“Thinkin’ About Your Body”: Human synthesizer Bobby McFerrin took us new “Directions in Jazz”

By on December 26, 2017

“This year’s Grammy winner for jazz, Bobby McFerrin, uses his body, and vocals, like a human synthesizer,” says Night Flight’s Pat Prescott in her introduction to his “Thinkin’ About Your Body” video, one of the highlights of this edition of Night Flight’s “Directions in Jazz,” which originally aired on April 11, 1987. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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We think Ms. Prescott is specifically referring to McFerrin winning the Grammy for Best Male Jazz Vocal Performance for “Round Midnight” at the 29th Grammy Awards ceremony, but to date he’s won ten Grammys out of eighteen nominations.

McFerrin was also Grammy-nominated for Best Performance Music Video for Spontaneous Inventions, a live concert performance — directed by Bud Schaetzle — which was filmed live before an audience at the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood, CA, on February 28, 1986.

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This video for “Thinkin’ About Your Body” comes from that live concert video, McFerrin’s first, and showcases his mind-boggling ability for tonal singing, which is the ability to sing a solo line and a bass line at virtually the same time, a rare talent that very few singers possess, making McFerrin one of the most distinctive and original singers in contemporary jazz and pop music.

McFerrin, in fact, can use his amazing vocal talents — and he also uses his body, pounding on his chest and legs as rhythmic percussion — to replicate what amounts to five different vocal instruments at the same time.

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McFerrin can and does sing lead, harmonies and bass lines, giving the impression that they’re all going on at the same time. His octave-jumping trademark style, with its rhythmic inhalations and incredible leaps from deep bass notes to a freaky high falsetto is an idiomatic versatility unlike no other performer.

To call Bobby McFerrin a jazz vocalist, then, is to do him a bit of an justice, although he does cover a lot of recognizable jazz standards and interpretations of classic be-bop tunes during his performances, showcasing his vast musical repertoire.

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During this particular show at the Aquarius, McFerrin performed originals of his own as well as covers of popular tunes made famous by the Beatles (“Blackbird”), James Brown, Fats Waller, George Gershwin and Charlie Parker (“Scrapple from the Apple”).

He usually only performs solo, but on this particular night he was accompanied by a singular special guest, soprano saxophonist and jazz legend Wayne Shorter, who helped out on McFerrin’s version of Miles Davis’s “Walkin.”

McFerrin is also noted for his hilarious sense of humor, similar to improvisational stand-up comedians, except that he tells songs instead of jokes, often free-associating and adding in clever little notes from songs which the audience can tell were, indeed, “spontaneous inventions.”

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During his performances, McFerrin also leaves the stage with a cordless mic and wanders up and down the aisles, talking to audience members and often getting them to help out with specific requests to sing — he had one of them sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with his accompaniment during this Aquarius show — before returning back to the stage to continue singing on his own.

Read more about Bobby McFerrin below.

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Bobby McFerrin studied piano at California State College at Sacramento and Cerritos College, and then got a job touring behind the Ice Follies, as well as performing with a series of cover bands, cabaret acts, and dance troupes.

He made his debut as a vocalist in 1977, and while living in New Orleans, he sang with the group Astral Projection before relocating to San Francisco, where met legendary comedian Bill Cosby, who arranged for McFerrin to appear at the 1980 Playboy Jazz Festival.

His performance at the 1981 Kool Jazz Festival led to a contract with Elektra Records, and the following year, debuted with his self-titled first album Bobby McFerrin.

In 1984, his album The Voice made jazz history by being the first-ever solo vocal album — that is, every track featured only McFerrin’s voice, with no instrument accompaniment or overdubbing of any kind — to be released on a major label.

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He moved over to the great Blue Note label for his 1986 live album Spontaneous Inventions, which featured contributions from Herbie Hancock (“Turtle Shoes”), the Manhattan Transfer (on the Grammy-winning “Another Night in Tunisia”), and comedian Robin Williams, who adds hilarity to McFerrin’s eccentric “Beverly Hills Blues.”

He also performed the theme song to the hit NBC sitcom “The Cosby Show,” and his vocal talents were also featured in a number of TV commercials.

In 1989 and ’90, in fact, McFerrin performed a modified version of his “Thinkin’ About Your Body” — substituting the word “chocolate” for “body” — in a series of UK Cadbury’s chocolate adverts.

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1988’s Simple Pleasures gave McFerrin his biggest success with the chart-topping pop hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and around that same time he also formed the ten-member acappella group Voicestra, featured on 1990’s Medicine Music. He won several Grammy that year: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance – Male.

The album reached #103 on the Billboard 200 charts, #62 on Billboard‘s R&B Albums chart, #6 on the Top Jazz Albums chart, and #2 on the Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart.

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McFerrin’s recordings have sold more than twenty million copies worldwide, and his many collaborations — including those with with Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea, the Vienna Philharmonic and Herbie Hancock — have established him as an ambassador of both the classical and jazz worlds.

Watch the “Thinkin’ About Your Body” video by Bobby McFerrin — along with more videos by modern jazz groundbreakers Miles Davis, Branford Marsalis, and Kenny G — in this special edition of “Directions in Jazz,” featured in the second half of our April 11, 1987 episode of “Night Flight,” now streaming over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.