"Don't Worry Be Happy" reached #1 on the US Hot 100, which is astounding for a song sung a cappella (without instruments). Bobby McFerrin recorded it using only his body to make all the sounds. The simple message and unusual sound made it a surprise hit.
The phrase "Don't Worry Be Happy" came from the Indian guru Meher Baba. In an interview with USA Weekend magazine, McFerrin explained that he saw a poster of Meher Baba with the phrase and thought it was "a pretty neat philosophy in four words."
A jazz artist, Bobby McFerrin has a very adult audience, but 1988 was a year when different generations shared the pop charts. There was plenty of hair metal (Bon Jovi, Def Leppard) and teen pop (Tiffany, Debbie Gibson), but many older-skewing artists as well: The Beach Boys, George Harrison, Chicago and Steve Winwood all had #1 hits. McFerrin was unusual in that he didn't alter his sound for his hit - he released two albums of a cappella jazz prior to Simple Pleasures.
Robin Williams appears in the video, as does the lesser-known comedian Bill Irwin. The clip, which got lots of airplay on MTV, plays up the comedic nature of the song with lots of goofy hijinks, including a scene where McFerrin plays a distraught investor ready to jump out of a window. That part was ripped from the headlines: on October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones lost 508 points, shedding 22% of its value. In the video, McFerrin is holding a newspaper that reads "Dow Plummets 508 Points."
This won Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Performance and Song Of The Year in 1989.
McFerrin is very optimistic in this song, but some of the problems listed in the verses will require more than a cheerful demeanor to overcome. The person he's singing to has lost his bed, has no cash or girlfriend, and his rent is late. "Don't worry" might not be the best advice for him.
The phrase "Don't Worry Be Happy" was used in some cases to criticize people with a rosy outlook on the world, as if they were oblivious to problems. The most notable use of the phrase in this context came from the rap group Public Enemy in their song "Fight The Power" when vocalist Chuck D declared:
Don't Worry Be Happy was a number one jam
Damn, if I say it you can slap me right here
Chuck later explained that he had no animosity toward McFerrin or this song, but was using the phrase as a call to action.
McFerrin wasn't the first jazz musician to have a surprise hit on MTV. That would be Herbie Hancock, who did it with "Rockit" in 1983. Back then, MTV wasn't playing black artists, so Hancock's video was purposefully made to show very little of him.
This got a big push from appearing in the 1988 movie Cocktail, whose soundtrack also included the #1 Beach Boys hit "Kokomo." Other films to use "Don't Worry Be Happy" include:
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (2018)
Battle in Seattle (2007)
Casper - A Spirited Beginning (1997)
There have been many "Don't Worry" songs over the years, including a Marty Robbins hit of that title in 1961. Stevie Wonder had "Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing" in 1974, and Bob Marley got into the spirit with his 1977 Exodus track "Three Little Birds," which goes, "Don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing's gonna be alright."
The "don't worry" theme came up again in the 1994 movie The Lion King, where "Hakuna Matata," meaning "no worries" is a key song and also a major plot point.
This is the only a cappella song to reach #1 in the US. That sound was big in the '50s and '60s among doo-wop groups, but fell out of favor in the '70s, and by the '80s was often a novelty. But a few years later, Boyz II Men emerged with "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," an a cappella track that reached #2. In the 2010s, Pentatonix helped revive the genre, as did the Pitch Perfect movies.
Prior to "Don't Worry Be Happy," the biggest a cappella hit in the US was a cover of the '60s hit "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" by a Canadian group called The Nylons, which reached #12.
In the early '90s, rumors spread that McFerrin attempted suicide not long after releasing this song. This was an urban legend with no basis in fact.
George H. W. Bush used "Don't Worry Be Happy" in his 1988 US presidential campaign but stopped doing so after McFerrin objected.