Usha Uthup was already a singing sensation in nightclubs in Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi when Dev Anand approached her to sing the title number for “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” in 1969.
Fifty-four years later, Uthup looks back at her introduction to playback singing with fondness and says she was never in the "rat race".
"I didn't start off as a playback singer and I never was in the rat race of the playback section because I started off as a nightclub singer, very proud to say, in a saree. I was already singing when Dev sahab and the Navketan unit came to Delhi to listen to me sing,” she told PTI in an interview on the sidelines of the recently-concluded JLF Valladolid.
The jazz and pop icon, 75, who attended JLF Valladolid to talk about her authorised biography "The Queen of Indian Pop" by Vikas Kumar Jha, recalled the beginning of her playback journey, which she considers a bonus in her singing career.
"Only after listening to me did they say they wanted me to work in their project, ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’. So it’s not really that I started as a playback singer. It came as a bonus to me. I am really happy and I always say, 'It's not a question of how good or how bad a singer you are, I think it’s how original you are'," Uthup said.
She added that perhaps singing jazz, pop and rock made her original and "completely different from others at that time."
The Kolkata-based Uthup, known for her distinctive style of kanjivaram sarees and big bindis, continued to work independently though it affected her playback singing career.
"My not being in Bombay could have caused the fact that when they needed somebody to sing a particular kind of song they would always ask me, and if the dates were not available, then they would go to someone else. But I am a happy person and I am very comfortable in my skin. I come from a very happy place so I don’t feel bad that I didn't get so many songs, it doesn't matter," she said.
She added that while others made singing records of 30,000 or 50,000 songs, she probably recorded a total of a thousand songs in different languages, including English, Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu.
Known for her distinct voice that gave her an edge over her contemporaries, Uthup became a jazz pioneer for Indian cinema-goers in the 1970s. She has also sung covers of "Skyfall", The Kingston Trio's "Greenback Dollar", "Scotch and Soda" and originals like "You Set My Heart on Fire" and "I feel Love" with Louis Banks.
Her association with iconic music directors such RD Burman, Bappi Lahiri, and Shankar-Jaikishan gave Uthup memorable Hindi songs such as “One Two Cha Cha” in “Shalimar” (1978), “Shaan Se” in “Shaan” (1980), and “Hari Om Hari” for “Pyaara Dushman” (1980).
Having worked with an array of music directors, young and old, the singer is glad that they all found something "different" in her.
"I worked with every music director and I am so glad and proud to say that they all found that I could be different and I could be used somewhere or other. I enjoyed working with all of them, in fact. Working with the youngest and the eldest has always been a learning process for me. And I am still learning," the 75-year-old said.
Since 2000, Uthup has done playback for films like "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham" (2001), "Jogger's Park" (2003), "Bhoot" (2003), "7 Khoon Maaf" (2011) and "Kahaani" (2012).
An admirer of singers ranging from Arijit Singh and Shreya Ghoshal to jazz legends Jose Feliciano and Ella Fitzgerald, the singing icon also has another love - acting.
She has previously worked in films like "7 Khoon Maaf", "Bombay to Goa", "Melnaattu Marumagal", "Pothan Vava", "Rock On 2" and "Hattrick" to name a few.
"I love acting, I really love it. In fact, it's been an extension of my music and I was privileged and so grateful that I worked with people like Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Haasan, the great superstar from Kerala, Mammooty. I am hoping that I get a nice meaty role again,” she said.
Uthup is currently working on the Indian adaptation of BBC’s detective drama “Sherlock Holmes”, where she will be working with Kay Kay Menon and Ranvir Shorey.
"I am really happy to say I am also doing a role in it. I am very excited. It’s just coming up,” she added.
Music for Uthup is a way to connect with people and put a smile on their faces.
"It's 54 years that I have been singing and I believe in getting people together through music... I am a people’s singer. I just sing what people love and what people want, and that’s exactly what I want to do – please them and get a smile on their face with my music," she said.