SPB: The heartbeat of generations

S.P. Balasubrahmanyam (1946-2020), popularly known as SPB, forged an intimate relationship with music lovers across the country through his lilting renditions and endeared himself to millions of fans through his warmth and genial demeanour.

Published : Oct 04, 2020 06:00 IST

With the legendary music director K.V. Mahadevan and playback singer P. Suseela.

With the legendary music director K.V. Mahadevan and playback singer P. Suseela.

At the break of dawn and at the fall of night, at the time of joy and at the time of sorrow, his sublime voice was a wellspring of happiness and solace for millions of music lovers from all walks of life across the country. For five decades, from the days of mono-speaker radios to today’s multitrack stereo systems, his soulful renditions were an intimate and integral part of their lives.

The man with this haunting voice, S.P. Balasubrahmanyam (1946-2020), popularly known as SPB, passed away at a Chennai hospital on September 25 after nearly a two-month struggle against post-COVID-19 complications.

With the passing of SPB has ended an era that saw creativity in full flow in film music, uplifting the status of film songs and playback singing from being the poor cousin of classical music to the pinnacle of glory.

In a career spanning 50 years, SPB sang around 40,000 songs, of which some 15,000 were in Tamil. He won several national awards and honours for his contribution to music, but remained a down-to-earth man all his life.

Born into a humble Telugu family near Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, where his father S.P. Sambamurthy was a Harikatha artiste, SPB had a passion for light music right from his schooldays. Since his father wanted him to become an engineer, he enrolled in an engineering college, but his passion for music did not cease. He took part in singing competitions, and one them in Chennai opened the doors of the film world for him. The rest was history.

Humane and humble

But what endeared SPB to millions? Why did television networks in India, and even the BBC, pay tribute to him? His singing alone could not have been the reason since there were many singers before and after him. While his versatility, range and intonation made his voice unique, he was a humane and humble personality who never forgot his roots. Everyone, from musicians to composers, from small artistes to mega stars, could feel the warmth of his love and affection. “Not even a single harsh word would he have used against anyone,” said the singer Mano, speaking to Frontline .

SPB remembered every single person that he came across, however insignificant their role in his life and career might be. He remembered with gratitude all those who had helped him during the trying times of uncertainty when he waited for a break—from Bharanidaran, a timekeeper of a light music orchestra who took him on his bicycle to introduce him to the director C.V. Sridhar, to the milk vendor who owned a shop opposite his room in the Kodambakkam locality in Chennai, whose tiny radio blared Tamil songs every morning.

SPB treated everyone with respect irrespective of one’s age and social status. He even performed a ‘pada pooja’ (cleansing of the feet) of the singer K.J. Yesudas when he completed 50 years in music. He used to say that Yesudas was like an elder brother who guided him. The two even sang a duet, the chartbuster “Kattu kuyilin manusukkulle” in Mani Ratnam’s Dalapathi starring Rajinikanth and Mammootty.

SPB was a transparent personality who retained a childlike enthusiasm for life throughout. Everything about him was out there in the public domain. For instance, he admitted in more than a dozen interviews that he was a smoker for 30 years. On his singing he once said: “As a singer I have to be emotional to make a lyric emotionally outstanding. A singer has to love his life and his song. But he has to remain invisible behind its composition so that the song lives forever.”

A famous duo

It was the singer S. Janaki (Janaki Amma, to him) who first spotted his singing talent and encouraged him. Janaki found a distinct freshness in his voice when he sang a song in a music competition held at his native village; incidentally, her in-laws belonged to the same village. In fact, SPB jocularly used to call her the daughter-in-law of his village.

Janaki, who was the chief guest of the competition, told him to try singing in films. “I thought she was joking. But it prompted me to try my luck in music in cinema. I came to Chennai to study but destiny willed otherwise. I never dreamt in my wildest dreams that I would sing songs, many of them roaring hits, with Janaki Amma,” SPB once recalled.

