EXPIRED: 08/03/10 – Bobby Hebb, 72, was raised by blind parents near Nashville’s Music Row, so with parents who were focused on sound it was only natural that he would gravitate to the sounds of the area.
Early on he began performing as a street musician, singing, tap dancing, and playing spoons. His talents got him on a local Nashville TV show, which caught the eye of country star and music impresario Roy Acuff, who asked Hebb to join the house-band at Nashville’s Grand Old Opry.
He accepted, and this being the 50’s, made history. Hebb became the first black performer on stage at the famed theatre.
This “celebrity” or “infamy” – whichever way you look at it – got him a lot of attention, and eventually Hebb was singing back-up for many of rock’s early black stars, including Bo Diddley on his recording of “Diddley Daddy.” In 1960 he got in front of the mike on his own and recorded a version of Acuff’s hit “Night Train To Memphis” scoring a minor hit and raising his stature a wee bit.
Things were looking up for Hebb until things started looking down. On the day following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Hebb’s brother, Harold, was stabbed to death in a fight in a Nashville club. He was down, and while most people grieved and found no solace, Hebb looked up. He wrote “Sunny.”
“Sunny, yesterday my life was filled with rain / Sunny, you smiled at me and really eased the pain”
Thinking it might be a novelty hit, and wanting to steer way from that ill-fated career choice, Hebb didn’t record it at first. It was originally recorded and released in Japan by Miko, and a marimba version was released in America by Dave Pike. But Hebb was pushed to record and release his own version and when he did, in 1966, it became a huge hit. Hebb’s “Sunny” earned him international prominence and a slot opening for the Beatles 1966 American tour.
The song has since been listed as number 25 on BMI’s list of top 100 lists songs of the century, partially because it’s one of the most covered songs in pop music history. . It has been recorded by Paul Carrack, George Benson, Boney M, Nick Cave, Georgie Fame, Cher, Public Enemy, Richard Anthony, James Brown Robert Mitchum, the Classics IV, the Electric Flag, Jose Feliciano, Luis Miguel, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, The Four Seasons, Del Shannon, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Earl Grant, Mary Wells, Jamiroquai, Stanley Jordan, Mina, Jimmy Smith, Johnny Mathis, Les McCann, Chris Montez, Wilson Pickett, Buddy Richard, Del Shannon, Nick Cave, Dusty Springfield, Helge Schneider, War, Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert, Mark Ronson, Stanley Turrentine, Pat Martino, Panteon Rococo, Ottottrio, Justin Guarini and the Ulfuls. Even Leonard Nimoy covered the song.
After he wrote it Hebb said “All my intentions were just to think of happier times – basically looking for a brighter day – because times were at a low tide.”
He continued to sing and write hits over the years and was one of the most prominently featured artists in the 2004 Country Music Hall of Fame exhibition Night Train To Nashville, and on the accompanying Grammy-winning album.
He died of lung cancer. Not so sunny.