Affectionately called as ‘Balu’ in his friends’ circle, SPB made his singing debut in 1966, and went on to sing over 40,000 songs in as many as 16 languages
Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam (4 June 1946 – 25 September 2020), also referred to as S. P. Balu or SPB, was an Indian musician, playback singer, music director, actor, dubbing artist and film producer who worked predominantly in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi and Malayalam.
Affectionately called as ‘Balu’ in his friends’ circle, SPB made his singing debut in 1966 with the Telugu movie Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna, and went on to sing over 40,000 songs in as many as 16 languages including Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Hindi.
He also won the Guinness World Record for recording the highest number of songs by a singer.
He bagged six National Film Awards for Best Male Playback Singer for his songs in four different languages (Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi), as well as 25 Andhra Pradesh state Nandi Awards for his work in Telugu cinema, apart from numerous other state awards from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
In addition, he also garnered six Filmfare Awards. In 2012, he received the state NTR National Award for his contributions to Indian cinema. In 2016, he was honored with the Indian Film Personality of the Year consisting of a Silver Peacock Medal.
He was a recipient of civilian awards Padma Shri (2001) and Padma Bhushan (2011). On September 25, 2020, he died in MGM Hospital due breathing difficulties, even though he recovered from COVID-19.
SPB was born in Nellore into a Telugu family. His father, late S. P. Sambamurthy, was a Harikatha artist who had also acted in plays. His mother was Sakunthalamma. He has two brothers and five sisters, including singer S. P. Sailaja. His son is S. P. Charan who is also a popular south Indian singer, actor and a producer.
Balasubrahmanyam developed an interest in music at an early age, studied notations and learned music. He enrolled at JNTU College of Engineering Anantapur with the intention of becoming an engineer. He discontinued his studies early due to typhoid, and joined as an Associate Member of the Institution of Engineers, Chennai.
He continued to pursue music during his engineering studies and won awards at singing competitions. In 1964, he won the first prize in a music competition for amateur singers organised by the Madras-based Telugu Cultural Organisation.
He was the leader of a light music troupe composed of Anirutta (on the harmonium), Ilaiyaraaja (on guitar and later on harmonium), Baskar (on percussion), and Gangai Amaran (on guitar). He was selected as the best singer in a singing competition which was judged by S. P. Kodandapani and Ghantasala. Often visiting music composers seeking opportunities, his first audition song was “Nilave Ennidam Nerungadhe”. It was rendered by veteran playback singer P. B. Srinivas, who used to write and give him multi-lingual verses in Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Sanskrit, English and Urdu.
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Balasubrahmanyam made his debut as a playback singer on December 15, 1966 with Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna, a Telugu film scored by his mentor, S. P. Kodandapani.The first non-Telugu song that he recorded just eight days after his debut Telugu song was in Kannada in 1966 for the film Nakkare Ade Swarga, starring Kannada comedy stalwart T. R. Narasimharaju.
He recorded his first Tamil song “Athaanodu Ippadi Irundhu Eththanai Naalaachu”, a duet with L.R. Eswari in the music direction of M. S. Viswanathan for the film Hotel Ramba, which never got released. Other early songs he sang were duets with P. Susheela, “Iyarkai Ennum Ilaya Kanni” in the 1969 film Shanti Nilayam, starring Gemini Ganesh, and “Aayiram Nilavae Vaa” for MGR in Adimaippenn. His first song with S. Janaki was “Pournami Nilavil Pani Vizhum Iravil” in Kannippenn. He was then introduced to the Malayalam film industry by G. Devarajan in the film Kadalppalam.
He has the rare distinction of rendering the most songs in a single day by any singer. He recorded 21 songs in Kannada for the composer Upendra Kumar in Bengaluru from 9 am to 9 pm on 8 February, 1981. Futhermore, he also recorded 19 songs in Tamil and 16 songs in Hindi in a day, which is a notable achievement and a record.
He established a prolific career. “There were days when I used to record 15 to 20 songs, but only for Anand-Milind. And I would take the last flight back to Chennai,” SPB said.
In the 1970s, he also worked with M. S. Viswanathan in Tamil movies for actors such as M. G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan. He recorded duets with P. Susheela, S. Janaki, Vani Jayaram and L. R. Eswari. Balasubrahmanyam’s association with Ilaiyaraaja began even before Ilaiyaraaja came to the cine field. In those days, SPB used to sing in towns and villages all over south India and Ilaiyaraaja, then an unknown harmonium and guitar player accompanied SPB by playing in his concerts.
International recognition: 1980s
Balasubrahmanyam came to international prominence with the 1980 film Sankarabharanam. The film is considered to be one of the best films ever to emerge from the Telugu film industry. Directed by K. Vishwanath, the film’s soundtrack was composed by K.V. Mahadevan, and led to an increase in the usage of Karnatak music in Telugu cinema. Not a classically trained singer, he used a “film music” aesthetic in recording the songs. Balasubrahmanyam received his first National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer for his work. His first work in Hindi films was in the following year, in Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), for which he received another National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer.
