Balasubrahmanyam developed an interest in music at an early age, studied musical notations, and learned music. He enrolled at the 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 the Institution of Engineers, Chennai.
Balasubrahmanyam 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 organized by the Madras-based Telugu Cultural Organization. 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.
Balasubrahmanyam made his debut as a playback singer on 15 December 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 under the musical direction of M. S. Viswanathan for the film Hotel Ramba, which was never 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 M. G. Ramachandran 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.
Balasubrahmanyam had the distinction of rendering the most songs on a single day by any singer. He had recorded 21 songs in Kannada for the composer Upendra Kumar in Bangalore from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm on 8 February 1981 and 19 songs in Tamil, 16 songs in Hindi in a day. In his words, "There were days when I used to record 15–20 songs, but only for Anand-Milind. And I would take the last flight back to Chennai." 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 the early days, he used to sing in towns and villages all over south India and Ilaiyaraaja, then an unknown harmonium and guitar player accompanied him in his concerts.
Balasubrahmanyam pictured in 1985
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 Carnatic 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 and Telugu, especially for Ilaiyaraaja with S. Janaki, the trio considered to be highly successful in the Telugu film industry from the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. The songs were based on classical music, such as in Saagara Sangamam (1983) and Rudraveena (1988), for which both Ilaiyaraaja and Balasubrahmanyam won National Awards for Best Music Director and Best Male Playback Singer respectively.
Balasubrahmanyam's association with Hamsalekha began after the latter's successful venture Premaloka in Kannada. Balasubrahmanyam sang 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.
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, 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 was married to Savithri and has two children, a daughter Pallavi, and a son S. P. B. Charan, also a playback singer and film producer.
Illness and death
On 5 August 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 periodic updates over social media, 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 using a ventilator and ECMO. He started showing signs of recovery, including light speech and physical activities. However, the hospital released a statement on 24 September stating that he became "extremely critical" and was on "maximal life support".
He died on 25 September 2020 at 1:04 pm (IST) of cardio-respiratory arrest after over a month-long hospitalisation. He was buried at his farm house in Tamaraipakam, Thiruvallur district with state honours on 26 September 2020.
Awards and nominations
Vice President Venkaiah Naidu presents the centenary award to Shri S.P. Balasubrahmanyam
^"SP.Balasubrahmanyam's 67th Birthday". 4 June 2013. Archived from the original on 7 April 2014. Retrieved 22 July 2013. Today, S.P. Balasubrahmanyam is celebrating his 67th birthday. He was born on 4 June 1946 into a Brahmin family in Nellore. Balasubrahmanyam started singing from a very young age. After dropping out from an engineering program in JNTU, he got his first break in 1966, when he sang for Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna and he has sung over 40,000 songs. The State Government of AP presented the Nandi Award to Balasubrahmanyam 25 times. The Government of India honoured him with a Padma Bhushan award in 2011 and also presented him with six National Awards.
^Dinathanthi, Nellai Edition, 11 August 2006, p. 11.