The SPB-Janaki team sang hundreds of songs composed by the inimitable Ilayaraja penned by the lyricist K. Vairamuthu in the 1980s and the 1990s. Vairamuthu said: “He sang my first lyric, ‘Pon malai pozhuthu’. My verse on the coronavirus crisis was the last song he sang. It’s a coincidence. However, we redefined creativity in film music.”

Ascendency to stardom

When the director Sridhar introduced him to the legendary composer M.S. Viswanathan, SPB had already sung a few songs in Telugu films, the first being in Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna in 1967 under the composer S.P. Kothandapani, who had spotted him at an inter-collegiate light music competition at Chennai.

M.S. Viswanathan listened to one of his songs but told him to come back after perfecting his Tamil diction. Vairamuthu recalled what SPB told him once: If SPB sang a Tamil song with this kind of pronunciation, MSV said, “the people would stone us both”.

Two years later, SPB met Viswanathan again, now comfortable in the language. “He offered me a duet with L.R. Eswari in the film Hotel Ramba . Unfortunately, it did not see the light of the day. He consoled me and gave me yet another chance, this time pairing me with P. Susheela in Shanthi Nilayam for the song ‘Iyarkkai ennum ilaiya kanni’ for which I received a cheque of Rs.500. I was thrilled. I and my friends celebrated it by having masala dosa, gulab jamun and coffee at a hotel in T. Nagar,” SPB once said, recollecting that day of joy. However, the film’s release was delayed for unknown reasons.

Turning point

An unexpected incident that happened in between changed the course of his life and career. One day, when SPB was rehearsing for a Telugu song in a studio, the matinee idol M.G. Ramachandran, or MGR, who was shooting in the vicinity, happened to listen to his recording. In those days recording rooms were not soundproof and anyone nearby could hear the recordings. SPB was asked to meet MGR the next day. He cycled to MGR’s Ramavaram residence where the composer K.V. Mahadevan and the lyricist Pulamaipithan were present. Recounting that day, SPB once said: “My heart fluttered. MGR asked me to sing a song. It was virtually an audition. He was impressed and told me that I would be given a seven-minute duet song with P. Susheela in his ambitious project, Adimai Penn . I was thrilled.”

But misfortune struck again. He fell ill with typhoid the next day. “I thought I had lost a godsend. I felt so sick at my ill-luck that I concluded that it would be the end of my passion for music,” he recollected those moments of anguish in an interview. “After 10 days, when I was recovering, a call from MGR’s production unit came, asking me to come to the studio the next day. I was speechless. It’s beyond anybody’s comprehension that a great star like MGR had waited for a young and unknown singer like me to record a song. On an occasion later, I asked him the reason for his waiting for me. He told me that had he replaced me with another singer, the future of a promising young singer would have been lost,” he said.

MGR did not stop at that. He told his producers that “the boy” should be given at least one song in his films. The duet with P. Susheela in Adimai Penn , ‘Ayiram nilave vaa’, was a roaring hit. Shanthi Nilayam was also released and his song in the film was also a hit. With these two simultaneous hits, SPB became a household name in Tamil Nadu. SPB said: “The press went to town with screaming headlines claiming that a young man was singing for MGR. I got awards for both the songs that year.”

Stunning Sankarabharanam

His insatiable curiosity to learn constantly kept him relevant for half a century uninterrrupted. This also brought him a dream assignment in the legendary director K. Viswanath’s Telugu film Sankarabharanam . The Carnatic musical extravaganaza took the singer, until then noted mainly for romantic duets, to greater heights. Classical music experts who were critical of his flamboyant ‘boyish’ tone until then were astounded at his nuanced singing and the range of his voice. The film, which won several national awards, also fetched him the award for best singer.

Speaking to Frontline , the novelist Tirupur Krishnan said that K. Viswanath and K.V. Mahadevan wanted SPB to sing in the film. “As Viswanath was SPB’s relative, he spoke to his father to get him to sing in his project. When his father told him about this, SPB was hesitant. However, his father prevailed upon him to commit for the film,” said Krishnan, who interviewed both Viswanath and SPB in Hyderabad after the success of Sankarabharanam .

