It is difficult to believe that we will never hear that hearty voice again or see the twinkle in his eyes. But artists never die for they live on in their art.

SPB or SP Balasubramanyam singing in a white kurta
Flix SPB Friday, September 25, 2020 - 13:40

Close to 15 years ago, when I was a cold and homesick graduate student in the UK, I remember sitting alone in my room and welcoming the New Year with SPB’s ‘Hiii everybody, wish you a HAPPY NEW YEAR!’ from Sakalakalavallavan. I only needed to listen to that booming, enthusiastic voice to feel my spirits rising. It may not be the same song for everyone, but there will be at least one SPB song that is capable of working this magic on anyone who is fond of film music.

SP Balasubrahmanyam recorded over 40,000 songs in 16 languages in a career spanning 54 years. That’s an average of close to 741 songs a year, two songs per day for every day of the year. A mind-boggling number for any artist, however prolific. But anyone who has followed SPB’s career wouldn’t be surprised by these numbers. After all, the singer once recorded a whopping 21 Kannada songs for composer Upendra Kumar in a mere 12 hours! He has also recorded 19 songs in Tamil and 16 songs in Hindi in a day.

Born in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, to SP Sambamurthy and Sakunthalamma, Balasubrahmanyam had seven siblings — two brothers and five sisters (including singer SP Shailaja). His father was a Harikatha artist who would also act in plays, and SPB’s inclination towards the arts began from a young age. Though he enrolled in an engineering course, he was never far from music and was the leader of a light music troupe which had the Pavalar brothers — Ilaiyaraaja, Gangai Amaran and Baskar - as well as Anirutta, a harmonium player. In fact, according to actor and film historian Mohan Ram, it was SPB who drove around Ilaiyaraaja and Gangai Amaran in the ‘70s, introducing them to filmmakers. This friendship would turn sour, bittersweet and sweet again over the years.

Debut in Telugu and foray into Tamil cinema

SPB’s mother tongue was Telugu and he made his debut with the 1967 film Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna, directed by Hemambharada Rao. The film’s music was composed by his mentor SP Kondandapani and SPB sang his first ever song in cinema — a duet with P Susheela called ‘Emi Ee Vintha Moham’.

In the ‘70s, SPB stepped into Tamil cinema with MGR’s Adimai Penn and would soon go on to sing for other superstars like Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan. But how did Adimai Penn happen? According to SPB, MGR was sitting under a tree during a break in the shoot at AVM studios. SPB was recording a Telugu song for the dubbed version of an MGR film there. At the time, there were no air conditioners and the doors of the studio were left open. So taken in was MGR by the singer’s voice that he asked his assistants to find him. And subsequently, the superstar suggested SPB’s name to music director KV Mahadevan.

It was an act of kindness from MGR’s side that ensured that SPB would go on to have a blistering career in the Tamil industry. In an interview to The Hindu, SPB revealed that he was supposed to sing the iconic song ‘Aaiyiram Nilave Va’ from Adimai Penn but he could not go to Jaipur where the recording sessions were happening because he fell ill with typhoid. The disheartened singer assumed that he wouldn’t be singing the song after all, but to his surprise, MGR ensured that he did. Recalling the incident, SPB said, “He asked me if I had told my friends about the song and even sung it for them. He said, ‘What if they watch the film and find out that you hadn’t sung? People might think that you didn’t do a good job and that we decided not to use your voice. Since this will affect your career, I postponed the shoot in Jaipur till your recovery’.”

SPB would also go on to sing for another KV Mahadevan film, Sankarabharanam, in 1980, which would win him his first National Award. The Telugu film was a delight for music lovers and brought back Carnatic music into mainstream cinema in a big way. This, despite the fact that SPB was never formally trained in classical music. Sagara Sangamam and Rudraveena were two other music-based films which would have been poorer if not for SPB’s powerful renditions.

But it wasn’t only Carnatic music for which he was known. The astonishingly versatile singer could sing anything and everything, from romantic duets to soulful melodies and energetic, jolly songs. He would also introduce variations and playful exclamations in his songs that made them unique and a signature SPB song.

Voice of superstars — Salman Khan, Rajini, Kamal, Chiranjeevi and many more

Just as he’d become the voice of the superstars in the south, when SPB went to Bollywood, he became Salman Khan’s favourite. SPB first sang for Salman’s Maine Pyar Kiya (1989) and the success of the film’s music was enough for the singer to grow in stature in the notoriously difficult terrain of the Hindi film industry. Of course, he’d already picked up a National Award for his very first Hindi film — Ek Duuje Ke Liye in 1981. His biggest Salman hit, which still has amazing recall value, is perhaps ‘Didi Tera Devar Deewana’, which he sang with Lata Mangeshkar.

For Rajinikanth fans, SPB has for long been their call for celebration. The singer has typically sung Rajinikanth’s introduction songs, his booming voice setting the stage for the fan frenzy in cinema halls across the country. In fact, the Rajinikanth and SPB combination was such a time honoured tradition that when director Pa Ranjith broke it with Kabali, there was much hand-wringing over the departure. He shared a close friendship with Kamal Haasan, too, being the singer who has sung the maximum songs for Kamal films.

In Telugu cinema, SPB was the voice for the songs of many superstars, including Chiranjeevi, Venkatesh, Balakrishna and Nagarjuna. The popularity of these songs provided great leverage to the actors when they were in their initial period, trying to establish themselves. He has sung for Prabhas, too.

In his prolific career, SPB worked with composers young and old, from MS Viswanathan to Hamsalekha and AR Rahman. There are many, many memorable songs belted out by the singer and no single article can capture the breadth of his contributions. Enough to say that every generation alive will have SPB songs that bring back memories.

SPB had also acted in several films, from doing cameos to full fledged roles. His portrayal as a single parent who has to grapple with his daughter’s rejection of his romantic interest in another woman, proved his mettle as an actor. The ‘Mannil Indha’ song from the film, which sounds like a breathless rendition, became a phenomenon, with several aspiring singers in stage shows attempting it to prove their skill.

The singer played many other memorable roles, including dancing with Prabhu Deva in Kadhalan where he played the latter’s father. SPB displayed surprising grace in the dance, matching steps with Prabhu Deva.

He was a natural performer, an entertainer who knew the pulse of the audience. He also never forgot to be compassionate to his fellow musicians onstage. Like this performance of ‘Ilaya Nila’ in front of Ilaiyaraaja, where the flautist made a mistake. Not only did SPB cover up for him, he also explained what went wrong to the audience and gave the musician an opportunity to play the instrument again.

It is difficult to believe that we will never hear that hearty voice again or see the twinkle in his eyes. But artists never die for they live on in their art. SPB’s death is an irreparable loss to music fans around the world, and the only way we can mourn him is to remember him for the life he led; the immortal music he gave us and the lines which have become a part of our souls. He will live through us all, never forgotten and forever cherished.

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