SPB: Gods Will Sing For Him Now!
Arguably, SPB was the best singer in Indian films. He had the voice. He had the range. He had the diction. He had the delivery. He had the variety.
The best tributes to him are his own songs.
Several years ago when this writer was a cub reporter, he had gone to meet a music director at a popular recording studio in Vadapalani in Chennai. As it happened, that music director had not arrived. But there was SP Balasubrahmanyam recording a Kannada devotional song under the baton of a music composer from Andhra. The song and its structure was being explained to 'SPB' by a musical assistant from Kerala. The rest of the members in the orchestra were mostly Tamil.
SPB discussed the song with the music director in Telugu, chatted with the musicians in Tamil, pulled the leg of the assistant in Malayalam and went out to croon out the number in chaste Kannada with his typical ease and flourish.
But in those 30-odd minutes, this writer could understand that SPB had a way with multiple languages as well as with myriad people.
And that is why today, when he has passed away in Chennai, there is palpable grief all across the country. There is a genuine grief that a true musical legend of this land is dead. Tears shed for him are genuine and emerge from the depths of the hearts of people who used his songs as emotional crutches for decades on end.
The greatness of SPB was his appeal that lay beyond languages and various States. His voice was set to a universal tune, as it were. SPB and his contemporary K J Yesudas are the only singers who have been popular and remarkably successful beyond their home States. To win the approval and love of people from different lands and diverse cultures is not given to ordinary talents. It needs people of genius skills.
And SPB possessed them in abundance.
Great voice, but better human being
Born to a Harikatha artist, SPB had, in a sense, musical genes in him. But he never ventured to formally learn classical Carnatic music, which is deemed a de rigueur to make it as a playback singer, especially in southern India. But he was blessed with a dulcet voice and a strong sense of shruthi which never deserted him all through his stellar career. "I must have done abhishekam (ritual religious bathing) to Lord Shiva in honey to have been blessed with this voice," SPB unassumingly said a long time back.
He knew he had a great voice. He also knew that it was a divine gift. He was remarkably aware of his ability, but equally remarkably never got carried away by that. His voice took him to great heights, but his feet was firmly planted on the ground always.
SPB broke into Telugu and Tamil filmdoms when legends like Ghantasala, TM Soundarrajan, PB Sreenivas were at their peaks in the 1960s. In those days, getting a toe-hold in a close-knit industry was tough. But again, SPB's voice and his essential goodness got him some uncanny breaks.
His first film's music director Kothandapani (for the Telugu film Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna) waited for him as SPB was delayed (the car sent to pick him up was involved in a mishap). SPB, not a man to forget people who had helped him along the way, built a music studio in the name of Kothandapani many years later in Chennai.
And then there was this famous incident involving singer S Janaki who singled out SPB as the best singer in a competition even though the winner's title was given to someone else. SPB never grew tired of mentioning Janaki's good deed for him.
And then there was ace Tamil director K Balachander, who stuck his neck out and insisted that music directors Laxmikant-Pyarelal take only SPB for singing in his (KB's) Hindi film Ek Duje Keliye. LP wanted a Hindi singer to croon for Kamal Haasan in the film.
SPB not only remained indebted to KB but also repaid the confidence that the latter had reposed on him by winning the National Award for the song Tere Mere Beech Me --- his debut song in Hindi.
Much earlier, when SPB was to sing for MG Ramachandran (MGR), who was making a momentous move away from T M Soundarrajan, he (SPB) fell ill. Again, MGR stuck to his guns and got SPB to record the song after he recovered from his fever.
His first recorded song for a Tamil film (Hotel Rambha) never got released. But in a superstition-filled industry, it is a surprise that they did not stigmatise him.
His life is strewn with many such reassuring incidents that give hope to people who believe in being good in an old-fashioned way.
The voice of love and fun, agony and pathos
From a simple, unfussy start to his career in the 1960s, SPB came into his own in the happening '70s when South Indian film music started emerging out of the huge shadow of Bollywood tunes.
New flavours and feelings were being infused by emerging talents in the Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam industries. That fresh music cried out for an extraordinarily flexible and free-flowing voice. And there, there was SPB. The legend of SPB began from that period.
Be it fun or love songs, for which his voice was deemed tailor-made, to sentimental, pathos-filled numbers, SPB could deliver them with an aplomb and panache that were to become his defining skills in playback singing.
Take the 1975 Tamil film, Pattikaattu Raja and its song . Set to tune by the duo Shankar-Ganesh, the song has a RD Burman jazzy feel printed all over its bouncy, throbbing structure. SPB delivers the song with a loveable insouciance and infectious pulsation.
The other highlight of this rhythmically rambunctious number is its catchy background harmony --- as it happens, SPB is also said to have given his voice to that also.
And then there was in Sollathaan Ninaikiren in 1973. Listen to this, you get an early glimpse of the famed SPB energy and punch in playful songs. In the 1976 release , the title song called for a voice that oozed romance and at the same time was suggestive of breezy seduction. Again, SPB delivered it in an excellent fashion.
