SP Balasubrahmanyam's greatest hits: For 50 years now, SPB has ruled South Indian film music

Sujatha Narayanan

Dec 20, 2016 10:29:35 IST

On 15 December 2016, SP Balasubrahmanyam shared a Facebook post that read: "I recorded my first song for a Telugu film Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna on this day in 1966. There are millions who made me musically travel all these 50 years (sic). This birth is not enough to thank you all. Ever gratefully yours..."

If the entire domain of male playback singing in the South Indian film industry had to be encapsulated in just three letters of the alphabet, then those letters would be 'SPB'.

A self-confessed Mohd Rafi fan, it is in Kishore Kumar’s shoes that SP Balasubrahmanyam (SPB) rightfully fits, as he has dabbled in acting, composed music and performed live for audiences. SPB began his singing career in Tamil films — then with his ‘fresh-out-of-college’ voice — in MGR's Adimaipenn (1969) and Sivaji Ganesan's Sumathi En Sundari (1971). His Telugu debut was in 1966 — as his Facebook post mentions. For 50 years now, SPB has been traversing eras as effortlessly as he flits in and out of musical genres, remaining a personal vintage favourite for lovers of film music.

SP Balasubrahmanyams greatest hits: For 50 years now, SPB has ruled South Indian film music

SP Balasubrahmanyam. Image courtesy Facebook

Adapting himself to different music directors was possible because SPB's inner child always stayed hungry to learn and to perform — watch him hold the spotlight on any of his numerous stage shows now and you will understand what I mean! Language and intonation intact, SPB sings with a gusto unmatched by his peers in any of the south Indian languages.

Director K Balachander had a Tamilian hero in his Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981) and he insisted SPB sing in Hindi, for he was the singing-voice for Kamal Haasan in all of the actor's films be it in Tamil, Telugu or Kannada by then. The song — 'Tere Mere Beech Mein' — won SPB his second National Award and he became the first South Indian singer to win one for a Hindi film.

SPB’s singing for Rajnikanth too has become a ‘sentiment’ over the years, as the superstar’s famous ‘introduction’ song would always be sung by him. The rarely played album Kochadaiiyaan has some of the best songs from the AR Rahman-SPB combination in recent times! The apt example for understanding SPB’s versatile talent is to tune into 'Kadhal Rojavey' ('Roja Jaanemann' in Hindi) from Rahman’s debut Roja (1992). The depth in his voice carried the natural pain and longing of a husband held in captivity who is separated from his newly wedded wife (as Arvind Swamy's character is, in the film). SPB rendered some truly memorable songs with Rahman over the years and the song 'Thangathamaraimagaley' from Minsara Kanavu (1997) fetched him his sixth National Award and his first one for a Tamil film (after all those years!)

His best songs with Harris Jeyaraj are 'Yenn Kadhal Thee' from Irandam Ulagam (2013) and 'Yamma Yamma Kadhal Ponnamma' from 7aum Arivu (2011) where the male solo numbers by SPB gave strength, emotion and meaning to both the lyrics and tune. That’s one more highlight of having SPB sing your song — the words are pronounced as they should be! For instance, despite his South Indian accent when he sang for Salman Khan, the joi de vivre was trademark SPB.

A singing career which began with stalwarts like KV Mahadevan and MS Vishwanathan, SPB had his golden songs tuned by a composer of his times — Ilaiyaraaja. Together they weaved magic out of even the non-Rajini/Kamal films — be it those simple tunes (listen to 'Poonthalir Aada' from Panneer Pushpangal, 1981, or 'Maanguyile Poonguyile' from Karakattakaran, 1989) or the complex ones ('Sangeetha Jaathi Mullai' from Kadhal Oviym, 1982, or the songs from Shankarabharanam, 1980, for which he won his first National Award in Telugu).

SPB’s Kannada songs are a rage too and his voice makes all the difference to the feelings, to the pause here and the laugh there. It is said Sivaji Ganesan watched SPB sing 'Pottuvaitha Mugamo' and matched his expressions while filming the song so it would suit the young singer’s manner of singing! Similarly, lots of recording sessions between SPB and Ilaiyaraaja had such ‘visits’ from Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan to ensure the songs picturised on them also turned out to be as special as the ones recorded by SPB. Balu sir — as he is affectionately called — is the voice of Chiranjeevi in Telugu and prior to that, was the voice of NTR and ANR as well. When Nagarjuna and Venkatesh arrived, SPB sang super-hit numbers for them too. Hariharan and Shankar Mahadevan came closer but they couldn’t match the sheer number of songs SPB could record in a single day for the multiple languages in the south.

SPB sang very few Malayalam songs as his senior KJ Yesudas held court there, but he has won State honours in the other three southern states and won a Padma Bhushan in 2011 apart from various awards which befit his wide-ranging talent. His innate people skills come to the fore when he hosts music shows or interacts with participants of reality shows on television. His brand of humour, his smiling demeanour and his rapport with the legendary heroes of the south makes him their favourite too. Seldom do creative geniuses get celebrated within their career’s best years and within their lifetime. SPB is one of those lively artistes who garners great love because he gives that much love to any song he sings!

SPB is celebrating his 50 glorious years in the music industry with an 'SPB50 World Tour', for which he has performed in Toronto, Malaysia, London, and even the Kremlin in Russia. Now all that's needed is Apple coming up with an iTunes playlist to commemorate one of the most loved singers of our times.

Meanwhile, here's a playlist of SPB-Ilaiyaraaja hits:

'Andhi Mazhai Pozhigiradhu' from Raajaparvai

'Panivizhum Malarvanam' from Ninaivellam Nithya

'Valaiyosai' from Sathya

'Kadhalin Deepam Ondru' from Thambikku Entha Ooru

'Idhu Oru Ponmalai Pozhudhu' from Nizhalgal

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2016 10:29:35 IST