It was not until 1977 that he was inspired to become a singer. After a period in New Orleans with a band called Astral Projection, he moved to San Francisco where, among other important contacts, he met Bill Cosby who arranged for McFerrin's debut at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the 1980 Playboy Jazz Festival. One year later, a triumph in New York at the Kool Jazz Festival followed and shortly thereafter, he released his debut album, Bobby McFerrin in May 1982.
After touring with his own band and collaborating with such jazz artists as Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis, McFerrin took a major step in 1983 when he began unaccompanied concertizing. This led to a solo tour of Germany where the live album The Voice was recorded. This album showcased McFerrin's pioneering a cappella excursions. Throughout his career he continued to present solo concerts in the world's most prestigious venues.
Through the 1980's, he expanded his circle of collaborators and his award winning discography, working with Garrison Keillor, Jack Nicholson, Weather Report's Joe Zawinul, Manhattan Transfer (on "Another Night In Tunisia" which won two Grammies) and, for Spontaneous Inventions (1986), Herbie Hancock, Jon Hendricks, Wayne Shorter, and Robin Williams. He was featured in popular television commercials for Ocean Spray and Levi's, sang the weekly theme for "The Cosby Show," created an ACE Award winning long form video, "Spontaneous Invention," and sang the theme music for Bertrand Tavernier's film "Round Midnight," another Grammy-winning performance. He then achieved unparalleled commercial success as a one-man vocal ensemble with his multi-tracked, multi-platinum album Simple Pleasures (1988), which included the worldwide, chart-topping single and video "Don't Worry Be Happy."
The 1990 release, Medicine Music, demonstrated McFerrin's skills as an orchestrator, especially in his work with his group Voicestra. It was with that ten-voice group that he appeared on Today, Arsenio Hall and Evening at the Pops, (the Boston Pops concert was also his television debut as a conductor).
McFerrin's other recordings include Hush (1992), a duet album for Sony Classical with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, for which the two artists combined to perform five original compositions by McFerrin and a unique arrangement of Hush, Little Baby, for the title song, as well as several classical favorites. The Hush album was a mainstay on Billboard's Classical Crossover Chart for over two years and went gold in 1996. Also released in 1992 was a new jazz album, Play (Blue Note), which featured McFerrin and pianist Chick Corea in a mix of standards and original collaborations that won McFerrin his 10th Grammy award. His 1993 on-camera, five voice a cappella rendition of Henry Mancini's Pink Panther won him wide acclaim and another Grammy nomination.
In June of 1995, McFerrin released his first classical album Paper Music (Sony Classical) with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and it remains on the Billboard chart of classical bestsellers. The album features McFerrin conducting and singing with the music of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Bach, Stravinksy and Tchaikovsky, among others. His symphonic conducting repertoire also includes the concert-length version of Porgy and Bess.
In addition to his numerous outside conducting activities, McFerrin is part of the artistic leadership of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which he joined in April of 1994 as Creative Chair. His conducting activities with that orchestra include subscription series, the development of CONNECT, an educational and outreach program, tours and other special concerts.
McFerrin's on-going activities have included symphonic conducting to which he has devoted considerable time each season. He made his debut on his fortieth birthday with the San Francisco Symphony and has since gone on to repeat engagements, conducting every major orchestra including the New York Philharmonic, The Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and many others. In 1996, his efforts to bring new and younger audiences to classical music earned him media coverage that is unprecedented for a musician; being honored as the ABC Person of the Week, an entire Nightline program devoted to his work, as well as a 60 Minutes feature with Mike Wallace.
In January of 1996, he released Bang Zoom, his collaboration with members of The Yellow Jackets, featuring McFerrin's jazz compositions and vocalizations. Later that year, Sony Classical released The Mozart Sessions, McFerrin's second collaboration with Chick Corea, this time presenting their distinctive interpretations of two Mozart piano concertos.
Circlesongs, his 1997 release, refocused his energy on vocal music; specifically, spontaneously improvised vocal music. With members of Voicestra, he recorded the album and performed the entire concert tour with no prepared material. All music was created in and of the moment, as McFerrin wove often tribal-sounding chants with his fellow spirit-singers.