Finding Foundation: How Bobby McFerrin And His Daughter Make Music A Family Affair

Jun 14, 2018
Originally published on June 15, 2018 11:42 am

The love of music has been passed down in the McFerrin family for generations. Bobby McFerrin is likely best known for his 1988 hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and has been entertaining audiences with his jazz scatting for nearly 50 years. His father, Robert McFerrin, was the first black performer contracted with the Metropolitan Opera House in 1955. Now Bobby's daughter, 26-year-old Madison McFerrin, is a singer-songwriter on the rise; she already has two projects, Finding Foundations Vol. I and II, to her name. With Father's Day coming up, this father-daughter duo have plenty to celebrate.

Madison attended Berklee College of Music and remembers that people often asked about her father before asking about her. "A lot of people asked me to scat, and I'm like, 'I don't do that,' " she says. "They put a certain level of expectation on me that I definitely was unprepared for."

But the attention helped put her father's music in perspective.

"Sometimes you can take for granted when there's a genius walking around your house making all these random noises that, as a kid, you don't understand are really difficult to make," she says of her father's scatting.

Madison bills herself under R&B and future soul genres, singing soaring a cappella to lyrics she's crafted. This lyricism is the major difference in Madison and her father's musical paths. "Maddie has built her career on words, and I've built it on non-words," Bobby says.

One of her latest songs, called "Can You See?" is a statement against police brutality. The track plays off aspects of "The Star-Spangled Banner" with tweaks to the anthem's familiar lyrics: "But so proudly you hail / while we are all out here screaming."

The track is also a nod to her heavily criticized national anthem performance at a Hillary Clinton rally in 2016. After that performance, her parents were the first people she called to find comfort. "Who hasn't had a lousy night?" Bobby asks.

Though Bobby naturally wants to protect his daughter from such downsides of fame, he knows Madison's path in the music industry is all her own.

"The success that my kids have had, I think in a way, honors me and their mother," he says.

Bobby and Madison McFerrin spoke with NPR's David Greene about performing together and their plans for Father's Day. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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OK. Father's Day is this Sunday, in case you need a little nudge. We thought we would celebrate by asking a very special father-daughter in to chat. We met them up in New York, which did result in a little bit of teasing when the father in question got a bit lost trying to find NPR's studios.

MADISON MCFERRIN: My dad doesn't really use his phone 'cause then he could have just hopped on Google and figured out exactly where you were supposed to go.

BOBBY MCFERRIN: You know, I...

M. MCFERRIN: That would have been an easier route.

B. MCFERRIN: What is the person's name, Sylvia (ph)?



M. MCFERRIN: Sylvia (laughter).

B. MCFERRIN: I talked to Sylvia, Siri. And then this weird map came on my screen, turning this way and that way.

M. MCFERRIN: It just didn't...

B. MCFERRIN: It just didn't help me at all.

M. MCFERRIN: So you just called me.

B. MCFERRIN: So I called my daughter.

GREENE: That daughter is a 26-year-old singer-songwriter who is very much on the rise, Madison McFerrin.


M. MCFERRIN: (Singing) Scream your name.

GREENE: And if you recognize something in that voice and in that name, well, Madison's father is the legendary musician Bobby McFerrin.


B. MCFERRIN: (Singing) So don't worry, be happy. Don't worry, be happy now.

GREENE: He is best known, of course, for this smash hit from 1988. But he has been wowing audiences ever since with these crazy vocal skills.


B. MCFERRIN: (Vocalizing).

GREENE: And music, I mean, it really is in the McFerrin family DNA.

B. MCFERRIN: Yeah, my father was the first African-American to sign a contract with the Metropolitan Opera, 1955.



B. MCFERRIN: And I can remember seeing him when he made his debut doing "Rigoletto."

GREENE: Yeah. So just imagine being part of this family and trying to launch your own music career.

M. MCFERRIN: I went to Berklee College of Music and people were kind of freaking out.

GREENE: That you were his daughter?

