Born to two classical singers in New York City, McFerrin began studying musical theory at age 6, shortly before his family relocated to Los Angeles. The piano was his primary instrument in high school and during his studies at California State University/Sacramento and Cerritos College. After completing his formal education, he began to tour, first with the Ice Follies and then with a series of "Top 40" bands, cabaret acts and dance troupes.
It was not until 1977 that he was inspired to become a singer. After a period in New Orleans with a band called Astral Projection, he moved to San Francisco where, among other important contacts, he met Bill Cosby, who arranged for McFerrin's debut at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the 1980 Playboy Jazz Festival. A triumph in New York at the Kool Jazz Festival followed a year later, and shortly thereafter, in May 1982, he released his debut album, Bobby McFerrin.
After touring with his own band and collaborating with such jazz artists as Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis, McFerrin took a major step in 1983, when he began unaccompanied concertising. This led to a solo tour of Germany where the live album The Voice was recorded. This album showcased McFerrin's pioneering a cappella excursions. Throughout his career he continues to present solo concerts in the world's most prestigious venues.
Through the 1980s, he expanded his circle of collaborators and his award-winning discography. He was featured in popular television commercials, sang the weekly theme for The Cosby Show, created the ACE Award-winning longform video Spontaneous Invention, and sang the theme for Bertrand Tavernier's film 'Round Midnight, another Grammy-winning performance.
He then achieved unparalleled commercial success as a one-man vocal ensemble with his multi-tracked multi-platinum album Simple Pleasures (1988), which included the worldwide, chart-topping single and video "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
The 1990 release of Medicine Music demonstrated McFerrin's skills as an orchestrator, especially in his work with the group Voicestra. It was with that ten-voice group that he appeared on Today, Arsenio Hall, and Evening at Pops. Also in 1992, he released a new jazz album, Play, which featured McFerrin and pianist Chick Corea in a mix of standards and original collaborations and won McFerrin his tenth Grammy Award. His 1993 on-camera, five-voice a cappella rendition of Henry Mancini's "The Pink Panther Theme" won him wide acclaim and another Grammy nomination.
A vocalist, composer and conductor who has won ten Grammy Awards, Bobby McFerrin maintains a highly successful career while continuing to explore and challenge himself in a wide range of musical styles and forms. His most recent release, Circlesongs, is the result of solo and group vocal explorations that have evolved McFerrin's own version of chant and sacred music.
McFerrin's debut album, Hush, was released in 1992. In June of 1995, McFerrin released his first classical album Paper Music, and it immediately began a long tenure on the Billboard Classical chart. The album features McFerrin conducting (and singing) the music of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Bach, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, among others. Paper Music was followed in 1996 by The Mozart Sessions.
McFerrin made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony on his fortieth birthday and has since gone on to repeat engagements, conducting every major orchestra. He has also conducted a concert version of Porgy and Bess with the Opera Carolina and at the Mann Centre, and he has appeared at the Ravinia, Aspen, Blossom and Verbier Festivals.
In Europe, he leads the Munich Radio Orchestra on a German tour, returns to the Rotterdam Philharmonic and makes his debut with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
In 1996 his efforts to bring new and younger audiences to classical music earned him media coverage unprecedented for a musician. He was honoured as the ABC News "Person of the Week" and with an entire Nightline programme devoted to his work, as well as a feature on 60 Minutes.
In addition to his numerous outside conducting activities, McFerrin is part of the artistic leadership of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which he joined in April of 1994 as Creative Chair.