His was the voice that three generations of Tamils, Telugus, Malayalis and Kannadigas hummed their dreams, sorrows, romance, and devotion in. Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam, SPB to admirers and Balu to friends, who succumbed to post-COVID complications on Friday, was a singer for the ages. His career, spread over five decades, makes for staggering statistics — over 40,000 songs in 16 languages with six national awards. But no statistic can capture the impact SPB had on South Indian cinemas — Bollywood was also fortunate to work with him.
SPB, born in Nellore in Andhra Pradesh in 1946, trained to be an engineer but music was in his genes, with his father being a Harikatha artist. Though without formal training in music, he had a sense of music and a voice that was the envy of singers. Sankarabharanam, a 1980 super-hit that celebrated and popularised Carnatic music, owed its success as much to the songs with a classical base that SPB rendered. He was equally at ease crooning foot-tapping numbers, romantic hits and devotionals. He sang for all the big heroes and music directors in South Indian cinemas and with the finest among his peers. His stage shows were an act in improvisation, inspiring co-singers and the orchestra to keep pace with him. In the midst of his busy singing schedule, he also found time to act and dub. He lent his voice to Kamal Haasan in over 150 Telugu films and to Ben Kingsley in the Telugu version of Gandhi.
SPB’s art exudes the joy of a person who was in love with life and his vocation. The opening lines of a Tamil hit, perhaps, sum up his music: Ilayanila pozhigirathey/ Idayam varai nanaigirathey (A tender moon showering light/ My heart drenched in the moonlight).
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