Bobby McFerrin has had a long and successful career as a singer of wordless songs. With his trademark vocalizing that provides both rhythm and melody, he’s carved out a singular place for himself in jazz and pop music.
McFerrin’s oldest son, Taylor, is also a musician. He’s a keyboardist and producer whose full-length debut album, “Early Riser,” was released on the Brainfeeder label. That’s the L.A.-based label owned by Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, who is putting out some of the most adventurous music today.
Bobby and Taylor McFerrin recently performed a full concert together for the first time. It took place at the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge. After the show, the audience stayed for KPCC’s Downstage series, where we interview the artists. The Frame's Oscar Garza spoke with Bobby and Taylor McFerrin about their relationship as father and son and as musicians, and how they were both inspired to pursue music as a career.
Do you remember when you first realized you wanted to become a singer?
Bobby: July the 11th, 1977 at around noon. I was an accompanist at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City's dance classes and was walking home from lunch. Somewhere between the walk from the campus to my house, I thought to myself, I'm a singer. This is the interesting part: I got to my house, I opened up the yellow pages, found the number for a club called Room At The Top at the Hilton Hotel, called the number.
The manager happened to be there and he picked up the phone. He set up an audition for me to sing the following day. I knew five songs. I sang my five songs and he hired me and that was the beginning of my singing career, I was 27.
Were you ever formally trained musically, Taylor?
Taylor: Um, nope [laughs.] Around the house, my family was always playing The Beatles and Stevie Wonder. So I had a lot of music around me and then I grew up going to my dad's concerts, so I think I saw what he was doing as normal [laughs] as a kid. I thought improvisation and jamming seemed really normal, but then in school I was just listening to what was on the radio, so I gravitated towards hip-hop and I think I convinced [my parents] to get me a sampler beat machine in high school.
I always wanted to be a hip-hop producer, but the hip-hop I gravitated towards was always sampling the music that they were playing around the house. I feel more spiritually connected to the '60s and '70s soul and funk, but because I grew up on the beat production, I'm trying to do a version of both.
How old were you when you realized your dad was famous and well-known?
Taylor: There's kind of different versions. Kids started making fun of me at some point in school. That was probably like third grade, but then there's a different version of that when I moved out and went to college and I started trying to actually make music. I grew up at his shows my whole life — it felt pretty normal — but once I stepped away and got into music on my own and saw how hard it is to really try to master any sort of craft, then I started going back to his shows with a completely different perspective.
Bobby, have you given any advice to Taylor about the music industry? Because it's completely changed from when you started.
Bobby: Well, it's very different. Back in the day when they had record companies, real record companies, I could never get through reading a contract all the way because there were 500 pages long and they would have pages totally devoted to describing who the artist was. Every form they could describe you — he, it, them — it was just mind-boggling. So I have a great manager and good lawyers. That's basically what I told him: get a good manager and a good lawyer.
Part of the upside today is that, because of technology, you can record a high quality sounding album in your garage.
Taylor: It's a really interesting time. The world that I'm really deep into right now, I think it's pretty compatible in terms of the vibe of the musicians. It's a very collaborative time and I think if you stick with it, and especially if you're in a major city like New York or Los Angeles, you just connect with the people that are doing the same thing that you're doing.
For more on the Valley Performing Arts Center, see their schedule here.