Newly married and cash-strapped, McFerrin got a job as a piano accompanist in the University of Utah's department of modern dance.
It was during that gig, while watching the dancers, that the pianist began to sing in earnest, learning about how to use his body as an instrument from student dancers.
"That's when I realized I was really a singer. It was March 11, 1977," McFerrin told The Tribune in an email interview. " I was walking home from playing a dance class and suddenly, I got it. I went home and looked in the phone book for the number of a local hotel lounge and by the end of the week I had my first gig as a singer."
It was the Hilton Hotel that hired him, and the rest is history.
During that time in Salt Lake City, he met dancer and choreographer Tandy Beal. 'She's remained a touchstone in my life, one of my favorite collaborators," McFerrin said.
The singer returns to Utah on Monday for a performance at Weber State University in Ogden.
He answered questions about his career and his forthcoming album "spirityouall," due out in May.
When you talk to students, what advice do you give them?
Sing for 10 minutes every day. No matter what. Don't listen to other singers for a few years it's too hard to hear your own sound. Learn some Bach. Here's what I like to tell everybody: Remember that all of life is improvising. Don't forget to play. Get right with yourself and the people you love and the people you work with and the music will benefit.
You have said that you want everyone to experience a "sense of real joy" and "grace" at the end of a concert. How do you define that?
I'm very lucky. I don't try to define them. I try to live them, musically and personally. I seek them out. I encourage others to seek them. I think that's my mission as a concert artist, though I hope it doesn't sound too pretentious. I am instigating joy and grace wherever I can.
How does "spirityouall" honor your father?
This album is so deeply connected to my father, but it's also so far from anything he ever would have done. The discipline and purity with which he approached the craft of singing imprints everything I do. And I had the incredible chance as a child to hear Hall Johnson (an authority on spirituals and the grandson of a former slave) coaching my father on how to sing the spirituals, telling him about pronunciation and floating around the beat. Really incredible. But I could never have tried to make an album singing these songs the way my father sang them. I couldn't do that nearly as well as he did. I had to find my own way.
How can music help us through life's trials and triumphs?
I just think we sing our way through. If I get onstage and I feel angry at something, the more I sing the more that feeling gets worked out. I can't hold on to it. When I'm done I feel better. There's no better example than the spirituals of singing through trials and tribulations, sending coded messages, talking about pain and hope and life or death situations, calling up all our strength to get to a better place. We just sing our way to a better place.
Are there spirituals that lift you up, personally?
Absolutely. Every song on this new album does that for me. And there are lots more. I'm an improviser, so I always think you know in the moment what song you need to sing, what song you need to hear. Sometimes it's a song you've known all your life. Sometimes you need to make it up as you go along.
No worries with McFerrin
Bobby McFerrin performs as part of Weber State University's Cultural Affairs series.
When • Monday, March 25, at 7:30 p.m.
Where • Peery's Egyptian Theater, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden
Tickets • $33 at SmithsTix, weberstatetickets.com or 801-626-8500