RIP SPB: Why the legendary singer’s passing marks the end of a musical era in Indian cinema

If one had to close their eyes and pick a chartbuster from the 70s and 80s, there was no way that one would land on any song that didn’t have an Ilayaraja-SPB combo
SP Balasubhrahmanyam
SP Balasubhrahmanyam

SPB on stage

There is no way to pick the peak of his career, since his voice has consistently been played through the radio, cassettes, the television, walkmans, CDs, Ipods, YouTube and Spotify. This is not to say that all his songs were just classics, he continued to be a sought after voice for music composers as young as Anirudh, one of his last songs being Chumma Kizhi from Darbar.

SPB gave Rajinikanth most of his hit songs, especially his hero entry songs, that added to his popularity in the 80’s and 90’s. From Oruvan Oruvan Mudhalali from Muthu to En Peru Padayappa from the film Padayappa to Naan Polladavan from Polladavan. In fact, AR Rahman decided to break this pattern by hiring Shankar Mahadevan for Rajinikanth’s Baba but it failed to get the same popularity of the SPB-Rajini combo songs. Ever since, SPB has always voiced Rajini in all his ‘hero-entry’ songs besides scores of other kinds of songs as well.

But SPB started his mass-hero songs from actor MGR’s times. The multiple-award winning singer was a favourite with music composer MS Viswanathan and sang many of MGR’s popular songs just as his film career was drawing to an end and his political career was quickly stabilising.  After MSV, SPB began a five-decade long,  friendship with music maestro Ilayaraja, the two knew each other even before they entered the film music scene. The two along with Gangai Amaran and two others started a light music troupe when SPB was still in college.

If one had to close their eyes and pick a chartbuster from the 70s and 80s, there was no way that one would land on any song that didn’t have an Ilayaraja-SPB combo. It was the popularity of these songs that propelled Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth to stardom. Ilayaraja’s frequent choices for his songs were SPB, Malaysia Vasudevan and Yesudas. But SPB, S Janaki and Ilayaraja became the most powerful trio in the music scene for over two decades. His tryst with Rajini began during this time. Even if one didn’t watch the video, just the audio of SPB singing would conjure up Rajini’s image in one’s head. If the songs had two major stars, even then it was assumed the SPB would only sing for Rajini. For example, in Ennama Kannu Sowkiyama, actor Sathyaraj’s part was sung by Malaysia Vasudevan and Rajini’s was SPB. It was the same with the Rajini-Mammooty starrer Thalapathi in the song Kattu Kuyile. This doesn’t mean that SPB didn’t sing for other superstars as well, he has also sung for latest stars like Vijay and Ajith as well.

In fact, it was because of the SPB-Ilayaraja duo that actors like Mohan, Rajkiran, Ramarajan and others were placed on the same pedestal as Kamal and Rajinikanth because they all had superhit songs. Actor Mohan was often referred to as ‘Mic’ Mohan because in most of the music videos, he was seen behind the microphone, as one Twitterati said, ‘forging’ SPB’s voice.

But SPB remained Rajini’s most authentic voice till the very end. AR Rahman fully understood this when he entered the scene as well. But Rahman-SPB also became an iconic pair with Kadhal Rojave becoming a turning point in Tamil film music in the 90’s. All the songs from the films like 'Duet' became mega hits. Rahman introduced tons of new singers in his time but SPB remained a constant. He was simply irreplaceable.

What set SPB apart was how well he could emote a lyric. Nobody could act in the songs like he did. One friend says, you never had to see the video of a song or understand the language to know what the emotion the song was going to convey. If it was a sad song, he added a little cry or a choke, if it was happy, he would add a little laugh, almost making you want to laugh along. If it was a love failure song, he could paint a picture of the heartbreak, if it was a seductive song then he sang it with a certain unique allure. It was almost like it was up to the actor to do justice to the scene that SPB had set.

SPB has also set world records — the multiple National award winner recorded 21 songs in a single day for composer Upendra Kumar in Kannada from 9 am to 9 pm in 1981. He has recorded 19 songs in Tamil and 16 songs in Hindi in a single day. He would record 15-20 songs on some days in Mumbai and return to Chennai in the evening flight.

Janaki, Ilayaraja and SPB

But there was also the ‘actor SPB’ who was much loved — with the amount of emoting he did in his song, its a wonder why it took so long for filmmakers to realise that SPB was a natural actor. It was in Keladi Kanmani (1990) that SPB’s popular breathless song found a space. I mean who are we kidding, there was no way anybody else could have done the role besides him. In the video, just like actress Radhika, the audience also waited breathless to see if he would make it to the end of the verse. And clapped along with her, as he achieved this feat.

When SPB became quite serious last month, Ilayaraja, in an emotional message, asked his friend, ‘Balu’ to come back soon and that he was waiting for him. “Our lives don't end with just cinema. It didn't start with cinema either. The music and friendship which started off at stage shows — just like how music is inseparable from its notes, our friendship has also not parted. It was always friendship, when we fought and even when we weren't fighting. You know this well and so do I,” Ilayaraja had said. The duo could go down in history as the most successful music combo of all time but their friendship was something that the world could aspire for too.

The brilliantly talented SPB has left the world a better, more enriched place. He worked night and day to give us music that will last till the end of time. So now, may our Paadum Nila, rest in peace.

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