Robert McFerrin Sr., the first black man to sing solo at the New York Metropolitan Opera and the father of Grammy-winning conductor-vocalist Bobby McFerrin, died Friday of a heart attack. He was 85.
McFerrin won the Metropolitan Opera national auditions in 1953. His 1955 debut with the Metropolitan Opera as Amonasro in “Aida” made him the company’s first black male member and came just three weeks after contralto Marian Anderson made her historic debut Jan. 7, 1955, as the first black to sing a principal role at the Met.
McFerrin performed in 10 operas over three seasons.
He is also known for providing the vocals for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 movie “Porgy and Bess.”
Son Bobby McFerrin Jr. is best known for the 1980s hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” McFerrin’s daughter, Brenda McFerrin, is also a recording artist, and he sang with both children.
“His work influenced everything I do musically,” Bobby McFerrin told The Associated Press in 2003. “When I direct a choir, I go for his sound. His musical influence was absolutely profound. I cannot do anything without me hearing his voice.”
McFerrin was born in Arkansas, one of eight children of a strict Baptist minister who forbade his son to sing anything but gospel music. That changed when McFerrin moved to St. Louis in 1936 and a music teacher discovered and encouraged his talent.
In the late 1940s and early ’50s, McFerrin sang on Broadway and performed with the National Negro Opera Company and the New York City Opera Company.
He suffered a stroke in 1989, but he continued to perform for many years.
In addition to his son and daughter, survivors include his wife, Athena, a sister and three grandchildren.