Solace, warmth, comfort and nostalgia are some of the words Gen Z would use to describe SP Balasubrahmanyam, or simply SPB, as he is fondly referred to by film-music lovers. 2017 marked 50 glorious years of SPB's debut in singing — he began on December 15, 1966, with the Telugu film Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna.
An engineering student who won singing competitions in cultural programmes, SPB or Balu as he is known in the film industry, caught the 'ear' of yesteryear music director Kodhandapani, who judged him as the best singer in a one such event. The rest is history. Any 80s kid will know SPB from the many Ilaiyaraaja hits that would play on All India Radio's Vividh Bharti programme called 'Ungal Viruppam' (Your Choice). The gleeful first flush of romance, the lilting refrain of a love lost or gained, racy dance numbers and solo sad songs — SPB unleashed his full potential in them. Be it Tamil or Telugu songs, his wonderfully gifted voice stood out among other singers of his generation.
Legend has it that whenever any music director used to ask the young, fresh-out-of-college SPB to audition for a song, he would sing the mellow PB Sreenivas number 'Nilave Ennidam Nerungaathey Nee Ninaikkum Idathil Naan Illai' from Ramu (1966). That a Telugu boy could sing in such impeccable Tamil was impressive enough to get SPB his third song in Tamil cinema with the reigning king of film-music MS Viswanathan (MSV). SPB's second song was in Kannada, an industry he came to dominate, along with Telugu and Tamil, later on. MSV gave him an opportunity to sing for the 'King of Romance' Gemini Ganesan. It was a pleasant coincidence that the song SPB used as his calling card from the film Ramu was also picturised on Gemini Ganesan and here he was singing playback for the same leading man! The song was 'Iyarkai Ennum Ilayakanni' from Shanthi Nilayam (1969) and it was a chartbuster.
The song for MGR that took SPB places
The same year, SPB was called to sing for none other than MG Ramachandran (MGR) who asked the youngster to sing for him in his directorial venture Adimai Penn. SPB developed a brief illness and couldn't attend the scheduled recording of the song 'Aayiram Nilave Vaa'. MGR waited three months for him to recover. SPB recalled in another interview to this writer, that MGR had told him: "You would have informed your family and friends about this chance to sing for a hero like me, and now, if the song was released in someone else's voice it would embarrass you. You're a talented budding singer Balu, I will wait till you get better and come back!' MGR's decision catapulted SPB into the singing orbit of Tamil cinema. SPB's voice made MGR look younger than his years. The film and the song were runaway hits, and Telugu stars such as NT Ramarao (NTR) and A Nageshwara Rao (ANR) called SPB to sing for them as well.
Parallel to the MGR anecdote is the one SPB shared with Sivaji Ganesan. The song in Sumathi Enn Sundari (1971), in which SPB sang 'Pottu Vaitha Mugamo' for Sivaji Ganesan was a romantic duet. The veteran actor visited the song recording to observe SPB's expressions so he could re-enact them during the song shoot. SPB was many years younger than Sivaji and the actor wanted to adapt. He is known to have told SPB, "You have done your bit in front of the mike, now watch me do mine in front of the camera!" The song and the way Sivaji acted in it saw SPB become the new name in playback singing, replacing TM Soundararajan and Ghantasala in Tamil and Telugu, respectively.
SPB grew from strength to strength in the 70s and 80s and established his stronghold in the 90s as well. He has a tally of six National awards for Best Playback Singer and is a recipient of two of India's highest civilian honours — the Padma Shri (2001) and the Padma Bhushan (2011). SPB is also the recipient of the highest number of Filmfare awards for playback singing across Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi and has been honoured with other State and Central Government recognitions, along with doctorates from Universities.
An 'untrained singer' as he likes to call himself, SPB won his first national award for the rich, classical number 'Omkara Naadhaanu', a song set in the raaga Shankarabharanam (Shankarabharanam, 1979). Till then, SPB was known for his macho 'hero-based singing'. It was the late composer KV Mahadevan who showcased SPB's full-throated prowess in rendering classical songs for the film's middle-aged protagonist played by Somayajulu. The film was directed by K Vishwanath with whom SPB shared a familial bond (he was KV's cousin) and a professional one like he did with late director K Balachander in Tamil.
