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Legendary singer SP Balasubrahmanyam passes away- Cinema express

Legendary singer SPB passes away

The singer was admitted on August 5 due to complications arising from COVID-19, and after a prolonged fight, he breathed his last today

Published: 25th September 2020

Legendary singer SP Balasubrahmanyam breathed his last in a private hospital in Chennai on Friday. He was 74.

The singer was admitted on August 5 due to complications arising from Covid-19. On August 14 (Friday), it was announced that his condition had worsened, and he was shifted to the High Dependency Unit. Though his son, SPB Charan, announced that he showed major improvements and tested negative for coronavirus, the legendary singer succumbed to the illness and breathed his last on Friday, September 25.

Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam was born in Konetammapeta village, Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, on June 4, 1946. A six-time National Award winner, he made his singing debut with the Telugu film, Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna in 1966. He made his Kannada debut in the same year for composer M Ranga Rao in Nakkare Ada Swarga. SPB was introduced in Tamil through legendary composer MS Viswanathan’s song, ‘Iyarkaiyenum Idhayakani’ in the Gemini Ganesan film, Shanthi Nilayam (1969). The same year saw the singer singing his breakout song, ‘Aayiram Nilave Vaa’ for MGR’s Adimaipenn.    

SPB was drawn to music at an early age but didn't train in classical singing, though he evinced interest in learning musical instruments. He won the first prize in a music competition for the budding singers organised by the Madras-based Telugu Cultural Organisation and also won the best singer award in a competition judged by his father SP Kodandapani and mentor Ghantasala Venkateswararao.

Over the next five decades, SPB, as he is fondly referred to, grew in stature and made an indelible mark across various languages. In a career spanning over 50 years, SPB sang over 40,000 songs in several languages, including Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi among others. He received his first National award for his seminal work in Shankarabharanam. This was the first of three National Awards he received for singing in Telugu. Shankarabharanam received worldwide acclaim and cemented SPB as one of the premier singers of the country for singing a largely Carnatic-based soundtrack without any real formal training in the medium. He received his other National Awards for his work in Sagara Sangamam and Rudraveena. He also won one each in Hindi, Kannada, and Tamil for Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981), Sangeetha Sagara Ganayogi Panchakshara Gavai (1995), and Minsara Kanavu (1996), respectively. Notably, Tere Mere Beech Mein from Ek Duje ke Liye was his debut song in Bollywood.

In interviews, SPB stated that legendary Bollywood playback singer Mohammed Rafi was his favourite singer and revealed that he had learnt plenty from him. The singer was known to sing for an average of six to eight hours every day, and at the peak of his career, is reported to have sung for as many as 17 hours in a single day.

He was considered the singing voice of the biggest stars of his times including Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Mohan and Salman Khan. His collaboration with Rajinikanth continued till Darbar (2020). SPB formed a fruitful relationship with some of the most iconic composers across languages, including names like Satyam, S Rajeswara Rao, KV Mahadevan, MS Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja, AR Rahman, Vidyasagar, MM Keeravani, SA Rajkumar, Deva, Hamsalekha, SS Thaman and Anirudh. SPB’s collaborations with Ilaiyaraaja, in particular, attained cult status for ruling South Indian cinema in the 80s. Theirs was an iconic equation that commenced when Ilaiyaraaja and his brothers became musicians in SPB’s music group. Their work in both Tamil and Telugu continues to be revered by legions of fans.

In Tamil especially, SPB was well-known for moulding his voice to suit top composers and was thought of as the apex singer in the business. Be it the quirky ‘Kadavul Amaithu Vaitha Medai’ (Aval Oru Thodarkadhai), the chirpy ‘Idhu Oru Ponmalai Pozhudhu’ (Nizhalgal), the massy ‘My Name Is Billa’ (Billa), or the melancholic Unna Nenachu (Aboorva Sagodharargal), SPB was synonymous with versatility. He was awarded the Kalaimamani in 1981 and was a four-time recipient of the Tamil Nadu State Award. SPB also won 25 Nandi Awards for his work in Telugu cinema.

While he ruled the roost in Telugu and Tamil for decades on end, he had an equally impressive run in Bollywood too that began with Ek Duje Ke Liye. The Laxmikant-Pyarelal album continues to remain a chartbuster even today. Interestingly, legend has it that while the composer duo was reluctant against roping in a ‘Madrasi’ singer, it was SPB who argued that as the hero was a South Indian, the vocals would be quite appropriate. Later, the singer became the voice of actor Salman Khan who was just starting out in Bollywood. Their collaborations in Maine Pyar Kiya (most memorably Dil Deewana), Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Saajan and Andaz Apna Apna stand the test of time. His duets with legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar established him as one of the few South Indian singers to chart a Bollywood career without having to compromise on his identity. After a 15-year-long break since Kabhi Na Kabhi with AR Rahman, SPB returned to Bollywood with Shah Rukh Khan’s Chennai Express (2013), composed by Vishal-Shekhar. So connected was SPB with the late 80s and early 90s Bollywood that in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, a film that was an ode to the Hindi cinema of that era, there were references to his singing style in the number, Life Mein Fair Chance Kiska.

The versatile SPB was also an accomplished composer, actor, and a voice-artiste. He composed the music for 40+ films in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi. Some of his notable work include Sigaram, Padamati Sandhyaragam and Thurpu Velle Railu. The artiste began his dubbing career with the Telugu version of K Balachander-Kamal Haasan’s Manmadha Leelai. He went on to dub for many Kamal Haasan films in Telugu cinema. Apart from this collaboration, SPB also provided the voice-over for artistes like Rajinikanth, Vishnuvardhan, K. Bhagyaraj, Anil Kapoor, Gemini Ganesan, Mohanlal and Nagesh in various languages.

After appearing in cameos in the early eighties, he assumed acting as a profession in the late 80s. He played the lead for the first time in Keladi Kanmani (1990) and featured in important roles in many films since then. As an actor, he worked with many legendary directors including K Balachander, Mani Ratnam, Shankar, KS Ravikumar and Muthyala Subbaiah. He was regarded as a fine performer and won a Nandi Special Jury award for his seamless portrayal of a retired teacher in actor-turned-director Tanikella Bharani's Telugu drama, Mithunam (2013).

SPB was conferred the Padma Shri in 2001, and ten years later, was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2011.

His sister, SP Shailaja, and his son, SPB Charan are accomplished singers in their own right, and he has collaborated with them on multiple songs. The timeless artiste is survived by his wife Savitri, son Charan, and daughter, Pallavi.


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