Robert "Bobby" McFerrin, Jr. was born in Manhattan, New York. His mother, Sara Copper, is a former soloist with regional opera companies, and in Broadway shows, and is a professor emeritus of music at Fullerton College in Fullerton, California. His father is the late operatic baritone Robert McFerrin, the first African American to be a regular with New York's Metropolitan Opera.
McFerrin's song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was a No. 1 U.S. pop hit in 1988 and won Song of the Year and Record of the Year honors. McFerrin has also worked in collaboration with instrumental performers including pianists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul, drummer Tony Williams, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
McFerrin often switches rapidly between modal and falsetto when he sings to create polyphonic effects, performing both the main melody and the accompanying parts of songs. He makes use of percussive effects created both with his mouth and by tapping on his chest. McFerrin is also capable of multiphonic singing; as observed in his song "Drive" from the 2005 DVD Live in Montreal.
In the late 1970s, while working as a piano accompanist for the University of Utah Modern Dance Department, McFerrin auditioned to play in a local piano bar - Room at the Top in the Salt Lake Hilton. Hired after auditioning with his entire repertoire of five songs, he learned a song a day for a month before starting.
In 1986, McFerrin was the voice of Santa Bear in "Santa Bear's First Christmas," and in 1987 he was the voice of Santa Bear/Bully Bear in the sequel "Santa Bear's High Flying Adventure." That same year, he performed the theme song for the opening credits of Season 4 of The Cosby Show, as well as the music for a Cadburys chocolate commercial.
In 1988, McFerrin recorded the hit song "Don't Worry, Be Happy," which brought him widespread recognition. In 1989, he composed and performed the music for the Pixar short film Knick Knack. The rough cut to which McFerrin recorded his vocals had the words "blah blah blah" in place of the end credits (meant to indicate that he should improvise.) McFerrin spontaneously decided to sing "blah blah blah" as lyrics, and the final version of the short film includes these lyrics.
Also in 1989, he formed a ten-person "Voicestra" which he featured on both his 1990 album Medicine Music and in the score to the 1989 Oscar-winning documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. The song "Common Threads" has frequently reappeared in some public service advertisements for AIDS. McFerrin also performed with the Vocal Summit.
In 1993 McFerrin sang Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme for the movie Son of the Pink Panther. In addition to his vocal performing career, in 1994, Mr. McFerrin was appointed as creative chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He makes regular tours as a guest conductor for symphony orchestras throughout the U.S. and Canada, including the San Francisco Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic and others.
In McFerrin's concert appearances, he combines serious conducting of classical pieces with his own unique vocal improvisations, often with participation from the audience and the orchestra.
In the late 1990s, he toured a concert version of Porgy and Bess, partly in honor of his father, who sang the role for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 film version. McFerrin said because of his father's work in the movie, "This music has been in my body for 40 years, probably longer than any other music."
McFerrin also participates in various music education programs, and makes volunteer appearances as a guest music teacher and lecturer at public schools throughout the U.S. McFerrin has a son, Taylor, and father and son have collaborated on various musical ventures.
In 2009, McFerrin and musician-scientist Daniel Levitin served as co-hosts of "The Music Instinct," a 2 hour award-winning documentary produced by PBS and based on Levitin's best-selling book This Is Your Brain On Music.