His was a wonder voice. It could soar like Mohammad Rafi, intoxicate like Kishore Kumar, caress like A M Raja or energise like T M Soundarrajan. “Whenever I felt low, his voice would rejuvenate me,” said Suhasini Mani Ratnam, referring to the music legend S P Balasubrahmanyam.
His record as playback singer was staggering. He sang some 45,000 songs in 16 languages over 54 years. Besides, he composed music for 40 films, acted in 45 films, and dubbed in Telugu for several top actors; he was also variously the voice of Ben Kingsley (for the Telugu version of Gandhi), Anil Kapoor, Rajinikanth and Girish Karnad. He won six National Awards, six Filmfare, 25 Andhra Pradesh Nandi, four Tamil Nadu State and three Karnataka State Awards. He was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2001, the Padma Bhushan in 2011. He recorded 21 songs on a single day for a Kannada film, 19 Tamil songs on a single day and 16 Hindi songs on a single day. He performed thousands of live shows around the world, and was a huge draw each time — demonstrating that the SPB mania was as potent in the US or UK, Singapore or Malaysia, as in India. SPB was the first singer from the south to achieve national stardom. He went on to become the voice of Salman Khan.
SPB offered to donate money for a ₹7-crore state-of-the-art government school that was set up last year in Perumbakkam by the Rotary Club of Madras.
The Telugu film Sankarabharanam (1980) epitomised both the majesty of classical music and the power and wizardry of SPB. All of SPB’s nine songs in the film (including six duets) were enthralling — the film got the lay public hooked to classical music. Intriguingly, SPB had no classical training himself. How did he manage this feat?
Says lyricist Vairamuthu: “A dictionary does not make you a good writer; tutors and classes don’t make you a good singer; even talent alone won’t do. But SPB combined natural musical talent with expressiveness, astonishing grasping power and memory.” Vairamuthu added that just as Sivaji Ganesan could memorise text very fast, SPB could memorise tunes at remarkable speed. “He learned a tune in 15 minutes and sang it in 10 minutes,” says A R Rahman.
“Your song can impact a listener only if you transform your personality,” says Vairamuthu. “You must become a lover, a warrior, a philosopher, a bird flying in the sky. SPB achieved such transformation with remarkable acumen.”
The Rafi touch
He says SPB was the king of romantic songs. “He sang between his nose and throat for such songs, to give his voice a young feeling.” For philosophical songs, he would modulate his voice, giving it greater maturity. Singer Surendran Menon says that the script of SPB’s songs sometimes had the word “Rafi” written above particular words — a reminder to himself that he should impart a Rafi touch when converting those words to song.
Pianist Anil Srinivasan said SPB’s voice demonstrated the multidimensionality of emotion. “Even happiness is sometimes tinged with sorrow — something his voice conveyed brilliantly.”
SPB used to say that a good singer should be a good human being as well. He himself had a heart of gold — as young singers like Mano whose career he boosted have pointed out — and a sweet tongue. Pianist and also a Rotarian, Anil Srinivasan says that SPB offered to donate money for a ₹7-crore state-of-the-art government school that was set up last year in Perumbakkam by the Rotary Club of Madras. It was meant for children of a community affected by the 2015 floods. “I helped raise ₹2 crore through my contacts in the US. Hearing about this, SPB contacted me and made a donation.”
He adds that the SPB Fans Association has rendered some splendid community service very silently, donating crores of rupees for good causes.
Even happiness is sometimes tinged with sorrow — something his voice conveyed brilliantly.
– Anil Srinivasan, pianist
He was born in Konetammapeta village of Nellore district in 1946 into an orthodox Brahmin family, and a musical environment as his father was a Harikatha artist. His childhood ambition was to be an engineer — “I had in mind a gazetted officer’s job on a salary of ₹250 per month, going about in a chauffeur-driven jeep.” But failure in PUC aborted his ambition, and he moved to Madras to try his luck with AMIE, a professional certificate course.
At 18, he won an amateur singing competition in Chennai. This led to his first film song in Telugu. In 1969, MGR (who had some differences with his regular singer T M Soundarrajan) was most impressed by a Telugu song by SPB, then an unknown youngster. Result: he was asked to render Aayiram nilave vaa composed by K V Mahadevan for the MGR-Jayalalitha starrer Adimai Penn (1969). SPB fell ill with typhoid before the recording but MGR waited for him to recover, and sing that song.
This became one of the best Tamil hits of all time, and MGR gifted SPB with a gold ring as a gesture of appreciation. Earlier, legendary composer M S Viswanathan got him to sing the duet Iyarkai ennum ilaya kanni to be filmed on Gemini Ganesh and Kanchana for the film Shanti Nilayam (1935). This was a massive hit too.
