It was 1969.
Tamil star MGR listened to a young man in his early twenties rehearsing a Telugu song at AVM Productions studios, Chennai. Impressed by the voice, MGR inquired about the new singer on the block.
He was a young man from Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, who was just making his way into Tamil cinema. MGR offered the young singer an opportunity to sing in his next film, Adimai Penn. The song was Ayiram Nilave Vaa.
Once the rehearsals were done, the song could not be recorded because the singer fell sick. MGR could have replaced him with another singer, but he chose to wait for two months until the young man recovered. The young man not only recorded the song, but went on to sing many more songs in Tamil films and other South Indian languages, as well as in Bollywood.
He became a playback singer for projects featuring stars such as MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and NTR, and then the next generation of actors including Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan.
He shot to fame with a voice that was as suited to exuberant numbers such as Mere Jeevan Saathi, Pyar Kiye Jaa (Ek Duje Ke Liye) and soulful tunes such as Nilave Vaa as it was to classical tunes such as Shankarabharana and Sur Sangamam. Six Indian National Awards and more than 38,000 tunes later, he won a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Meet S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, who will be stepping into the golden jubilee year of his musical career on December 16.
SPB, as he is fondly known, is performing in the UAE on November 20. He will be joined by singer, K.S. Chitra. and his sister, S.P. Shailaja.
In an exclusive chat with tabloid! in Chennai, SPB took a trip down memory lane.
“That MGR waited for me for two months was itself a great thing,” said SPB.
“It was a wonderful moment when MGR told me: ‘After the rehearsals, you might have told your friends that you were singing for MGR. I did not want to use another singer, since I felt that they might presume that I was not satisfied with your voice. And, that is not good for your future.’
Two years before the fated meeting, SPB met composer M.S. Viswanathan for an audition. “Although he liked my singing, he found my Tamil utterly bad and asked me to meet him again,” he recalled.
SPB got his first break with MSV in 1969 with the film, Hotel Rambha. “I recorded a song with L.R. Eswari, but unfortunately the film never released.”
SPB also spoke about legendary Tamil actor Sivaji Ganesan’s advice to him: “Don’t ever change or mould your voice for my performance. You just sing and see how I mould myself to your singing.”
SPB did alter his voice for others, though, like Telugu actor NTR, and for some comedians. “I was just singing and trying to accommodate myself to their style of dialogue delivery,” he said, adding that his foremost responsibility was towards his music directors and their songs. “I believe in doing justice to that.”
SPB grew up in an environment soaked with music. His father, S.P. Sambamurthy, was an exponent of Harikatha, the art of storytelling through music and poetry. His mother, Sakunthalamma, filled up the house with her melodious hymns and devotional songs.
Calling himself an accidental singer, he revealed that he had never been keen on music as a profession. “My goal was to become an engineer.”
But then his father’s genes took over.
From singing in local concerts in Nellore, where he grew up, a young Balasubrahmanyam entered Telugu cinema in 1966 with the film, Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna.
He recalled his first recording moment, when he sang, under the watchful eyes of a 45-member orchestra, the song Emiyee Vinta Moham. His co-singers were P. Susheela, P. B. Sreenivas and K. Raghuramayya. “It was okayed in the first take.”
When his singing projects interfered with studies, his father suggested: “Don’t ride on two horses. Chose one and be sincere in that.”
“My father gave me a lot of freedom and never imposed anything.”
The first moment of glory arrived with an Indian National Award for Shankarabharanam.
He was in the spotlight again with his second Indian National award; this time for his Bollywood debut, Ek Duje Ke Liye. And then came, of course, the high-energy songs Tere Mere Beech Mein and Mere Jevan Sathi.
“Singing with Lata Mangeshkar-ji for the first time was special,” added SPB, talking about the song Teri Payal Mere Geet that he recorded for Naushad.
“It was a tough song, again okayed at the first take.”
His renditions of Ilayaraja (Tamil composer) compositions have also won him many fans. This association goes back to the days when Ilayaraja and his two brothers performed at local concerts with their troupe, Pavalar Brothers.
“Bharathiraja [a noted Tamil director] whom I have known from his stage days, sent Ilayaraja and his brothers to me,” said SPB.
“We did several shows all over the country. Ilayaraja was completely self — trained in both Indian and classical. Music meant everything to him and I remember him saving his paltry remuneration for musical equipment.”
SPB’s next extension of his voice was dubbing for Haasan for the Telugu versions of his films.
Who can forget his lead role in Tamil film Keladi Kanmani opposite Radhika? And his rendering of the song Mannil Indha in one breath. Phew!
Another brilliant performance was seen in Telugu film Midhunam where he was paired opposite Lakshmi. This year he acted once again, opposite Lakshmi in Tamil film Moone Moonu Varthai.
There is no stopping the 69-year-old singer. He still records a song almost every day, either for cinema, or television, or a devotional album.
Also keeping this grandfather of four on his toes is his role as judge for two reality shows, in Telugu and Kannada.
“It’s amazing that I have sustained so long,” admitted SPB, “for one with no training in music.”
“There have been many times when I have gone into a recording studio, listened to a composition and then told the composer that I would not be able to do justice to his song, it being a classical composition, and have come back.”
Today, standing on the threshold of his 50th year in the industry, SPB considered the UAE concert special, as it kick-starts his golden jubilee celebrations that will take him on a world tour in the coming year.