Legendary playback singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam passed away at a private hospital in Chennai on Friday. He was 74.
Balasubrahmanyam was hospitalised in August at MGM Healthcare after testing positive for COVID-19, and while he reportedly did well initially, he took a turn for the worse, and was put on a ventilator and ECMO support.
On September 4, he tested negative for COVID-19 but continued to be on the ventilator and ECMO even as he participated in passive physiotherapy.
“In a further setback this morning, despite maximal life support measures and the best efforts of the clinical team, his condition deterioted further and he suffered a cardio-respiratory arrest. With profound grief, we regret to inform that he has passed away on September 25th at 13.04 hours,” MGM Healthcare said in a media release.
Popularly known as SPB, Balasubrahmanyam made his singing debut in 1966 with Telugu movie Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna. He has sung over 40,000 songs in as many as 16 languages including Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Hindi.
Balasubrahmanyam was also a voice-over artist. He was the voice-over artist for actor Kamal Hassan, whenever the latter’s Tamil movies were dubbed in Telugu. Balasubrahmanyam also acted in a few movies.
He is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter — both are playback singers.
Balasubrahmanyam sang thousands of songs in South Indian languages and in Hindi for five decades for generations of actors — from MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan, down to the stars of the present — and is the winner of six national awards. He also had won the hearts of several fans across the world for whom his songs have marked milestones.
For every emotion in life, there is a fitting SPB number.
For every occasion in life there is an appropriate SPB song, and millions of fans from all over the world recorded their sorrow at his passing as a “personal loss”. His voice, which morphed and modulated to suit the voice of the many heroes he sang for, is without doubt among the most recognised in the country.
SPB, with his hearty laugh, humility and great respect for the audience, was a darling of the masses he entertained for close to five decades.
Though he started out hoping to be an engineer, his failure to clear a subject in PUC forced him to pursue the now-defunct AMIE course in Chennai. But music lured him towards singing competitions and finally into the world of films.
His talent was spotted by another playback singer and music director S.P. Kothandapani, who was in the audience at a competition at the Andhra Social and Cultural Society and he provided him an opportunity to sing in the Telugu film Sri Sri Mariatha Ramanna. SPB was one among the four singers — S.P. Kothandapani, P. Susheela, P.B. Srinivas and Eelapada Raguramaiha — who rendered the ragamalika, Emi Evindha Mogum.
“Anyone who had listened to the part he rendered for Shoban Babu would have realised the potential in the voice. It proved to be a prelude for a record career in film music,” said film music historian Vamanan. As they say, the rest was history.
While his prowess as a playback singer is legendary, SPB was also an excellent voice over, or dubbing artist. He was the voice of actor Kamal Hassan, whenever the latter’s Tamil movies were dubbed in Telugu.
Paadum Nila (Singing Moon) as he was called by his fans, had a lilting voice with the finest traces of great singers. “His was a breeze-like voice of A.M Raja, the softness of P.B. Srinivas and the effortlessness of Mohamed Rafi,” said Vamanan.
In one scene he could sing a spoof with laughter in his voice as in Annatha adurar othiko, and in another he would powerfully express the anguished mind by rendering Unna nenachan, paatu padichen, thangame! in Apoorva Sagodharargal.
He had also acted in films such as Manathil Uruthi Vendum, Keladi Kanmani and Sigaram, besides scoring music for some films — Sigaram being a runaway hit for its score.
Zest for life
An extremely friendly and genial man who enjoyed his moments with interviewers, SPB once said he was fond of life and never wanted to die. Across the industry, everyone has only the best words for him, considering him a friend and guide.
SPB bagged his first national award for Sankarabharanam, though all the songs in the Telugu film are based on pure Carnatic ragas. He was never formally trained in Carnatic music, but that did not stop him, not then, not ever. “Even SPB had apprehensions about taking up the assignment as he had no proper training in classical music. It was T.K. Pugazhendhi, the assistant of music director K.V. Mahadevan who persuaded SPB to render the songs,” recalled Vamanan. And what hits they turned out to be.
The second time he won the award for his first Hindi song, Tere Mere Beech Mein in the film Ek Duuje Ke Liye. Two more awards came his way for the Telugu films Sagarasangamam and Rudraveena. Sangeetha Sagara Ganayogi Panchakshara Gavai, the Kannada film, won him the fifth national award.
