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SPB, the untrained maestro whose voice suited every actor from Rajinikanth to Salman Khan

SP Balasubrahmanyam, who sang more than 40,000 songs in Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada & other languages, and was just as versatile an actor, died Friday.

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There are some names that are instantly synonymous with their art, and some voices that are instantly recognisable. S.P. Balasubrahmanyam or SPB, as he was fondly known, was someone who stood as an example of both.

With more than 40,000 songs recorded in 16 Indian languages, his discography is one that would be the envy of any artist around the world. But music was just one part of his more than five-decades-long career. SPB also acted in close to 100 films, dubbed for hundreds, took on the mantle of producer and music director, and hosted wildly popular reality music shows such as Paduta Theeyaga and Ede Thumbi Haaduvenu.

For his vast, versatile portfolio, he was awarded a Padma Shri in 2001 and a Padma Bhushan in 2011, apart from winning six National Awards and scores of other awards, including Filmfares.

On Friday afternoon, the 74-year-old singer, actor, music director and film producer passed away due to Covid-related complications, after days of being on life support. He is survived by his wife Savitri, daughter Pallavi and son SPB Charan.

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A singer by happy accident 

Born in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh on 4 June 1946, SPB was all set to do what most of the young boys around him were planning to do — become an engineer. His father, SP Sambamurthy, was a well-known Harikatha artist (an artist who told stories about Hindu Gods through song, music, and dramatic retelling), but this was the only musical influence in his life; SPB had no training in classical music whatsoever.

It was entirely by accident that SPB entered the world of playback singing — an accident orchestrated by a college friend, who entered him into a singing competition in 1963. He won it and wowed the judges — S.P. Kodandapani and Ghantasala, two of the most popular musical names in the Tamil and Telugu cinema at the time. A few years later, in 1967, SPB made his debut, in the Telugu movie Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna. There was no looking back after that.

SPB instantly went on to work with the big names of the Telugu and Tamil film industries, including MGR, K. Vishwanath, Sivaji Ganesan, Ilaiyaraaja and Ghantasala. This was also a time when filmmakers were shifting focus to the everyman and his family, which meant some room for simpler drama in both writing and music, even as older cinematic traditions continued. So it was a great time for someone like SPB, whose versatile voice could be the voice of anyone. He could go low for older men and higher for younger ones, he could be soulful and moody as well as jaunty, depending on what the film demanded.

While the ’60s and ’70s saw SPB establish his name in the domestic industry, it was in the ’80s that he achieved national fame, with K. Vishwanath’s 1980 Telugu classic, Sankarabharanam, widely considered to be one of the finest Telugu films ever made. This was a film based entirely on Carnatic music and classical dance, and Vishwanath, who had already worked with SPB before, was adamant that he be the singer. But SPB hesitated, given his lack of classical training.

“At that time, I was recording for around four to five songs a day. When Vishwanath wanted me to croon the numbers, I openly confessed that I’m not an expert in the classical genre and someone else than me would do complete justice,” he said in an interview. But Vishwanath persuaded him, so he listened to classical recordings over and over and would try to imitate them. And he won his first National Award for this film.


The voice of Salman Khan in the Prem era

The 80s were a golden period for SPB. He was recording more songs a day than his contemporaries — 17 songs a day in Kannada, 19 in Tamil and Telugu and 16 in Hindi — and had an incredible partnership going with Ilaiyaraaja. While the two had known each other since the ’60s, having worked in the same music troupe together, their dual talents took off only in the ’80s, with films like Saagara Sangamam, Mouna Ragam, Apoorva Sagodharargal and Punnagai Mannan.

This was also the decade in which SPB made his Bollywood debut, with the 1981 film Ek Duuje Ke Liye, for which he won another National Award. And in 1989 came Sooraj Barjatya’s smash hit Maine Pyar Kiya, starring a fresh-faced Salman Khan and Bhagyashree. The music of this film is beloved to this day, and it is thanks in no small part to SPB, whose heavy, yet light-hearted tones suited Salman Khan so well that for the next several years, the singer and the actor seemed like a a package deal, like Kishore Kumar had been for Rajesh Khanna, or Mukesh for Raj Kapoor. Movies like Saajan, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, Patthar Ke Phool and Andaz Apna Apna are a few examples, but SPB also lent his voice to many other Hindi movies as well, notably Mani Ratnam’s Roja.

Even though he is mostly thought of for his singing, SPB was also a gifted actor.

He would often say that playback singers are like actors, given how much they have to emote and express simply through their voice. A cameo in the 1987 Tamil film Manathil Uruthi Vendum led him to be signed on for films as lead. And, it turned out, he was just as naturally good an actor as he was at singing, without any professional training.

Be it a tug-at-your-heartstrings film like Keladi Kanmani (1990) or Kadhalan (1994), in which he set the benchmark for on-screen doting fathers, or Telugu slice-of-life film Mithunam (2012), based on an old couple’s quiet life, SPB was an all-round performer.

And he continued to perform pretty much until the end. In May 2020, just a few months before he died, he sang for Ilaiyaraaja. Ironically, it was a tribute to Covid warriors.

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