These are just samples which show us that SPB's greatness was evident right from the early part of his career.
The thing about SPB's singing was that he could evoke any kind of emotion and slip into any kind of style.
In (Mayangugiral Oru Maadhu, 1975) there is a Mohammed Rafi kind of emotional heft.
There is the mad enthusiasm and robustness in (Ninaithale Inikkum, 1979) that is so reminiscent of Kishore Kumar.
In (Pattina Pravesam, 1977), SPB's voice drips with melancholy that is Mukesh-like.
In Anbe Sangeetha (1979), as his voice rises with it is redolent of his friend and senior KJ Yesudas. Yet, all these songs carried the stamp that was uniquely SPB's.
The royal partnership with Raaja
And after the mid-70s, Ilaiyaraaja happened. SPB, who was friends with Ilaiyaraaja even before he got his break in films, struck such a professional rapport that to this day it remains the musical equivalent of Don Bradman-Bill Ponsford kind of partnership --- the best ever in the business.
Ilaiyaraaja's musical greatness does not need newer telling. While Raaja's music did not depend on any props, it is equally a fact that it got the best platform through SPB’s lilting voice. In a sense, it is tempting to argue that SPB's singing ability could have been the muse for Raaja to come up with the mind-boggling tunes that he so prolifically provided us through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
To pick the songs of the duo is perhaps the most difficult exercise. It is like counting the grains of sand in the seashore --- there are far too many.
Just YouTube SPB + Ilaiyaraaja, your playlist will keep you occupied for weeks together. Without any exaggeration it can be said that no other combination has brought joy, peace and happiness to so many than Raja and SPB in tandem have.
As SPB himself once said matter of factly, "Ilaiyaraaja and me together is possibly the best ever musical combination". It is a strong statement, but not of arrogance. It is just an even enunciation of facts.
SPB's voice built the many legends of Tamil and Telugu filmdoms for several decades. In Tamil alone, a Rajinikanth starrer is incomplete without SPB's rousing 'intro' song. Many such songs have uplifted the mood more effectively than any psychotropic substance could.
His anthemic romantic numbers went a long way in pushing Kamal Haasan's on-screen image as an eternal lover boy. The actor's Mohan's career was held together by the gossamer strings of SPB songs (under the baton of Raja). Ditto for the likes of Prabhu, Karthik and Ramarajan. It was the same with Chiranjeevi, Venkatesh, Nagarjuna in Tollywood.
SPB's voice never felt stale or old. When they launched Salman Khan in Bollywood, bulk of his early teenybopper songs that became chartbusters arrived in the voice of SPB who was well past his 40s then.
All through his career, his range and repertoire stayed a notch above others. He could render a chaste and probably on the same day belt out a in a profusion of energy and ebullience. The way he prepared for rendering the songs in the film Sankarabharanam (it is a musical tour de force) is a lesson in humility and professionalism.
Respected the cultural mores of this land
SPB's multiple national awards in multiple languages under multiple music directors are all stuff of Wikipedia knowledge. He is said to have sung anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 songs. And at his prime, he more or less recorded over 10 to 15 songs daily. Such felicity is impossible to match. But while his body of work in films is right at the top what is sometimes overlooked is his devotional numbers that he delivered with innate solemnity and passionate piety.
SPB's rendition of is as much part of devout Hindu households as, say, MS Subbulakshmi's Suprabatham. Sanskrit flowed ever so naturally off his tongue without any damage to the pronunciation of the words.
Bhakti was tinged in SPB's voice because he was, at core, a bhakti-oriented person. He retained his links with the traditions and heritage of the land. And he was proud of his Telugu culture and wore it with dignity. This in-built sincerity is what made him do paadha pooja for his contemporary KJ Yesudas a few years ago. They were built as rivals in the industry but they shared such respect, camaraderie and friendship off it. It was cemented on the essential ethos of this land.
SPB recently donated his ancestral home in Guntur to the Sankara Mutt. It was an act of staunch belief in the sanctity of sanatana dharma. It is due this strong adherence to the multi-faceted philosophies that he himself managed to remain multi-faceted.
He was a bankable and dignified actor who could carry an entire film on his bulky shoulders. SPB was also a talented music director (just listen to in Pilu raga in Sigaram), but his busy singing career never allowed him the space to focus on his own musical direction.
SPB was also a terrific voice-over artist --- he was the voice of Kamal Haasan in many Telugu movies. Those Harikatha (which are essentially music and talkie performances) genes evidently did not go waste.
Arguably, SPB was the best singer in Indian films. He had the voice. He had the range. He had the diction. He had the delivery. He had the variety. He was one wholesome musical package. SPB is a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
It needs to be celebrated. And it sure will be through, well, thousands of his songs.
The best tributes to him are his own songs.
As he himself once movingly sang: "Dheivangal ellaam unakkaaga paadum, Paadaamal ponaal edhu dheivamaagum" (All Gods will sing for you. If they don't sing, they're not Gods)".
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