For a singer who was stopped at the entrance of the film studio when he alighted from the carrier of a friend’s bicycle for his first recording, S.P.Balasubramanyam has gone more than the proverbial long way. He has become the most prolific playback singer in the history of Indian cinema, a statistic buttressed by his incomparable record, particularly in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada cinema. Celebrating fifty years of his singing from the date of that December 15, 1966 debut, SPB, or Balu to friends, completed a whirlwind world tour of live music shows to mark the event, capping it with a reverential and emotional paada puja to K.J.Yesudas, a senior contemporary who is just about six or seven years his elder. An unexpected musical inflection not unlike ones that SPB sometimes produced in his renderings!
SPB’s hectic career encompassing scores and scores of soaring hits may seem to be a heady merry-go-round of melodies invoking a phantasmagoria of starry images to the music struck fan, but somebody had presaged it all, if only in microscopic form. This man was S.P.Kodandapani, a failed singer who was struggling to find opportunities as a music composer. Hearing the young SPB sing in a music competition, Kodandapani not only predicted straightaway that he would have a smooth sailing for at least forty years as a singer but also went on to give him his first break in the Telugu film, Sri Sri Sri Maryadha Ramanna. Kodandapani subsequently showed his mettle as a music composer but didn’t live to see his protégé going great guns. On his part, SPB remembered to commemorate the man who prophesied his marathon musical run by naming his recording studio after him. Unfortunately, he had to sell it off later in the wake of home productions that bombed.
Soon after SPB’s initial breakthrough, the star music directors of the day, M.S.Viswanathan and K.V.Mahadevan were seeking out the mellifluously free-flowing, youthful and individualistic voice of the twenty something. MSV debuted SPB in Tamil in ‘Iyarkaiyennum Ilayakanni’, a daintily-voiced duet in Santhi Nilayam, a nativised version of Sound of Music. MGR, temporarily miffed with his most popular musical voice TMS, chose SPB to sing with P.Sushila in his ambitious Adimai Penn (1969). The lavishly mounted ‘Aayiram Nilave Vaa’, picturised on MGR and Jayalalitha became a hit and continues to enthrall listeners to this day.
Both MSV and KVM had hit the height of the heady efflorescence of their creativity in the early sixties, but the emergence of fresh voices like that of SPB helped them give a new impetus to their music. MSV’s uplifting romantic song for Sivaji and Jayalalitha in Sumathi En Sundari, ‘Pottu Vaitha Mugamo’ , entranced SPB himself so much that he made a beeline to the radio station to hand over a copy for broadcast! SPB numbers composed by MSV for the young Kamalahasan in K.Balachander films gave a new verve to film song with hits like ‘Kadavul Amaithuvaitha Medai’, ‘Junior Junior’, ‘Kamban yemaandhaan’ and ‘Engeyum Eeppodhum Sangeetham’. In Sankarabharanam, KVM dared to make SPB sing in the Carnatic idiom that he was not trained in, but the film burst on the national consciousness as a re-assertion of the richness of Indian’s great musical heritage.
Another pinnacle of the SPB’s career was his singing with Lata (Ek Duje ke liye). After spilling hot coffee on Lataji’s spotlessly white sari during the recording, he had thought that his career in Hindi films was finished! But Lata went on to sing umpteen songs with SPB, and wowed live audiences around the world with him.
The emergence of Ilaiyaraja in the late seventies and eighties as the reigning composer in the South, put SPB right on top of the world. Apart from being the most popular and effervescent voice of the time, he was after all a long-time chum who had said cheers with Ilaiyaraja during the latter’s years of struggle! The Rajinikanth, Kamalahasan era of Tamil cinema is studded with SPB gems honed by Ilaiyaraja to showcase the former’s versatile singing which spans the spectrum from the jazzy and comic to the lingeringly romantic. Many a musical featuring actor Mohan clearly rode on the magic of SPB’s art (Who can forget ‘Nilaave Vaa’ in Maniratnam’s Mouna Ragam!). In the A.R.Rahman era too, SPB figured prominently for some time (winning a national award for ‘Thanga Thaamarai’ in Minsara Kanavu to boot), but the new trends in film song tired the old romantic.
A born mimic, SPB has acted (Keladi Kanmani featured him in the lead), dubbed (for Kamalahasan, for instance), composed music (Mayuri, Sigaram, Unnai Sharan Adainthen), and produced films (Shubha Sankalpam, Tenali etc). He is hosting a Telugu TV reality show titled ‘Paadutha Theeyagaa’, which has been having an incredible run for 20 years introducing a host of talented singers. As a singer who has emerged as a musical phenomenon, SPB’s career has crossed a golden barrier, and he himself is 70, but his voice still sounds ageless!
(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music)
(This article appeared in the Times of India, Chennai)