Fans are not going to hear the Bobby McFerrin songs they know best when the 10-time Grammy Award winner performs Sunday night at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

There will be no “Drive,” no “Black Bird,” no “Sweet Home Chicago,” no “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Instead, fans will hear the songs from McFerrin’s latest project, “Spirit You All,” a collection of Negro spirituals that pays homage to his father and the generations of Americans who sang those songs to express comfort, joy and pain.

In a concert presented by Portland Ovations, McFerrin will perform with a five-piece band.

When he began touring with this project last year, McFerrin worried that fans would be disappointed not hearing the hits. “But the audiences have been very agreeable and encouraging and exciting and supportive,” the singer said in a phone interview.

McFerrin, 64, is a musical chameleon. He is known for his vocal dexterity and his ability to sing just about anything. He often sings songs without words, creating melody, percussion and other tonal structures with his voice. His forte is improvisation.


He has collaborated with many of the greats across musical genres, including Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Yo-Yo Ma.

In a sense, “Spirit You All” is a collaboration with his father, the late opera singer Robert McFerrin. His father was the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and the first to sing a title role at the Met, both occurring in the mid-1950s.

In 1959, the elder McFerrin released the recording “Deep River,” a collection of Negro spirituals. Bobby McFerrin remembers being in the studio when his dad made the record. In a sense, his father, who died in 2006, was with McFerrin in the creation of this project.

“When I started working on this, I used that album as the cornerstone. I contributed some original pieces, but mostly I wanted to be of service to my father’s idea of the spiritual, but keeping my own technique and my own sound,” he said.

There is some improv on this record, and fans who attend Sunday’s concert will recognize McFerrin’s unconventional approach to singing. But this is a very different kind of project for him.

“I am discovering a part of my voice that I don’t spend too much time in. I am using my chest voice more than my head voice. In these concerts, I am actually singing, and most of the time I am singing songs,” he said. “I am finding that I am enjoying words and writing words and singing words and telling stories through the medium of spirituals.”


He appreciates singing songs from the deep well of American musical history, and also cherishes the opportunity to reconnect with his father.

McFerrin remembers sitting under his father’s piano when he gave voice lessons. He learned how to use his voice as a young age by listening to and observing his father. During college when he began singing more seriously, McFerrin recognized the discipline his father instilled.

“If he thought you did not do your assignment, you were no longer a student of his,” McFerrin said. “I picked up some valuable information from him. It’s nice to be able to honor with him with this project.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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