M. MCFERRIN: Yeah. You know, they would ask me how my dad was doing before they would ask me how I was doing. Like, a lot of people like ask me to scat, and I'm like, I don't do that. (Laughter) That's not my thing. And they just like put a certain level of expectations on me that I definitely was unprepared for.

But, you know, it helps gain perspective because all of a sudden, I was starting to listen to my dad's music as a musician and not just his daughter. And sometimes you can take for granted when there's a genius walking around your house like making all these random noises that as a kid you don't understand are really difficult to make (laughter).

GREENE: Can I ask about the random noises because...

B. MCFERRIN: Random noises.

GREENE: Random noises. I think your mom talked about that. When you would make these noises when you were a kid, it was not exactly the most pleasant thing to experience always.

B. MCFERRIN: No. She was always trying to get me to stop.


B. MCFERRIN: I was making too much noise. And my grandmother was the same way. Oh, Robert, really, please take your noises someplace else.

GREENE: Did your mom ever say, I'm kind of happy I let you make those noises back then?

B. MCFERRIN: No, she hasn't, but she probably is.

GREENE: Probably thinking that.


M. MCFERRIN: (Singing) You didn't want it before, so why are you here waiting? I don't understand why you think I am contemplating on ways for you to love again.

GREENE: What do you feel when you listen to Madison's music?

B. MCFERRIN: I'm humbled, most definitely. The success that my kids have had, I think, in a way honors me and their mother, both of us.

GREENE: There was a really tough public moment for Madison as a young performer when she sang the national anthem at a Hillary Clinton rally in 2016. What - I mean, she was kind of brutalized. What was that like for a father?

B. MCFERRIN: That was hard. That was really tough. We spoke a couple of times that night. And I tried to explain to her that there are a lot of ruthless sort of ugly, mean-spirited people in the world who look for any opportunity to bring someone down. And granted, it wasn't her best performance. I had heard her sing better.


M. MCFERRIN: (Singing) Oh, say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave...

B. MCFERRIN: But who hasn't had a lousy night?

M. MCFERRIN: Well, I was on the phone with you guys right after it happened...


M. MCFERRIN: ...Crying (laughter).

B. MCFERRIN: That's right. Yeah.

M. MCFERRIN: So that was like the first - you guys were the first people I talked to.

B. MCFERRIN: But what she learned, I think, was you've got to take responsibility for - well, I think you did - they didn't give you enough time to test out your earpieces, right? So you couldn't...

M. MCFERRIN: I didn't have my earpieces.

B. MCFERRIN: You didn't have your earpieces or anything.

M. MCFERRIN: There was no soundcheck.

B. MCFERRIN: There was no soundcheck.

GREENE: Well, there are - I feel like there's some performers who would never want to remind anyone of a moment like that again. But you have a song called "Can You See," where you actually - part of it is singing the national anthem.


M. MCFERRIN: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see?

"Can You See," like, is about police brutality. But then having the national anthem in there and changing some of the words really seemed to hit home about what the topic of that song actually is. So it's kind of a double whammy of sorts.

GREENE: What is the message we should take from this song?

M. MCFERRIN: I think it really gets summed up at the end with the national anthem when I say - but so proudly you hail while we are all out here screaming.

B. MCFERRIN: What's really interesting about the difference - and a major difference - in our careers is Maddie has built her career on words, and I've built it on nonwords. A lot of stuff that I did does not have words to it.

GREENE: She's more of a lyricist.

B. MCFERRIN: She's more of a lyricist. I mean, she's full of words. And what she has to say is very, very provocative and interesting. I wish I had that gift. But it's just interesting that, you know, our careers are similar and very different at the same time.

GREENE: Father and daughter musicians, Bobby and Madison McFerrin. Well, let me just finish by asking what you guys are doing for Father's Day. You're going to be together, you have plans?


B. MCFERRIN: We're going to be separated.

M. MCFERRIN: Give you a call, though.


M. MCFERRIN: I have his picture on the back on my phone. There's a little Polaroid that I've stuck into the case. So I've always got you with me.

B. MCFERRIN: OK, good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.