SPB is often likened to Kishore Kumar but his personal favourite has always been Mohd. Rafi. This confluence of styles explains how SPB's alpha-male rendering is also full of soulful sweetness. Duets or solos, vibrant, peppy numbers or pathos, SPB was beginning to rule the audio tracks post his national award, singing for MSV in Tamil and then for a new music director named Ilaiyaraaja who was taking giant leaps with every film he composed for. SPB became Ilaiyaraaja's best singing asset. In combination with KJ Yesudas, the trio has given us music that is evergreen.
SPB was also singing non-stop for Kamalhaasan, Rajinikanth, Chiranjeevi and Vishnuvardhan in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, respectively. He had an inherent flair for languages with a capacity for picking up notes and pitch and an innate ability to learn any song in less than 20 minutes. SPB went on to record as many as 16 songs in a day for a Hindi film, 19 in Tamil and recorded 21 songs from 9 am to 9 pm in Kannada, still a record for any playback singer.
The recording technology of our present day gives a singer the space to record a song line-by-line, yet SPB sings the whole 'pallavi' (first stanza) even for a retake, which is rare. Also, unlike the songs of today, which may have more than one singer singing for a hero, the audio scene till the mid 90s was filled with one-voice albums for the hero and heroine. Meaning, SPB or Yesudas would by and large sing all songs for the hero and either S Janaki or P Suseela or later Chitra would sing all songs for the heroine. This identified a 'singing-voice' with that of the 'acting-voice'. Thus, SPB became the "singing voice" for the 80s and 90s superstars in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada while Malayalam remained a Yesudas bastion. Around the mid 80s, SPB also sang for actor Mohan, who played a singer in many films. SPB is called "Paadum Nila Balu" during stage shows; this is after a famous duet he sang for Mohan in the film Udhaya Geetham (1987). Beginning with his first Tamil song 'Aayiram Nilave Vaa', SPB had this affinity with the moon; hence the adage 'Paadum nila' fits him well, but SPB shone like a blazing sun in the field of film playback singing for over three decades.
Ilaiyaraaja also composed for Telugu films, and the late 80s and early 90s saw newer heroes such as Nagarjuna and Venkatesh join the superstar bandwagon in Telugu cinema; SPB sang for them and Chiranjeevi in equal measure. With such a big battalion of heroes, directors and music directors in more than one language, SPB struck a winning hand with all of them. However, his musical partnership with Ilaiyaraaja transcends time — tune into 'Kadhalin Dheepam Ondru' from Thambikku Yendha Ooru (1984) or the duet 'Appane Theeyanee Dheppaa' from the Chiranjeevi-Sridevi starrer Jagadheka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari (1990) to know why.
There are other songs of SPB that have stood the test of time. Tune into this 'sung-in-overlapping-seconds' number 'En Kanmani Un Kadhali' a duet SPB sung with P Susheela in the film Chittukuruvi (1978) that enunciates SPB's clear diction and penchant for expressive rendering, or the wonderful 'Yengengo Sellum Yenn Ennangal' from Pattakathi Bhairavan (1979) or 'Idhu Oru Ponn Maalai Pozhudhu' from the Bharathiraja film Nizhalgal (1980) to get a whiff of the SPB charm.
Bond with Kamal
With Kamal, with whom he shared a close bond, SPB had many hits. An eternal December 31 song is the 'Happy New Year' song 'Ilamai Idho Idho' from the Kamal-starrer Sakalakalavallavan (1982). Their song partnership began in the 70s and lasted till mid-2000. SPB also had an annual live music event on November 7 (Kamal's birthday) titled "Kamalum Naanum" where songs and anecdotes would engage the audience.
A master of mischievous expressions, SPB found his singing soul-mate first in S Janaki and thereafter in KS Chitra. But his 'Muthumani Maalai' duet with P Susheela from Chinna Gounder (1991) is another lesson on how to sing a duet. SPB also shares a history of hit songs with Lata Mangeshkar, who ironically has never recorded a song along with SPB in the same studio — they always used to record separately due to schedule clashes, but the synchronised singing speaks volumes of their talent. The one song that showcases this best is the Ilaiyaraaja number 'Valaiyosai Kalakalavena' from Sathya (1988), starring Kamal and Amala.
