Bobby McFerrin, whose 1988 hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy" has become shorthand for light, feel-good pop, has released a new CD of traditional and original spirituals.
The resident of Philadelphia ("between Roxborough and Chestnut Hill") will play Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia Sunday.
The album, "spirityouall," features some songs recorded 56 years ago by his father, baritone Robert McFerrin who was the first African-American to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
"There are three or four cuts on the album my father recorded, called 'Deep River,' released in 1957 on the Riverside label, which is now defunct," said McFerrin in a phone interview from his home. "Pieces like 'Fix Me Jesus,' 'Swing Low,' and 'Everytime I Feel the Spirit.'"
McFerrin grew up in Los Angeles with his parents, both singers and both religious. With this mother, McFerrin attended an Episcopalian church where he sang in the children's choir and served as an acolyte. His father belonged to a different congregation.
"He grew up Baptist, but it was was called just a Christian church, a Christian assembly of some kind," recalled McFerrin. "One reason I wanted to do a record that talked about Jesus is because I rarely do. I'm not a Bible thumper. I don't stand on street corners and yell prophecies. But I can do it in a quiet way, a way that's very comfortable for me."
McFerrin's take on spirituals ranges from slide-guitar blues, to adult-contemporary pop, to bluegrass, to scat. True to the style he has honed for decades, the songs are smooth and whimsical — a style his band easily carries to the stage.
"We did the concert in Los Angeles last April, and we found ourselves doing 'What's Going On?' by Marvin Gaye," said McFerrin. "Everybody knew the song. We somehow landed in that space and took off from there. There are nights you don't know what's going to happen."
While McFerrin "sporadically" attends an Episcopalian church near his home in Northwest Philadelphia, he says his spiritual practice is a daily habit.
"I thought I would be an Episcopalian priest and join a monastic order, live in the hills and live in quiet for the rest of my life," said McFerrin. "Funny, I still have monkish ways: I rise early, I like the quiet. I spend lots of time reading the Bible, meditating, praying and whatever — get prepared with whatever I'm going to meet that day.
"So it was an honor doing these pieces," he said. "It's an honor sharing my faith this way, through music."
You can hear McFerrin, and his music, via the audio link at the top of this page.