndicated across Arkansas, in east Texas, and north Louisiana. Visit the “Arkansongs” Facebook page for show details. Koch is also a musician, cartoonist, and author of Louis Jordan: Son of Arkansas, Father of R&B.