SPB began music tours way back in the 80s, with Ilaiyaraaja and his brothers. Few singers can match the effect of a recorded album when they perform live on stage; SPB set standards here as well. SPB is a spontaneous, friendly singer, but would prepare for every pause and notation so he would rarely err in front of the audience.
His kindness and smiling demeanour saw him take on another avatar as judge and host for several musical reality shows on television.
SPB's speaking voice found an avenue early on in his career. In the days of dubbed films, it was SPB who became Kamal's voice for many Tamil-Telugu films, including Nayagan (1987) — he also sang the two songs rendered by Mano in Tamil. Another iconic song SPB rendered in Telugu when the original was sung by Kamal in Tamil, is Guna's beautiful 'Kanmani Anbodu Kadhalan' that became 'Priyathama Neevachata Kusalama' in Telugu. Even the conversation in between is rendered to the exact meter, measure and mood of Kamal's voice.
In 1989, SPB re-entered Hindi films with Maine Pyar Kiya, and the star who was born with it was Salman Khan, for whom SPB sang many times over. His most famous song for Salman is 'Didi Tera Devar Deewana' from Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994). SPB's foray into Hindi happened because of K Balachander, who made a Tamil hero Kamal speak Hindi lines in Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981). The Laxmikant-Pyarelal song 'Tere Mere Beech Mein' fetched SPB his second national award.
In sync with composers
Circa 1992. Enter AR Rahman with Mani Ratnam's Roja and SPB sang the iconic 'Kadhal Rojave'. SPB had a perfect sync with all his music directors, who repeatedly called him to sing in their films. T. Rajendhar only used SPB to sing all his songs for all his films. Ilaiyaraaja, Deva, Vidyasaagar, AR Rahman, Harris Jeyaraj, MM Keeravani or Hamsalekha, SPB would sing round-the-clock in Chennai, Hyderabad or Bangalore from the late 70s to the mid 2000s. SPB sang all of Rajinikanth's songs (music by Rahman) in Kochadaiyaan (2014). Listen to the duet 'Medhuvaagathaan' and contrast it to the 'Pudhiya Manidhaa Bhoomikku Vaa' from Enthiran (2010) to understand SPB's range.
Rahman gave SPB some of his best songs in the last decade, and also his sixth national award when he made SPB sing with a slightly off-key tone for the edgy 'Thangathamarai Magaley' from Minsaara Kanavu (1997). Another energetic SPB-Rahman song is 'Sakkara Inikkira Sakkara' from New (2004). Then there is the rare 'Thazhuvudhu Nazhuvudhu' from Anbe Aaruyire (2005), which combines an almost dialogue-like rendering of a song and theatrics.
SPB's devotional albums are hugely popular too, especially his rendition of the Lingashtakam and songs of Annamayya.
As an actor, SPB's career started with K Balachander's Manadhil Urudhi Vendum (1987) where he played a doctor who sings (but naturally!) but it was in Vasanth's Keladi Kanmani (1990) that he turned hero. Paired with a powerhouse performer like Radhika, SPB held his own with his easy body language and uncanny dialogue-delivery. The song 'Mannil Indha Kadhal' that he is presumed to have sung without taking a breath (he has denied this on every stage where he sings it live to the same effect as in the album!) is a signature SPB hallmark. So is any hero-introduction song, like the Rajnikanth number tuned by AR Rahman for Muthu (1995), 'Oruvan Oruvan Mudhalali'.
SPB has an enviable track record with Harris Jeyaraj who gave him two super-hit soul-stirring numbers in 'Yamma Yamma Kadhal Ponamma' from AR Murugadoss' 7-aam Arivu (2011) and 'Yenn Kaadhal Thee' for the Selvaraghavan film Irandaam Ulagam (2013). Murugadoss' team was shocked when SPB went up for the recording and came down in half an hour; they thought he was learning, but he had finished recording.
The stories are endless — for SPB the singer and person are a gift that keep giving. His demise is a loss that cannot be replaced. In some ways, it does feel like the end of the world.
(Parts of this article appeared in indiaabroad.com some years ago)