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, has died. He was 85.
He died Friday of a heart attack at a suburban St. Louis hospital, the funeral home handling his services confirmed Monday.
In 1953, McFerrin won the Metropolitan Opera national auditions. His 1955 debut with the Metropolitan Opera as Amonasro in “Aida” made him the first black male member of the company. He performed in 10 operas over three seasons.
He appeared 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 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 eclectic 1980s hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” McFerrin’s daughter, Brenda McFerrin, is also a recording artist, and he sang with both children.
In 1993, father and son appeared with the St. Louis Symphony — Robert McFerrin Sr. as soloist, his son as guest conductor.
“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 Marianna, Ark., 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, performed with the National Negro Opera Company and the New York City Opera Company.
He moved back to St. Louis in 1973. He suffered a stroke in 1989, but his singing voice remained with him and he continued to perform for many years afterward. By the time he was honored in June 2003 by Opera America, doctors suspected he had Alzheimer’s disease.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis general director Charles MacKay called McFerrin’s baritone voice “beautiful, virile, strong, and sensitive.”
“He sang with such joy and commitment,” MacKay said in 2003. “It reminds me of the profound pleasure of a beautifully trained singing voice.”
McFerrin and his first wife divorced. He married his second wife, Athena, in 1994. Besides his wife and children, survivors include a sister and three grandchildren.