Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images Move out of the way because Beyonce is playing…
- Posted on Jul 9th 2010 5:00PM by James Sullivan
During a barroom argument, Hal Hebb was mortally wounded. He collapsed after killing his assailant with a shotgun he'd grabbed from a doorman.
When Hebb recovered from that devastating blow, he wrote a song. 'Sunny' was a pop prayer for a better day, after a yesterday "filled with rain." The gorgeous tune, which borrowed from Hebb's jazz training in the Navy, his youthful stint as one of the first black performers on the Grand Ole Opry and his smooth-soul recording experience, appealed to listeners across the board. Initially turned down by every publisher he approached, the song would chart high on the country and R&B charts, reaching US No. 2 pop in the summer of 1966.
'Sunny' would become one of the most covered songs of all time. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Frankie Valli, the Four Tops, Cher, Dusty Springfield and James Brown are just a few of the hundreds of artists who have recorded Hebb's classic. When broadcast-rights organization BMI announced its top 100 songs of the century at the end of 1999, the song came in at No. 25. Hebb's own version was so popular that he nearly upstaged the Beatles on what would be the group's final tour in 1966.
Yet despite a widely acknowledged knack for writing other great tunes (he wrote 'A Natural Man,' which became a signature song for Lou Rawls) and Hebb's naturally appealing way with existing material (he had a followup single with his version of the country standard 'A Satisfied Mind'), he never again got much recognition from the recording industry. In fact, after a 1970 release, he didn't make another album for 35 years.
But Bobby Hebb was born for the stage. At age three, he was featured alongside his brother Harold in a tap-dancing act that played Nashville's Bijou Theater. The brothers were part of a large family born to blind musicians William and Ovalla Hebb, who taught their children to appreciate all kinds of music.
Harold "Hal" Hebb, despite his talent, had a tough time staying out of trouble. While his little brother was joining country icon Roy Acuff's band the Smoky Mountain Boys, where he played spoons, guitar and trumpet, Hal was serving time in prison. There he befriended singer Johnny Bragg, who started the vocal group the Prisonaires. While incarcerated, the Prisonaires were permitted to travel to Memphis, where they recorded Bragg's mournful song 'Just Walkin' in the Rain,' which would put Sam Phillips' Sun Records on the map.
Bragg and Hal Hebb went on to establish the Marigolds, a calypso-influenced doo-wop group that had a big hit with 'Rolling Stone.' Meanwhile, Bobby Hebb was making a name for himself. His Sam Cooke-style version of Acuff's 'Night Train to Memphis' attracted the attention of the influential DJ John "R" Richbourg, who introduced the young singer to Sylvia Robinson in New York. Robinson, who would later found the early rap label Sugar Hill Records, was one-half of the duo Mickey & Sylvia, who had a 1957 hit with 'Love Is Strange.' When Mickey Baker permanently relocated to Paris, she recruited Hebb, and they became Bobby & Sylvia, who, speaking of love being strange, released a politically incorrect single titled 'You Broke My Heart and I Broke Your Jaw.'
But just as his career was taking off, Hebb's brother was killed. For months after the incident, "times were at a low tide," the singer has said. Inspired by 'Just Walkin' in the Rain,' he finally decided to write about the gradual emergence of the human spirit after tragedy.
Despite the 2005 comeback album, Hebb, now 71, now lives in quiet obscurity. His pop masterpiece, however, still makes a glorious noise.