SPB’s career zoomed. Sankarabharanam (1980), on the life of a great Carnatic vidwan, was a landmark of Indian cinema.
Carnatic stalwart Balamurali Krishna was to sing the songs, but composer K V Mahadevan wanted SPB. This was a masterstroke. The film became a thundering musical and cinematic triumph. SPB won the first of his several national awards for the sublime and stately rendering of the song Onkara nadanu. The following year, he won his second national award for the song Tere mere beech mein from the film Ek duuje ke liye (1981).
SPB fell ill with typhoid before the recording but MGR waited for him to recover, and sing that song.
Thus began a glorious achievement-studded journey as singer, composer, voice-over artist, international stage show performer, and collaborator with the tallest composers, actors, singers and directors.
In his personal habits, SPB was a rule-breaker. He indulged in ice cream, sweets, chilled water and cold beverages, spicy food and yoghurt. Asked whether buttermilk was bad for the throat, he responded “What use is a throat if you can’t drink buttermilk?” He was a smoker for around 30 years, but gave it up when his daughter Pallavi implored him to quit this habit.
He underwent bariatric surgery in 2012 to lose weight, and brought his weight down from 126kg to 95kg.
Several years earlier, he underwent a surgery to remove a nodule in his throat that affected his singing. Lata Mangeshkar called him to advise him against the surgery, which she said was risky. But SPB went ahead as he was impatient to resume singing. Fortunately for him, it worked.
Incidentally, SPB’s Hindi film career began with him spilling tea on Lata’s sari during a recording for Ek duuje ke liye! He was agitated and upset, but Lata calmed him saying, “don’t worry, this is a good omen”!
Some favourite SPB songs
Though difficult to take a pick from SPB’s armada of songs, here are a few of my favourites; others have been mentioned earlier in the article.
- Dil deewana — Maine pyar kiya,1989
- Enna satham inda neram- Punnagai mannan,1986
- Nilave vaa — Mouna ragam, 1986
- Mannil indha kadhalandri — Keladi kanmani, 1990
- Sundari kannal oru sethi — Thalapathi, 1991
- Kadal rojave — Roja, 1992
- Didi tera dewar deevana — Hum aapke hain koun, 1994.
- Malare mounama — Karna, 1995
- Thanga thamarai magale — Minsara kanavu. 1997
Influences on SPB
SPB hero-worshipped Mohammad Rafi. “No one can be a bigger fan of his than me,” he said. “Something happens to me when I listen to him.” And SPB sang Rafi songs so much like the master that Rafi’s own family was thrilled! When composers tried him out, he always came out with Rafi songs. He said heroines on screen were in love not with the heroes but with Mohammad Rafi, their voice! SPB’s ambition was to sing with Rafi, but he only managed to greet his idol and touch his feet at a recording studio once.
SPB was close to Kamal Haasan. For several years, the singer helped organise an annual live show, Kamalum naanum. He was Kamal’s Telugu voice for as many as 110 films. Said Kamal: “SPB has been a part of my life, my romance, my melancholy, part of my first love and marriage.” It was Kamal who arm-twisted his friend and coaxed him to become an actor.
SPB sang Rafi songs so much like the master that Rafi’s own family was thrilled!
SPB’s friendship with composing wizard Ilayaraja was more than five decades old. He sang some 2,000 songs under the baton of Ilayaraja for films such as Payanangal mudivathillai, Nenjathai killadhae, Rajaparvai, Vettri vizha, Salangai oli, Thalapathy. The two friends fell out three years ago on the question of royalties for Ilayaraja’s compositions. Ilayaraja even sent SPB a legal notice. However, they made up later. Their respective sons are close friends and collaborators in film ventures.
SPB regarded K J Yesudas as his guru. They often sang together at live shows, in India and abroad. “Today he looks like a sadhu, a yogi,” said SPB recently. Before SPB embarked on an international tour in 2017 to celebrate his 50 years in cinema, he washed Yesudas’s feet and did a pada puja ceremony. Yesudas recalls an occasion in Paris when he and SPB returned to the hotel late in the evening. He was famished and there was nothing to eat. In came SPB with a cup of rice, saying “room service”. It was eaten with home-made podi and yoghurt. “It was divine, and I’ll never forget that little dinner,” said Yesudas.
Lyricist Vairamuthu wrote the lyrics for some 1,500 SPB songs, and the two often traded compliments and light-hearted barbs. At a live show some years ago, SPB said of a Vairamuthu lyric “You couldn’t have written this unless you had failed in love at least once.” SPB sang the song based on the lyric, and Vairamuthu remarked “You couldn’t have sung like this unless you had failed in love at least twice.”
The paadum nila (singing moon, a title given to SPB by MGR) has fallen silent, but its radiance will live forever.