From then, it was an astounding journey through the realm of music for him. His first Hindi movie, K. Balachander’s Ek Duje ke Liye , made him a national star and fetched him yet another national award, although he openly said that he did not know Hindi. For singing in A.R Rahman’s Minsara Kanavu , he received another national award for best male singer.

MSV the mentor

SPB was always grateful to his mentors in music. Although he had a long friendship with Ilayaraja and other composers, M.S. Viswanathan was his guru, who moulded him to perfection. “I owed everything to him. He is the reason for what I am today. I was just a light music singer. My Tamil was flawed then and I did not know Carnatic music. Viswanathan’s magical wand chiselled my voice, improvised it and tuned it to perfection. He was a king on the harmonium with which he scripted divine compositions,” SPB once said in an interview.

One of the many lilting numbers he sang for Viswanathan was ‘Pottu vaitha mugamo’ in the Sivaji Ganesan-Jayalalithaa blockbuster Sumathi En Sundari . “It took six or seven takes. Sometimes, some songs took 20 to 24 takes. Viswanathan used to be meticulous. Just think of the great composition of the songs such as ‘Unakenna mele nindrai, O Nandalala’ in Kamal Hassan’s Simla Special . Can we ignore the song, ‘Vaan nila, nila alla’ from Pattinapravesam ? What memorable compositions they were! There was divinity in Viswanathan,” he said in an interview, recollecting the days of live recording of songs.

In those days, lyricists and musicians were in perfect sync with the screenplay situations and with lead players. There was no hard-and-fast rule whether a lyric should be written to suit a pre-recorded tune or a tune should be set for a lyric. SPB said during an interview: “There existed a healthy competition and warm relationships between composers and lyricists. Kannadasan and Viswanathan were thick friends and so was the Vaali-Viswanathan friendship. There was space ever available for talents. It was your responsibility to prove your creativity. I had no background in classical music or whatsoever when Viswanathan offered me a chance. He was confident that he could mould anyone.”

K. Balachander’s Ninathale Inikkum proved the genius of Viswanathan once again at a time when Ilayaraja’s rise was meteoric. If there is one film that brought out the amazing voice range of SPB spectacularly, it was this musical—a rage among the youth then.

Viswanathan’s tenacious persistence for perfection changed SPB’s style of singing altogether. Modulations and constant improvising elevated his voice to a level that was until then unknown in Tamil film music. Mano said: “SPB never changed the basic strands of his voice but created a unique filament of commonality that suited all lead players on the screen. His style of singing varied. His pitch and range were incomparable.” Mano began his career as a ‘pilot singer’ (who sang tracks) in Viswanathan’s troupe. “I had the opportunity to sing with a legend like SPB. He treated me like his brother,” he said.

Mano’s voice had some similarities with that of SPB. “But he never asked me to change my range,” said Mano. “In fact he encouraged me to sing. He recommended many songs for me. That was his character. Even after having reached the pinnacle of glory he treated everyone equally. Such a great soul he was.”

Mano spoke at length on many delightful numbers from the Ilayaraja-SPB-Janaki combo with a nostalgic awe. “We had learnt many nuances from the stalwarts. We used to interact. That was the time when the two-track system for recording was in vogue. It had to be a collective workout. But today the technology has grown to astronomical proportions with auto-tuning and thousands of tracks. Technology has engulfed the art,” Mano said.

SPB’s voice was crystal clear even in the mono-speaker systems of the past—such was his range. “He used to adopt any language in which he sang as his,” said Vairamuthu.

A mischievous youthfulness in his voice breathed freshness and peppy vigour into the Tamil film music. SPB perfected that fine blend of lyricism with romanticism. He had been a willing learner who constantly updated his skills, which made him a live link three generations of singers and composers without losing his relevance.

