Indian singer SP Balasubrahmanyam dies at 74

Indian singer SP Balasubrahmanyam, a Guinness world record holder for his more than 40,000 songs over 50 years, has died aged 74.

Balasubrahmanyam died on Friday after spending days in intensive care following a Covid-19 diagnosis.

Balasubrahmanyam was first admitted to hospital in the southern city of Chennai in early August when he tested positive for Covid-19. He tested negative early in September, but continued to receive life support treatment. The hospital where he was being treated said in a statement that he died of a cardio-respiratory arrest.

Who was SP Balasubrahmanyam?

SPB, as he was popularly known, began his career in Tamil and Telugu cinema in southern India – and became the first crossover singer who gained success in Bollywood.

He was a legendary “playback singer” – that is, his voice was pre-recorded for use in films in which actors would lip-sync to the songs. He sang for top composers of his time, including AR Rahman and Ilaiyaraaja.

His breakthrough Bollywood film came in 1981 when he sang for Ek Duuje Ke Liye, a romantic tragedy that was one of the year’s biggest hits.

He was hailed as a singing sensation despite his marked southern accent and became the ‘singing voice’ for Bollywood superstars such as Salman Khan.

Born in 1946 into a middle class family from Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, Balasubrahmanyam broke many social norms despite his traditional upbringing.

Although his father was a devotional singer, Balasubrahmanyam did not go through the rigours of learning classical music which was a norm at most homes.

Instead, he moved to Chennai s a young man and formed a band with his friends. It included Ilaiyaraaja, who would go on to become an acclaimed music composer, as the guitarist and others who played harmonica and percussion.

Balasubrahmanyam dropped out from engineering studies in college to take up singing after he was talent-spotted at a music competition by local film music composers.

“I planned to be an engineer. Then music turned the course of my life. I realised not to plan and let things play out for me,” he said in an interview.

Balasubrahmanyam’s first major breakthrough in southern films came when he sang for Tamil superstar MG Ramachandran in a 1969 film Adimai Penn.

“Singing for a superstar like him changed how the Tamil film world looked at me,” he told an interviewer once.

Working in four southern Indian language film industries kept Balasubrahmanyam busy through the 1970s until the end of the last decade. He became the highest paid singer in southern India.

Balasubrahmanyam hopped from one music studio to another, recording as many as three new songs every day for more than two decades.

At the height of his popularity he once spent 17 hours in a single day recording songs for different composers.

In 1981, Balasubrahmanyam created a record by recording 21 new songs in the Kannada language from morning until night for a film music composer.

When Bollywood demanded work of him, he would fly to Mumbai, record Hindi songs for films and return to Chennai in the evening.

In 1992, he recorded some memorable romantic numbers for Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman for the blockbuster hit, Roja.

Balasubrahmanyam received two of India’s top civilian honours, Padma Shri in 2001 and Padma Bhushan in 2011.