When he won his first national award for the Telugu film “Shankarabarnam”(1979), singing for the film’s protagonist– a Carnatic musician– Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam confessed that he had never learnt Carnatic music. When he won his second national award for “Ek Duje Ke Liye”(1981), he confessed again - that he did not know Hindi.
What helped S.P. Balasubrahmanyam or fondly known as SPB overcome these “deficiencies” while climbing the pinnacle of film music were his dedication, never say die attitude and loads of talent to back his golden voice. “Balu would listen to the tune just once and would be ready for the take. Such was his “kelvi gnanam” (ability to grasp by just listening),” commented legendary composer M.S. Viswanathan, who gave SPB his first break in Tamil cinema in 1969 through “Shanthi Nilayam” (an adaptation of Jane Eyre). The film and hence the song got delayed.
So as luck would have it SPB’s first song to be heard by Tamil listeners was for the MGR-Jayalalitha starrer “Adimai Penn” a box office hit that got released in 1969. MGR, who till then had refused to let anyone but T.M. Soundararajan sing for him, and was convinced by the film’s music director K.V. Mahadevan that SPB record the duet “Ayiram Nilavey Vaa”. MGR loved it so much that he called the young singer to his house and gifted him a gold ring. The song and the singer went on to become raging hits. Since then SPB has been the reigning male playback singer in Tamil cinema.
Subsequently SPB became the most sought after male voice for any romantic song in Tamil cinema and then in Telugu and other South Indian languages as well. A great fan of Mohammed Rafi, SPB said that the Hindi singer was his inspiration to sing romantic songs with such passion and involvement. For someone who got his break in Tamil cinema he could win his first national award in Tamil only in 1996, the previous five having gone for songs in Telugu, Kannada and Hindi. Of course he picked up more than a dozen Filmfare awards and state government awards on the way.
But awards and recognition hardly mattered for this engineer turned singer. He would gladly oblige any new or upcoming music composer saying it gave him another opportunity to explore creativity and recognize talent. When A.R. Rahman first recorded him for “Roja” (1992), the bulky singer had to squeeze himself into a small glass cubicle to record his songs. “Yet, he came for three days and recorded them with always a smile on his face,” Rahman recalled later about his first film experience.
Always smiling, always singing, SPB was also known for his productivity – he could easily record half a dozen songs in a day, hopping between studios and singing for different composers and even languages on a single day. No wonder he holds the Indian record for having the highest number of songs – more than 40,000 in 14 Indian languages. Once he recorded 17 songs in Kannada for composer Upendra Kumar in Bangalore from 9.00 a.m. to 9.00 p.m. in 1981 - a record. He sang over 2,000 songs for Ilayaraaja alone. Whatever the language he would make sure to get the pronunciation right.
An example of his magnanimity can be seen the way he encouraged another playback singer, Mano, even though he had a similar voice and style. ‘He spoke to Ilayaraaja and had me sing for Rajinikanth. Who will have such a heart?” asks Mano. Later when SPB had to take a break after a surgery on his vocal chords he called every top music director and asked them to use Mano.
It was only a matter of time before his singing talent led SPB to composing music for films – he has scored music for 45 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi. His acting talent was discovered by the redoubtable film director K. Balachander. He went on to act in 45 films in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. “Acting came easily to me since a singer emotes in front of the microphone and innumerable stage shows meant that I had no stage or camera fear,” he said.
But for millions of fans across the world SPB would always be first and foremost a singer par excellence. His haunting melodies, delectable duets, energetic dance numbers and the resounding philosophical songs of one of India’s most loved singers would keep resonating forever.