If Viswanathan effected changes in his style of singing, Ilayaraja added nuanced cadence to his voice. His brilliant compositions and SPB’s pulsating voice mesmerised the audience for decades. The duo, with Vairamuthu, created hundreds of songs that retain their appeal well past the time of their composition.

“Composing and orchestration have to be synced perfectly for making a song successful. The lyrical content has to be rich. And the singer has to give life to lyric. If a song could encompass these qualities, then it would remain a masterpiece,” SPB said in an interview.

SPB’s friendship with Ilayaraja goes back to the early 1970s. Even before Ilayaraja made his debut as a composer, SPB knew him through the director Bharathirajaa. Along with Ilayaraja and his brothers Varadarajan, Bhaskar and Gangai Amaran, SPB gave hundreds of light music concerts under the banner of Pavalar Brothers in different parts of Tamil Nadu.

Even during a recent misunderstanding between them over copyright issues, SPB never spoke ill of his friend. “He is God’s gift. We must preserve him. He gave me some divine compositions that no one ever could have offered,” he said at a function. It was true. Some of Ilayaraja’s best compositions were sung by SPB. When SPB was seriously ill, Ilayaraja, through a video clipping that went viral, pleaded with his friend who was fighting for his life: “Balu, please rise and come back.” That was the kind of camaraderie that existed between the two legends.

SPB once recalled how he was ecstatic when Viswanathan and Ilayaraja came together to compose and orchestrate for a Tamil film. “The song I sang then was ‘Thedum kann paarvai thavikka’ in the 1986 film Mella Thiranthathu Kathavu , a melody that would transcend ages,” he said. While Ilayaraja did the orchestration and the background score, Viswanathan composed the tunes. Participating in such innovative experiments kept SPB vibrant and ever youthful.

Vairamuthu said: “His voice would enhance the beauty of any lyric and elevate it to a sublime level. Had he not sung my first song ‘Pon malai pozhuthu’ in Bharathiraaja’s Nizhalgal , I would not have been a successful lyricist today. He breathed life into it.”

That song took six takes. “It was simply beautiful when he sang another lyric of mine with Janaki in Vidyasagar’s composition, ‘Malare mounama’ in the film Karna . After the recording SPB hugged me and told me it was a privilege to sing a song of such class,” Vairamuthu said.

With A.R. Rahman

Later, when he teamed up with A.R. Rahman, SPB showed the same zeal as he had for the older veterans of film music. Mano said: “His voice, even at 70, had never cracked. I had seen many great singers stop singing after they lost their grasp. But Balu sir’s voice remained as youthful as it was in his early 20s,” Mano said.

SPB’s journey with Rahman began with the later’s first film, Roja , a runaway hit directed by Mani Ratnam. Years later he won a national award for ’Thanga thamarai magale’, an offbeat song by Rahman in the film Minsara Kanavu . On his death, Rahman said his music “will forever stay in our hearts”.

Mano said: “Tell me which song of his failed to strike a chord in listeners. No number of his could be singled out and called a masterpiece. All were classics. A few could have not reached the people. That is all. Hence, talking about his huge volume of songs and narrowing it down to a handful would be a frustrating exercise.”

Vairamuthu said: “The songs in films like Kadhal Oviyam and Kokkarakko were hits though the films flopped. Can anyone forget ‘Sangeetha jathi mullai’, composed by Ilayaraja for the musical Kadhal Oviyam ?”

Acting foray

It is said, a good singer is also a good actor. SPB proved that in director Vasanth’s classic Keladi Kanmani . Vasanth cast him in the lead role in the film, which is remembered for, among other things, the song ‘Mannil indha kaathal indri’. He acted in more than a dozen films and dubbed for leading actors such as Kamal Haasan. He also scored music for many films, including Sigaram .

For him each song was an emotion. “Music remains unfettered. Every great composer, lyricist and singer of all times had tried to master it. But it has remained as it is thus creating space for those who would try to explore it further and deeper,” he said.

