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Robert McFerrin Sr.
*Robert McFerrin, Sr. was born on this date in 1921. He was a Black operatic baritone.
Born in Marianna, Arkansas, Robert Keith McFerrin, Sr. showed vocal talent early, singing while still a boy soprano in a local church's gospel choir. As a young teenager, he joined two of his siblings in a trio. The three accompanied their father on regional preaching engagements, singing gospel songs, hymns, and spirituals. Reverend McFerrin did not wish his son to sing secular music, but in the end, this wish was undone by his desire to give him the best possible education.
After McFerrin completed the eighth grade in Memphis, his father sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in St. Louis so he could attend Sumner High School, where his musical horizons widened. He joined the choir and impressed the director, Wirt Walton; sufficiently, he began teaching McFerrin privately. Walton also arranged for McFerrin's first vocal recital to help him earn funds for his college enrolment.
After graduating from high school in 1940, McFerrin enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Following his freshman year, the young baritone won a scholarship to attend Chicago Musical College and transferred to that institution. World War II and the Draft interrupted McFerrin's schooling, but he returned to Chicago Musical College after discharge and received his degree in 1948. That same year McFerrin moved to New York City and began receiving vocal coaching from Hall Johnson, the composer and choir director. McFerrin married Sara Copper, another aspiring singer, in 1949. The couple had two children, Robert Jr. (Bobby) and Brenda.
In New York, McFerrin's singing career prospered. A 1949 appearance in a small role in the Kurt Weill Broadway musical, Lost in the Stars led to an acquaintance with Boris Goldovsky. Goldovsky presented the baritone in the title role of Rigoletto at the Tanglewood Music Festival that year and cast him in his company, the New England Opera Theater, as Valentin in Faust and Iphigénie en Tauride by Gluck. That year he also performed as Amonasro in Aida with the National Negro Opera Company He made his New York City Opera debut, singing the role of Popaloi, a voodoo doctor, in the premiere of William Grant Still's Haitian opera Troubled Island. In 1950 McFerrin sang the title role in Rigoletto with the New England Opera. Moving between opera and Broadway, in 1951, he performed in a revival of The Green Pastures. The following year he sang in My Darlin' Aida, a version of Verdi's Aida updated to 1861 and set in Memphis, Tennessee. He also returned to the National Negro Opera Company in 1952 to sing Valentin in Faust.
In 1953, McFerrin won the Metropolitan Opera's "Auditions of the Air," the first African American to do so. McFerrin received 13 months of training but did not receive a contract. No black person had ever sung on the stage of the Met. In 1950 the Metropolitan Opera came under the leadership of Sir Rudolf Bing, who was determined to integrate the Met's casting of singers. During Bing's tenure as the first African American to sing on the Met stage, Marian Anderson made history. McFerrin followed with his Met debut in the same month, on January 27, 1955. Thus, McFerrin became the first Black man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.
Rarely stated in the great publicity surrounding Marian Anderson's accomplishment is that McFerrin was already engaged in making his debut when Anderson received her contract. With his Rigoletto in 1956, McFerrin became the first African American to sing a title role at the Met. In addition, McFerrin was the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera. He achieved the same distinction with his Rigoletto in Naples at the San Carlo Opera in 1956. His debut role at the Met was Amonasro, the Ethiopian king, in Aida. He sang for three years at the Metropolitan Opera, seven times as Amonasro, once as Valentin in Faust, and twice in the title role of Rigoletto. Concerned with the uncertainty of his future in New York, McFerrin resigned from his position at the Met in favor of his chances in Hollywood. After 1958 he never appeared at the Metropolitan Opera.
McFerrin went to California in 1958 to work on the Otto Preminger movie, Porgy, and Bess. The casting plans for this production of the George Gershwin opera slated Sidney Poitier as Porgy. Poitier was to act the role onscreen and lip-synch the musical numbers. McFerrin was engaged in providing Porgy's singing voice. When the movie was released in 1959, the New York Times stated that, like Poitier's acting, McFerrin's singing was "as sensitive and strong as one could wish." The soundtrack was released as an LP. McFerrin and his wife set up a vocal studio in Los Angeles and began teaching.
In 1959 McFerrin was engaged to teach singing lessons at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, and later, he became a voice teacher at Sacramento State College. During that time, the McFerrins' marriage ended in divorce. He credited his ex-wife with helping to support the family while he was beginning his career. She also played as his piano accompanist and helped him learn new music on the keyboard. After 15 years in California, McFerrin moved to St. Louis, Missouri. After their divorce, Sara McFerrin was a music professor at Fullerton College, in California, from 1973 to 1993, serving as Voice Department Chair and Music Department Chair. In 1973 he returned to St Louis, the city where he had attended high school; it remained his primary residence for the rest of his life. McFerrin accepted an appointment as Artist-in-Residence at the St. Louis Institute of Music Conservatory, performing and teaching.
During these years, he sang in public with his children. Bobby and Brenda had grown up in a household where music was a major topic of conversation and where, as Bobby McFerrin recalls, "there were all kinds of music." Bobby and Brenda became professional singers, though they chose not to follow in their parent's footsteps in the classical field. Bobby became a non-classical singer, conductor, composer, and Grammy Award, winner. Calling herself a consumer vocalist, Brenda pursued a career as a Motown recording artist. The three sang in 1987 at a benefit concert for the McFerrin Endowment for Minority Artists at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
After McFerrin sustained a stroke in 1989 that affected his speech, he could still sing. In 1993 he appeared with his son and the St. Louis Symphony; Bobby conducted, and McFerrin senior sang. He married his second wife, Athena Bush, in 1995. McFerrin was twice awarded honorary doctorates: in 1987 from Stowe Teacher's College, St. Louis, and in 1989 from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. In 2003 Opera America, in conjunction with the Association of U.S. and International Professional Opera Companies and Opera Volunteers International, honored McFerrin with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He also has a brass star and bronze plaque embedded in the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Robert McFerrin Sr., the first Black man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, suffered a heart attack on November 24, 2006, and died in St. Louis at age 85. He is buried at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
McFerrin's accomplishments as a Black man in the field of classical singing served as an inspiration to singers of color who followed, especially men. Upon McFerrin's death, the African American tenor, George Shirley, wrote, "Robert McFerrin Sr.'s heart was that of a giant; as one of the world's greatest singers and courageous pioneers, he instilled within me and countless other black males the resolve to pursue our destinies as performers in the profession of grand opera. In spite of the personal hardships he endured, his magnificent voice retained its amazing power and beauty well into his 8th decade..."
His son, Bobby McFerrin, has said in interviews, "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 me hearing his voice."