An award for Tamil films eluded him many years, though his collaboration with music directors Ilayaraja and M.S. Viswanathan had resulted in innumerable memorable duets, solos, folk songs, spoofs and songs with the classical touch.
He finally won it for the lilting number Thanga Thamarai in the film Minsara Kanavu with music scored by A.R. Rahman. SPB, in an interview, had said Tamil films offered a lot of scenes and scope in which a song sat perfectly, without any artificiality.
Looking back, even as he secured a toehold in the Telugu industry, a break in the Tamil film industry proved elusive until an introduction to music director M.S. Viswanathan (MSV) through his friend Bharani.
SPB chose to render Nilava Ennidam Nerungathe before MSV, who liked the voice, but had reservations about his Tamil pronunciation. He sent him to learn Tamil properly and when SPB returned having polished up his pronunciation, decided to give him a song. SPB blew in like a fresh breeze with Iyarkai Ennum Ilayakanni, for the film Santhi Nilayam.
“Though the song was recorded first, another song, Aayiram Nilave Vaa in the MGR-starrer Adimaipen reached the public first, because it was released earlier in 1969,” Vamanan said.
Both the songs became overnight hits. SPB would gratefully acknowledge the opportunity given to him by MGR and music director K.V. Mahadevan who had introduced him to the future Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. SPB was down with malaria after rehearsal was over. But MGR waited till he recovered so that he could perform.
“MGR told me that he did not want to disappoint me. He felt that I would have informed my friends of this chance, and if I was not given the opportunity, my friends would not think well of my capacity as a singer,” SPB once said. Later in the film Suryakanthi, he sang the number Naan Endral Avalum Naanum and late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa rendered the English verses. His playback songs for thespian Sivaji Ganesan, particularly Potuvaitha Mugamo in Sumathi En Sundari and Emuna Nadhi Inkey in Gouravam were equally popular.
Even though there were carpers who said MGR had roped in SPB because of his difference of opinion with T.M. Soundararajan (TMS), Vamanan said MGR continued to prefer TMS to render duets and songs with political messages. MGR also gave opportunities to K.J. Jesudas and Jayachandran.
SPB sang Aval Oru Navarasa Natakam in the film Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban and Paadum Pothu Naan Thendral Kattru and Angey Varuvathu Yaro in the film Netru Indru Naalai. MSV continued to use SPB in films with various actors. SPB was the favourite singer of MSV and would always cherish the song Ilakkanam Marudho in the film Nizhal Nijamahirathu.
Even though he worked with other music directors like V. Kumar, Vijaybaskar and Shyam, SPB’s career graph soared with the arrival of Ilayaraja and actors such as Rajinikant and Kamal Haasan. Even with Ilayaraja it did not happen immediately. SPB could not get an opportunity in Annakili, Patrakalai, Kavikuyil, Durgadevi, Deepam and Thunai Iruppal Meenakshi. Once the duo combined, it proved unstoppable. Bhuvana Oru Kelvikuri offered him two outstanding songs — Raja Enbar Mandhiri Enbar and Vizhiyile Malarnthathu. The duets he rendered with S. Janaki are irreplaceable.
At a time when Ilayaraja started dominating film music, MSV’s music for Ninaithale Inikkum rocked and almost all the songs were rendered by SPB. Later when MSV and Ilayaraja came together to score music for Mella Thiranthathu Kathavu, SPB was their natural choice.
Actor Mohan is one of those who benefited enormously from the music of Ilayaraja and voice of SPB. Almost all the songs in his films proved great numbers. His voice remained eternally youthful and he enthralled his fans by appearing on stage with light music troupes.
More recently, SPB and Ilayaraja had a small falling out after the music director prevented him from singing on stage the songs composed by him, based on copyright claims. The two patched up though later, in a public event.
When MSV composed music for Krishna Ganangal penned by Kannadasan, SPB sang the lullaby Ayarpadi Maligaiyil Thaimadiyil Kantrinaipol Mayakannan Thoongukiran. And now, as SPB enters eternal sleep, his voice will play the same lullaby, which has played in several homes for decades now.
SPB is no more, but his voice will live on; his fans will ensure that.