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Bobby McFerrin in Nelson

Updated: Feb 3

The singer-songwriter behind Don’t Worry Be Happy spent at least one month of his youth in Nelson.

Bobby McFerrin came to town in July 1961 when his father, opera singer Robert McFerrin, was hired to teach at what was then the Nelson Summer School of Fine Arts. The elder McFerrin performed in the Kootenays several times before that: in Kimberley in 1957 and 1958, in Nelson in 1959, and in Nelson and Trail in 1960.

During his visit in October 1960, Ed Baravelle of the summer school asked him to be a vocal instructor in Nelson the following summer. Also hired was his wife and accompanist Sara. McFerrin was then a member of the Metropolitan Opera and had recently provided the voice of Porgy for the movie version of Porgy and Bess (starring Sidney Poitier).

I was always pretty sure he brought his family with him, but confirmation awaited the digitization of the Nelson Daily News for that year. Here it is in the July 7, 1961 edition, as Robert was preparing for a concert. The photo depicted Robert, Sara, an 11-year-old Bobby, and his sister Brenda.

The concert took place in the L.V. Rogers auditorium.

“Robert McFerrin doesn’t sing a song; he weaves a spell!” enthused Hal Leiren in his review of the hour-and-a-half show that about 600 people attended.

Mr. McFerrin has a unique quality of warmth and emotion that transcends mere technicianship. It is readily understandable after hearing him perform why he has made musical history at the Met … The Nelson Summer School of Fine Arts is to be congratulated for enabling a Nelson audience to enjoy the gift of his fine voice.

Sara joined him for the encores, but it doesn’t appear Bobby or Brenda were part of the show. Robert and Sara also performed later that month as part of the Festival of the Arts.

Robert returned to Nelson in the summer of 1965 and performed two concerts at Mary Hall a couple of weeks apart, one with Sara, the other with the California Jubilee Singers. Patricia Halleran Green of Nelson was the accompanist. I am not sure if the McFerrin kids came this time, but probably. “I and my family enjoy this town and these people,” Robert told the Nelson Rotary Club.

Bobby McFerrin’s own professional musical career didn’t begin in earnest until 1982, when he was 31. He became known for his unusual vocal techniques and in 1988, Don’t Worry, Be Happy became a worldwide hit — the first a cappella song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts. It won Grammy awards for song of the year, record of the year, and best male pop vocal performance.

Of his father, Bobby once said: “His work influenced everything I do musically. When I direct a choir, I go for his sound. His musical influence was absolutely profound. I cannot do anything without hearing his voice.”

Shortly after posting this story, I received two interesting responses on the People of Nelson Facebook site. Linda Crosfield wrote: “My mom gave Bobby violin lessons that summer. She said he was precocious and very talented.”

And Brian Euerby wrote the family lived in a house on First Street when they were in Nelson.

My sister Bonnie friended Bobby and Brenda [and] eventually the families bonded. With my folks being bridge enthusiasts they learned that Bobby Sr. and Sara also were bridge players. Bobby Sr. and my father went halfers on tucked-away property at Lemon Creek. The McFerrins, like so many ahead of them, fell in love with the Slocan Valley and had to have a piece of it. My folks and the McFerrins bought the Thickett homestead. It was our summer haven heaven for many years.
My sister was invited and went to the McFerrin home in the Watts area of LA. Bonnie has been known to get a random call from Bobby Jr. from time to time. I reached out to his record label some years ago when I was working at CP Rail. One day, I received a random call from Bobby as a result of this. First question out his mouth: “How's Bonnie?”

Euerby says he has since reached out a number of times to see if McFerrin would be interested in participating in the Kaslo Jazz Festival, but received no response.

Updated on Feb. 3, 2024 to add Robert McFerrin’s return visit to Nelson in 1965.

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Aug 08, 2023

Hi Greg, great edition! I loved the article on Bobby McFerrin - who knew???


Doreen Sorensen
Doreen Sorensen
Aug 07, 2023

This is pretty cool, Greg. We had a family reunion years ago where one of the giveaways was a fish singing "Be Happy- Don't Worry. I always see this fish when I think of the song!! Thanks for this post. Doreen S.

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