An emotional Ilayaraja, the music maestro, posted a video two days ago, urging his friend SP Balasubrahmanyam to recover from the coronavirus attack and walk out of the hospital, recalling his long association with the singer. The reaction is symptomatic of the messages that are pouring in for SPB’s recovery.
Responses have come from all over South India, as also from Mumbai and New Delhi, indicating his popularity, not just as a singer, but also due to his affability.
Ilayaraja mentioned his early days with SPB when they did a number of live concerts before he got opportunities to compose music for films. Both have risen from the ranks. SPB left Andhra Pradesh for Chennai despite acquiring an Engineering degree. He was the lead singer at Ilayaraja’s live music events, with Ilayaraja and his brothers providing orchestral support.
Those were the days when Hindi film songs dominated the scene. They would belt out numbers from Aradhana and so on. Little did they know that their combo would dramatically change the way music would be made and heard in Tamil Nadu first, and later across South India. Ilayaraja and his brothers would barely earn ₹200 a day, and on days when they did not have film recordings, they would sleep on empty stomachs.
Theirs is an extraordinary tale of friendship that has withstood even bitter differences at times. For instance, Ilayaraja insisted that all musicians staging big live events must pay royalty for his compositions. As part of this drive, his firm also served a legal notice to SPB as to many others while the latter was on a global tour.
SPB, hurt by the legal notice, decided not to sing Ilayaraja’s songs during his concerts. However, after a few months, SPB relented and asked the promoters of his live shows to ensure royalty payment to Ilayaraja. The matter seemed to have been resolved as SPB, to the delight of his fans as also those of Ilayaraja, began singing the maestro’s songs again.
On the eve of Ilayaraja’s first set of recordings for films in themed-seventies, he asked SPB to take care of his health and not fall sick on the next day. However, SPB ignored the advice and developed an acute throat infection the next morning. Ilayaraja used another singer, Malaysia Vasudevan who had come there to attend the puja, to record several songs over the next few days.
In the first few films if Ilayaraja, the voice of his close friend SPB could not be heard. SPB happened to bump into Ilayaraja, and said, “I am a singer too. Why are you not calling me for recordings”. Raja laughed and said, “I warned you not to fall sick. Anyway, come tomorrow morning, and we will have a song recorded.” Thus, began a long association between Ilayaraja and SPB, spanning over 2,000 songs in various languages, changing the music world and even the film industry.
SPB, participating in ‘Ilayaraja 1000’ live event to mark the completion of an astonishing number of 1,000 films by Raja, said, “Ilayaraja does not need my praise. He has grown in stature globally, and is beyond all that. Raja was a talented musician even when he played for my music troupe but we never thought he would rise to such heights, which he has achieved by his hard work and dedication. Ilayaraja was born for me, and I was born for Ilayaraja”.
Though SPB was already singing for many Telugu and Tamil films before the arrival of Ilayaraja (for music directors like KV Mahadevan, MS Viswanathan and V Kumar), it was the ‘Ilayaraja effect’ in films like Payanangal Mudivathillai, Pagalil Or Iravu, Poonthalir, Nenjathai Killadhae, Roasapoo Ravikkaikaari that catapulted SPB to fame.
Ilayaraja moved away from the TM Sounderarajan and P Susheela era of voices, to SPB and S Janaki, to suit the rising stars of Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. A new wave of musical hits swept South India. The Raja-SPB combo in Guru, Meendum Kokila, Rajaparvai, Sakalakalavallavan, Ullaasa Paravaigal, Vettri Vizha, Salangai Oli and Sippikul Muthu among many others worked wonders for Kamal Haasan starrers.
Similarly, though Raja used other voices like Yesudas and Malaysia Vasudevan for Rajinikanth, the combination with SPB produced massive hits for Rajni in Bhuvana Oru Kelvikuri, Aarulinrundhu 60 Varai, Jhonny, Thambikku Endha Ooru, Guru Sishyan, Maappillai, Adutha Vaarisu, Thalapathy and so on.
The Raja-SPB combination churned out chart-busters for Sivakumar, Vijayakanth, Prabhu and little-known heroes like Mohan, Ramarajan and Rajkiran. SPB became the number one choice for the hero in Tamil films for two decades till the advent of the next generation heroes like Surya, Ajit and Vijay who were inclined to a change and seemed to prefer Hariharan and younger voices.
The families of SPB and Ilayaraja continue to be good friends, with SPB’s son Charan entering into film production and direction in collaboration with Ilayaraja’s nephews Venkat Prabhu and Premji Amaren, while Ilayaraja’s son Yuvan Shankar Raja composes music for the films of Venkat and Charan.
In the early days, SPB and Raja used to occasionally spend evenings together, drinking with their friends, but later Ilayaraja turned spiritual, almost becoming a sage, and meetings between the two were largely restricted to recording studios and film functions. When Ilayaaja’s brother Gangai Amaren wanted to marry the girl with whom he fell in love, it was SPB who spoke to her parents and gained their acceptance for the wedding.
The Ilayaraja-SPB combo had also earned a large number of admirers in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, in particular. Though SPB hails from Andhra Pradesh, with Telugu as his mother tongue, he has as many fans in Tamil Nadu, which he has made his main home, and Karnataka as in AP.
The story of an enduring friendship between SPB and Ilayaraja, despite changing fortunes and vicissitudes of life, has transcended nearly five decades. SPB has been generally liked by one and all in the film industry including the music world, as he has maintained cordial relationships with music directors, singers and lyricists.
He has never failed to recall the contribution of audio engineers and technicians, besides writers like Kannadasan and music directors particularly MS Viswanathan and KV Mahadevan. And that is why, cutting across the geographical divide, music directors, singers and artists from all over the country have sent messages wishing SPB a speedy recovery.