SPB career spanned more than five decades and for the majority of the time, he was the dominant singer in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada. Now wonder he has left behind a lasting legacy.
The most important thing SPB taught many singers is that film singing is a different ball game compared to classical music. He was not a classically trained musician but was able to emote so well that his singing style suited the film idiom perfectly. He gave hope to thousands of singers, amateurs and professionals, who may not have been classically trained, that they too can sing if they put in the required effort and tried to build their own musical personality.
SPB's singing career is a lesson to any aspiring singer. SPB was unsure of his own singing in the early days, as we saw in this series. He started by imitating his senior peers, as Mukesh and Kishore had done in the past, but slowly developed his own voice. The uncertainty slowly gave way to confidence and SPB discovered his true voice after half a decade or more of struggle. This is the first lesson that any aspiring singer must learn from SPB's life. Work hard, work on your limitations, never give up and develop your vocal personality.
SPB's major strength was his versatility. He was as effective for hero introduction songs as he was for songs picturized on comedians. He would almost rip apart his throat and shout, "Ilama idho idho" and would also morph his voice into a musical whisper for 'nilave vaa'. If 'valayosai' made lovers dance with joy, 'o papa lali' made them shed tears. A 'sahasam maa radham' was sung with the same felicity as "E divilo veligina parijathamo'. His constant need to push himself sent him outside of his comfort zone. He went to Kannada and became an enduring legend there. He went to Hindi and to Malayalam as well with mixed results. What mattered though was that SPB was always pushing himself to do better, to take on new challenges. That is why he went on to provide music to movies, he became a successful dubbing artist, an amazing TV host, a great stage performer and also an accomplished actor. It is very difficult to find someone with this range of activities. He tried to excel in whatever he did and he succeeded in doing so.
SPB's singing style made him a favorite amongst music directors. Music directors like Sathyam, Chakravarthy, Ramesh Naidu used him all the time in Telugu. In Tamil, MSV initially and then Raja used him a lot. In Kannada he became the favorite of all music directors. In one of his interviews, R.V.Udaykumar, the director of 'Kizhaku Vasal', says that for his song, 'pacha mala poovu', he insisted with Illayaraja that the song should only be sung by SPB. SPB was out of India on a tour and the director waited for a month before recording the song. Such was the faith of both director and music director on SPB's singing.
SPB's voice was his strength. It retained its youthfulness till the time he died. He never sounded old. In some songs during the 2000s, you can hear a bit of strain in some places but even there the voice sounded young. His voice was God's gift to him and when his senior and junior contemporaries were having problems with their voices, SPB's voice retained its tone. The youthfulness helped him in being the voice for multiple generations of artists. His voice, even when he was above 60, did not feel out of place when he sang for a young hero. Of course, what SPB achieved is not possible just by having a good voice, that is an important factor though, but also through great effort, learning and correcting oneself and improving constantly. SPB did all those things.
Further SPB understood the needs to film singing perfectly. He knew how to adapt himself when musical styles changed. From singing to MSV, changing to Raja's style and then adapting to Rahman's style were done with ease by SPB. He knew when to let go while singing, when to hold himself, when to give his own variation and when to sing as per music director's order. The understanding of emotional content inherent in a tune and expressing it precisely were what made his singing such a bit hit with the masses. (I do feel that in some cases SPB becomes a bit too emotional but those songs are less in number. I have heard others say this as well. When it came to Raja, there are no such songs at all)
SPB's versatility can be compared to that of his idol, Mohammad Rafi. SPB may not be happy with me making this statement but I have to say that looking at SPB's output objectively, his legacy is as good as his idol, if not better. Rafi was the constant voice of Hindi cinema for a couple of decades, singing a variety of songs. SPB too was the voice of Tamil, Telugu and Kannada industry for more than a couple of decades, singing a wide range of songs. SPB was able to transition multiple phases. From the MSV phase, he was moved to Raja phase and then to the Rahman phase. That is one reason that he has sung songs in more genres than Rafi, for Raja was constantly experimenting and he trusted SPB with his creations. (In case of Rafi, the more experimental RDB choose Kishore as the vehicle to deliver his musical ideas)
SPB was loved by people for his human nature and his generosity. Whenever he got a chance, he praised his co singers, Janaki, Susheela, Yesudas, Chitra and others. He praised music directors and was partial towards Raja, who he maintained had no equals. His love for M S Vishwanathan is well know. He had great love and respect for Veturi, whose lyrics he never forgot to highlight. He encouraged singers, song writers and music directors and treated them with great dignity in his programs.
Though SPB wore multiple hats, his playback singing will be his enduring legacy. No one really knows how many songs he has sung. When a host quoted a large number, I think 40,000 or so, SPB replied in a TV show that he doesn't know how people arrived at the figure. He said the actual figure was lesser but then quality is not measure by quantity. SPB's legacy is that he gave us quality and he gave a lot of it. His voice became part of many people's lives: holding their hands when they needed support, smiling brightly when they were in joy and gently wiping off their tears when they went through bad times. His voice embedded itself in people's heart in such a way that they would sing a SPB song for every emotion they felt. His memory will stay with people and his memory will stay even after all those who have heard him sing live have vanished from this planet due to the inexorable march of time. SPB's voice will be heard for a long long time to come.
Let us close this series by listening to a SPB song in each of the major 5 languages that he sang in.
When SPB spoke Telugu, it sounded as if the language was dipped in honey. He says so in this song, 'thenekkana theeyanidi Telugu basha'. From the movie, 'Rajkumar'. Lyrics of Arudra. Music by Illayaraja.
SPB always maintained that people of Karnataka loved him more even than his own home state, Andhra Pradesh. It is fitting that he sang, 'entha soundarya nodu', a song which praises the beauty of Karnataka. From 'Mata Tappada Maga'. Music of Illayaraja.
SPB has not sung much in Malayalam, Yesudas being the dominant personality there. I love this Illayaraja duet, which SPB has sung with Chitra . 'tarapdam' from 'Anaswaram'.
From Hindi, 'sathiya tu ne kya kiya'. Formally credited to Anand Milind. (It is an Illayaraja melody) From the movie, 'Love'. Once again with Chitra.
We will end this series with this song, the pallavi of which SPB would be singing for us from the heavens. 'nalam vazha ennalum en vaazhthukal'. From 'Marupadiyum'. Vali's lyrics and Raja's music.
Atma Shanthi to the great singer who has given us so much to savor.