S P Balasubrahmanyam or SPB’s unfortunate death is the most melancholic note that the music world has heard in the recent past.
SPB’s musical tryst encompasses almost all Indian languages, with over 40,000 songs; in itself an unparalleled record.
SPB conquered the peaks of music and negotiated its touch octaves and highs without any training in Carnatic Classical music.
SPB came to the forefront of playback singers in India with the songs he rendered for Sankarabharanam. The music was set by K V Mahadevan. The film gave him the first national award, in 1980. The very next year, he bagged the national award for ‘Ek Duuje Ke liye’ and went on to add a total of six to his kitty.
SPB, by then, had established a vital relationship with the music-lovers of the country – one which transcended the boundaries of language and culture.
SPB, born in 1946 in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, was a Harikatha artiste during his younger days. He landed up in Chennai to do an engineering course but drifted into music. Music directors Ilayaraja and Gangai Amaran played a vital role in SPB becoming a singer.
SPB, who was already the uncrowned king of South Indian music in the 1960s and ‘70s, had to wait till 1983 to get his first national award for a Tamil song. And, it was Sagara Sangamam which got him the honour.
SPB lent his voice to stars like MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, and so on but his voice apparently was most beautifully matched the theatrics of Kamal Haasan.
Kamal presented himself in Telugu and Kannada movies with the excellent dubbing support that SPB gave him. The versatile artist in SPB dubbed, in various languages, for actors like Rajinikanth, Bhagyaraj, Salman Khan, and Girish Karnad.
Gandhi in Telugu
In a historic association, he was the ‘Telugu’ voice of Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s epic film ‘Gandhi.’
21 songs in a day
SPB recorded 21 songs in 1981 for Kannada film-Maker Upendra and set a record. This is testimony to SPB’s immense capabilities of breath control, lung capacity, and modulation, all vital to singers. Not to stop at that, he also did single-day recordings of 19 Tamil and 16 Hindi songs on separate occasions.
The same SPB once rendered a song multiple times over the night to pace it perfectly with that of co-singer S. Janaki. This was for music director Vidyasagar and the industry tale is that SPB also paid the studio rent for the prolonged outing.
In the 1990’s he became a sought-after singer in Bollywood too. He became the voice of Salman Khan, the most heroic of protagonists then.
The SPB-Ilayaraja combo wove a web of musical magic in the Tamil film world. There was no match to the depth and scope of music that the together explored. Even the adventurous and experimental A R Rahman, who picks random, new voices for every song, could not ignore the singer in SPB. He but stayed away from Bollywood for over a decade, only to ‘board’ Chennai Express and render a hit for Shahrukh Khan.
SPB was introduced in Malayalam by G. Devarajan in 1969 in Kadalpalam. He was too caught up in other languages and he could only render 116 songs in Malayalam.
Humility as a trait
His humility and love were his most admired traits. He always was quick to praise or admire his co-singers, junior artists, and those accompanying him on the orchestra.
He was part of L Subrahmanyam’s Independence Day album, too. This variety and range of talent – encompassing and binding anything from a little hum to a complex hymn – was SPB.