To call SPB a phenomenon is no exaggeration. He would first understand the situation of the song and learn about its protagonists. He would visualise the entire sequence. Then he would convey the beauty of the lyric with flawless intonations and emotions. He would deliver precisely what his composers wanted him to with his innovations that surprised the composers themselves. “That’s why great composers like Viswanathan, Ilayaraja and A.R. Rahman sought after him,” said Vairamuthu.

Renaissance of the 1980s

In the late 1970s, there was a yearning for fresh young voices in the Tamil film music world, which had become a bit archaic and monotonous. Creativity in the film industry, which was mostly confined to the studios, was at a low. Fortunately, this situation did not last long.

A fresh crop of directors such as Bharathiraaja, Mahendran and Balu Mahendra, composers such as Ilayaraja, lyricists such as Vairamuthu actors such as Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, and cinematographers such as Nivas and Ashok Kumar emerged on the scene.

Innovative themes and exotic locales with modern cinematographic techniques came into play. Beyond actors and acting, the Tamil audience began discussing directors, cameramen, editors, composers, singers and screenplay writers.

It was a sort of renaissance that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s. SPB’s entry and rise took place almost at the same time along with a bunch of singers including Yesudas, Jayachandran, Malaysia Vasudevan, Jency, Vani Jayaram and Chitra. A tough but healthy competition existed amongst them. They gave the Tamil film lovers several unforgettable gems.

For SPB, every song was deeply personal. “I assumed myself to an actor while singing,” he said when asked how he was able to convey the emotions effectively.

From the soft ‘Nilave vaa’ ( Mouna Ragam ) and ‘Paadu nilave’ ( Udhaya Geetham ) to the peppy ‘Namma ooru singari’ ( Ninaithale Inikkum ) and ‘Sorgam madhuvile’ ( Sattam En Kaiyil ), his range was stupendous. “He dons the roles of a father, son, lover, husband, student, friend, worker, rebel, et al , while singing,” said Mano.

Thus, his voice transported one to a world of fantasy. From delicate modulations to open-throated high pitches, his voice exuded a wide range of emotions.

It was serene and subtle when he sang ‘Thene thenpandi meene’ ( Udhaya Geetham ), conveying warmth, and the same voice, tinged with a pleasing insouciance, seduced the listener when he sang ‘Thanga thamarai magale’ ( Minsara Kanavu ).He used to change his tone and tenor to match the lyric’s content and composition’s range. The song ‘Uchi vakuntheduthu’ in Sivakumar’s 100th film Rosapoo Ravikkaikari brought out the emotions of a man anguished by his wife’s infidelity. His voice would perfectly convey the sardonic scepticism of an outlaw who is frustrated by his failure to return to a civilised life, in the song ‘Ennada pollatha vaazhkkai’ in the Rajinikanth starrer Thappu Thalangal .

The list is endless because he was singing literally until his end.

It is not an exaggeration to say that SPB redefined the very art of playback singing. Without such versatility, how could a singer have rendered his voice to stars such as MGR and Sivaji to Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth and to Mohan and Sivakumar. In fact, it was an unwritten rule that he would render all the opening songs for Rajinikanth.

Love of humanity

SPB was renowned for his humanity. He used Facebook to float the SPB Fans Charitable Foundation to collect funds and help artistes in distress, especially during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Mano said that he never hurt anyone. “At least I had never seen him using harsh words against anyone. He was simple, gentle and humane,” he said. Bharathiraja recollected how he was down-to-earth and amiable. “He never spoke harshly to anyone. He used to be always sympathetic to all. I would ask him how he could maintain such a soft trait always. He would just smile,” he said.

In ‘Sangeetha megam’ in Udhaya Geetham , one of the lines of a song that was repeatedly played across the media after his demise was: ‘Intha dhegam marainthalum, isaiyai malarven’. It means: “Though the body disappears, I will bloom as music.”

The music continues.

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