S.P. Balasubramanyam, aka SPB, is an icon of signing in the film world. A naturally-gifted playback singer, he has left an indelible mark singing in many languages and winning hearts of connoisseurs and fans alike. So much so people across the globe united in a unique prayer for the wellbeing of the multilingual singer on August 20.
Even as the globe struggles to find ways to emerge out of the disaster caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, SPB – the singing mesmerizer – fell victim to the dreaded virus and was hospitalized in Chennai on August 5. Though initially asymptomatic, his health took for the worse sending shock waves among his fans, music lovers and the film fraternity at large.
If ever there was any versatile singer in the world, it has to be SPB or ‘Balu’ to his dear friends as he could fluently sing in many languages with equal aplomb and poise. The worldwide response to the online call by film director Bharatiraaja stands testimony to Balu’s overwhelming popularity as a global citizen as he has enriched the film music world with 40,000 songs in 16 Indian languages. A multifaceted personality, he has also successfully donned the roles of music director, actor, dubbing artist and film producer.
The accidental singer
His entry into playback singing was accidental. Born on June 4, 1946, in Konetampet of Nellore in the unified Madras Presidency, his family had Telugu origins. SPB’s father, late S. P. Sambamurthy was an exponent of harikatha, the tradition of narrating stories about gods through songs. SPB didn’t train in classical singing, although he did show interest in learning instruments. He wanted to become an engineer and enrolled in JNTU, Ananthpur to pursue his engineering but could not pursue his educational dream.
A college friend’s intervention in 1963 changed SPB’s future and professional career. The friend entered Balasubrahmanyam’s name in a light music competition, which he won. At another such competition, music director SP Kodandapani asked for an audition. The budding singer chose the melody Nilave Ennidam Nerungathe, sung by P.B. Sreenivas in the Tamil movie Ramu. Later on, S.P Kodandapani became his mentor and guru, the rest is history.
Foray into different languages
Balasubrahmanyam made his professional debut on December 15, 1966, in the Telugu movie ‘Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna’. The song that cemented his career also marked his entry into Tamil cinema. In 1969, SPB recorded the song ‘Airman Nilave Vaa’ for ‘Adimai Penn’, which became a blockbuster.
Several music directors quickly warmed to Balasubrahmanyam’s talent. He then started foraying into Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi languages as the enchantment of his melodious voice and genial features spread far and wide.
With the advent of music directors Ilaiyaraaja and A.R. Rahman, the new singer on the block, who had begun to be seen as a viable alternative to doyens T.M. Soundararajan and P.B. Srinivas who had for decades been hogging the limelight, soon came into his own.
SPB has been a regular feature in the films for which music has been composed by Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman and it would be no exaggeration to say that his popularity had peaked by then and his singing prowess played very vital roles in their climb to the top too.
The Ilaiyraaja-SPB combination gave the Tamil film industry some of the biggest chartbusters including numbers like ‘Chinnamani Poove’, ‘Sangeetha Jaathi Mullai’ and ‘Malayoram Veesum Kaatru’.
SPB, who wooed Kannada audiences with hit numbers from the 1960s, teamed up with popular Kannad film music director Hamsalekha to deliver chartbusters in the super hit ‘Prema Loka’ and has remained a favorite of the popular music director ever since.
Lakshmikant-Pyarelal (L-P) scored the music for Balachander’s Hindi film ‘Ek Du Je Keliye’ a remake of his Telugu hit ‘Maro Charitra’. One of the conditions that Balachander laid down to L-P was that he wanted SPB as the male voice in all the songs.
In Hindi, SPB became the voice of Salman Khan in films like ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’ and ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ and his duets with Lata Mangeshkar became an all time rage. Almost all the songs that SPB has sung in Hindi cinema can be classified under the category ‘evergreen hits’ as they are as popular even today. He returned to Bollywood after a long hiatus to sing for the Shahrukh Khan starrer ‘Chennai Express’.
SPB and Raaja
SPB’s association with Ilaiyaraaja (aka Raaja) dates back to the days when the maestro was conducting concerts all over Tamil Nadu. He was the leader of a light music troupe comprising of Anirudha (on the harmonium), Ilaiyaraaja (on guitar and later on harmonium), Bhaskar (on percussion), and Gangai Amaran (on guitar). After Raaja got his break with the film ‘Annakili’ SPB become a vital cog in most of the films for which Raaja scored the music.
The story of an enduring friendship between SPB and Raaja, despite changing fortunes and vicissitudes of life, has transcended nearly five decades.
In the early days, SPB and Raaja used to occasionally spend jovial evenings together but later Ilayaraaja turned spiritual, almost becoming a sage, and the meetings between the two were largely restricted to recording studios and film functions. When Ilayraaja’s brother Gangai Amaran wanted to marry the girl with whom he had fallen in love, it was SPB who spoke to her parents and gained their acceptance for the wedding.
21 Songs in the Span of 12 Hours
SPB holds a record for recording a maximum number of songs in a day. Yes, the singer has recorded 21 songs in the span of 12 hours for Kannada composer Upendra Kumar. Also, he has recorded 19 Tamil songs in a day and 16 songs in a day in Hindi. He also holds the Guinness record for singing the most number of songs in a lifetime. In the song, ‘Mannil Intha’ for the film ‘Keladi Kanmani’, he created a record of singing continuously without pausing for his breath.
At the height of his popularity SPB turned into a dubbing artist and made a success of this vocation as well. He also acted and initially did a few cameo roles. Vasanth, a one-time assistant to Balachander, chose him for a hero’s role in the film ‘Keladi Kanmani’ where Radhika played the female lead. He has also tried his hands at film production and has been an integral part of reality shows on TV for quite some time now.
Sister S P Sailaja
SPB’s sister, S.P.Sailaja or Sripathi Panditaradhyula Sailaja, is also a versatile singer and sought after by many musicians in the early 1980s and late 1990s. For about a decade, Sailaja shone in the cine industry as a versatile singer and an eminent actress apart from being a humble personality. Sailaja has also sungs songs in almost all south Indian languages, including Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam films.
Celebrities conduct mass prayer
With the perturbing news of SPB battling for his life because of COVID-19 infection in a hospital, film personalities including top stars Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, A.R. Rahman fans and music-lovers joined hands and prayed for veteran singer’s speedy recovery.
Actors Radhakrishnan Parthiban, Vivek, Silambarasan, Manobala and veteran actress Saroja Devi were among those who appealed to people to join the prayers. Vivek said: “Prayer is very powerful and when crores of fans come together and pray it has a special force. For our SPB sir, let us pray for a minute.”
The mass prayers were conducted for five minutes on the Zoom platform where people across society rendered SPB’s songs in their homes and other places, prayed for his quick recovery.
Compiled by: Preethi Jayaraman
Edited by: TrinityMirror Online Team