*On September 24, 1988, Bobby McFerrin made history by giving the Billboard Hot 100 its first ever No. 1 single that was strictly acapella. “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” comprised entirely of sounds out of McFerrin’s body, held the top position for two weeks and went on to earn 1989 Grammy Awards for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
It was also named by Village Voice critic Michael Musto as the worst song of all time. All Time. It topped Q100 DJ Bert Weiss’ list of tracks he would ban from radio for good, and made Blender’s “50 Worst Songs Ever” list, saying the lyrics were “appalling” and adding, “It’s difficult to think of a song more likely to plunge you into suicidal despondency than this.”
Very rarely has a song so critically acclaimed been equally publicly defamed, with Public Enemy putting a stamp on the vitriol against its responsibility-shirking sentiment with its “Fight the Power” line “Don’t Worry, Be Happy was a number one jam. Damn if I say it you can slap me right here!”
Let’s dip back to this week in 1988 to get a bit of history behind the polarizing song.
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was released as part of the soundtrack to the 1988 Tom Cruise movie “Cocktail.”
Thirty-two years ago today, it took the number one spot by knocking off “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses.
Guns N’ Roses – Live At The Ritz – 1988 – Sweet Child O’ Mine
It was knocked off of its two week Hot 100 reign by Whitney Houston’s Olympics-themed “One Moment in Time.”
Whitney Houston – One Moment In Time – (Live at Grammy, 1989)
While “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was all the rage atop Billboard’s pop-oriented Hot 100, R&B fans tolerated it, at best. The song never made it past No. 11 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Tracks, where Jeffrey Osborne’s “She’s On The Left” held down the top spot 32 years ago this week.
McFerrin was already an established, multiple Grammy-winning, respected jazz lyricist before the ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy” detour happened. Bill Cosby had featured him in The Playboy Jazz Festival during the 80s, and had McFerrin re-record “The Cosby Show’s” theme for its fourth season.
McFerrin reportedly said he got the idea for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” after visiting the San Francisco apartment of jazz duo Tuck & Patti and noticing a poster on the wall with the phrase “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” referring to the popular expression printed on promotional cards and posters during the 1960s from Indian mystic Meher Baba, who claimed he was God in human form.
Inspired by the charm and simplicity of Meher Baba’s phrase “Don’t worry, be happy,” McFerrin wrote the song’s lyrics and overdubbed percussion, melody, lead vocals and other sounds from his own mouth as the backing track. Its use in “Cocktail” didn’t hurt the promotion. Neither did the presence of comedic stars Robin Williams and Bill Irwin in the music video.
But in an era that saw the emergence of Black power-infused hip hop from the likes of Public Enemy, X-Clan and KRS-One, McFerrin’s artistry in creating an acapella masterpiece came was eventually blurred by lyrics that some interpreted as turning a blind eye to pressing societal issues of race and economics that warranted righteous rage from a Black man, not blissful ignorance.