The quintessential entertainer (1946 – 2020)

A voice that mesmerised millions of music lovers across the globe for over five decades fell silent with the passing away of reputed playback singer, S P Balasubrahmanyam on the 25 September 2020. SPB to his legion of fans, and Balu to his friends and the film fraternity waged a relentless battle against the dreaded coronavirus for nearly a couple of months before succumbing to post-Covid complications.

Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam was born on 4 June 1946 in a village named Konetammapetta near Nellore in Andhra Pradesh. SPB developed an interest in music at a very young age and though he did not undergo any formal training in music he avidly participated in music contests and then took to singing in concerts. A lifelong fan of the Bollywood legend, Mohamed Rafi, SPB would regale audiences with Rafi numbers at concerts while his associate, the late Malaysia Vasudevan would concentrate on songs from Tamil films. During these performances, Ilayaraja and his brothers would accompany him on percussion instruments. Ilayaraja and SPB would later collaborate on hundreds of Tamil films and reach supreme heights in their respective careers.

SPB got his first break in cinema thanks to the Telugu composer S P Kothandapani who gave him a number in the film Sri Sri Sri Maryadha Ramanna. He would later name his recording studio after the composer in remembrance of the man who launched him. SPB’s first recorded song in Tamil was Iyarkai Ennum Ilayakanni, a duet with P Susheela for the film Shanti Nilayam but it was Aayiram Nilave Vaa in M G Ramachandran’s (MGR) Adimai Penn which hit the screen first and is considered as SPB’s launch pad in Tamil.

A turning point in SPB’s career was the Telugu hit Shankarabharanam which had the acclaimed music director K V Mahadevan as the composer. The movie had as many as ten songs and all of them were challenging for SPB who had no grounding whatsoever in classical music. The film fetched SPB the first of his six national awards. The Ilayaraja-SPB combination and later the A R Rahman- SPB combination ruled the roost for several decades. Balu sang three numbers in A R Rahman’s debut film ‘Roja’ with ‘Kathal Rojave’ and its Hindi version ‘Roja Jaaneman’ turning out to be chart busters.

SPB was first introduced to Bollywood by the famous composer duo Lakshmikant-Pyarelal in the film ‘Ek duje ke liye’ directed by K Balachander. The SPB-Lata combination proved to be an instant success and the film also netted SPB his second national award. He was later roped in for Salman starrer ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’ and ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ where he excelled in duets with Lata. Although the singer worked his magic in films like Ramesh Sippy’s ‘Sagar’, Bollywood composers had nothing much to offer him. Bollywood’s loss was a gain for other industries like Kannada cinema where SPB became a favourite of topnotch heroes like Vishnuvardhan and Ambareesh among others. He also won a national award for the best playback singer for the film Panchakshara Gavai. In Telugu cinema too, SPB was the ghost voice of most of the leading stars and Rudraveena with mega star Chiranjeevi in the lead fetched him another national award. The Telugu film Sagara Sangamam for which Ilayaraja wielded the baton and Minsara Kanavu for which Rahman composed the music were the other films that accounted for SPB’s National Awards tally. SPB has sung in Malayalam films as well but it was the Tamil film industry which tapped his talents to the full.

SPB also composed music for around 45 films and even acted in over 70 films. He wore many other hats in his long and illustrious career and also earned name and fame as a dubbing artist. SPB was also a recipient of the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awards. He also holds a Guinness Record for rendering over 40,000 songs and his recording 21 songs in a single day for a Kannada film remains unsurpassed to this day.

C.V. Aravind

C.V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.