Balasubrahmanyam began to record more songs in Tamil, especially for Ilaiyaraaja with S.Janaki, the trio considered to be highly successful in the Tamil film industry from the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. The songs were based on classical music, such as in Saagara Sangamam (1983), for which both Ilaiayaraaja and S.P.B won National Film Awards, Swathi Muthyam (1986) and Rudraveena (1988) which again won National Awards for Ilaiyaraaja and Balasubrahmanyam.
In 1989, Balasubrahmanyam was the playback singer for actor Salman Khan in the blockbuster Maine Pyar Kiya. The soundtrack for the film was very successful and he won a Filmfare Award for Best Male Playback Singer for the song Dil Deewana. For much of the next decade, Balasubrahmanyam continued as the “romantic singing voice” on the soundtracks of Khan’s films.
Notable among these was Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! which became the all time highest-grossing Hindi film, and Balasubrahmanyam’s duet with Lata Mangeshkar, “Didi Tera Devar Deewana”, was very popular. This solidified Balasubrahmanyam as one of the biggest playback singers in India. SPB was identified as Salman Khan’s voice in the 90s, just like Kishore Kumar became Rajesh Khanna’s voice through the 70s.
Association with other composers, including A.R. Rahman: 1990s
In the 1990s, he worked with composers such as Vidyasagar, M. M. Keeravani, S. A. Rajkumar and Deva among others, but his association with A.R.Rahman turned out be a major success.
Balasubramanyam’s association with Hamsalekha began after the latter’s successful venture Premaloka in Kannada. Balasubramanyam sung the most songs for Hamsalekha in Kannada. He received his fourth National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer for the song “Umandu Ghumandu” from the Kannada film Ganayogi Panchakshari Gavayi (1995), which was a Hindustani classical music-based composition by Hamsalekha.
Balasubrahmanyam recorded three songs for A. R. Rahman in his debut film Roja. He began a long time association with Rahman since then. Other popular songs include “July Maadham” from Pudhiya Mugam, which also marked the debut of singer Anupama, “Mannoothu Manthayilae” from Kizhakku Cheemayile which was a folk number and he almost sang all songs in the musical love story Duet and “Thanga Thaamarai” from Minsara Kanavu which fetched him the sixth and latest of his National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer till date.
Cementing his legacy: 2000s–2020
In 2013, Balasubrahmanyam recorded the title song for Chennai Express, singing for the lead actor Shahrukh Khan, under the music direction of Vishal-Shekhar. He returned to Hindi film music after being away from it for 15 years.
In May 2020, SPB crooned a song on humanity titled “Bharath Bhoomi” which was composed by Ilaiyaraaja as a tribute to the people such as police, army, doctors, nurses and janitors who have been significantly working amid COVID-19 pandemic. The video song was officially unveiled by Ilaiyaraaja through his official YouTube account on 30 May 2020 in both Tamil and Hindi languages.
Balasubrahmanyam accidentally became a dubbing artist with K. Balachander’s film Manmadha Leela, the dubbed Telugu version of Manmadha Leelai, providing a voice-over for Kamal Haasan.
He has also provided voice-overs for various other artists, including Rajinikanth, Vishnuvardhan, Salman Khan, K. Bhagyaraj, Mohan, Anil Kapoor, Girish Karnad, Gemini Ganesan, Arjun Sarja, Nagesh, Karthik, and Raghuvaran in various languages.
He was assigned as the default dubbing artist for Kamal Haasan in Telugu-dubbed versions of Tamil films. For the Telugu version of Dasavathaaram, he gave voice to seven characters (including the female character) out of ten characters played by Kamal Haasan. He was awarded the Nandi Award for Best Male Dubbing Artist for the films Annamayya and Sri Sai Mahima. He dubbed for Nandamuri Balakrishna for the Tamil version of the movie Sri Rama Rajyam in 2012. He also dubbed for Ben Kingsley in the Telugu-dubbed version of Gandhi.
On August 5 2020, Balasubrahmanyam tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to MGM Healthcare in Chennai. Subsequently, his health deteriorated and he was shifted to the intensive care unit in a critical state. He required a ventilator and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) support.
His son Charan provided updates via social media to fans, while members of the Tamil film industry engaged in a mass prayer via Zoom on 20 August and candlelight vigils were held by fans outside the hospital.
On 7 September 2020, Balasubrahmanyam tested negative for the coronavirus, although he remained on a ventilator. His son said SPB was responsive and watching tennis and cricket matches on his iPad. He died on September 25 after a month-long hospitalisation.