For several decades now, a random, errant thought occasionally passed through my constantly curious, often cacophonous cranium. Now, thanks to Peter Cooper’s superb cover obit (The Tennessean 8/4/2010), this periodic puzzler has at long last been solved. My pondering always came in the shape of these exact five words: “Whatever happened to Bobby Hebb?” Name ring a bell? Well, if this moniker isn’t immediately familiar, the song to which it will forever be attached most certainly is. Just about anybody would be able to name that tune in two notes, because that’s exactly how long singer/songwriter Hebb took to reveal the entirety of its title.
Sunny, yesterday my life was filled with rain
Sunny, you smiled at me and really eased the pain
As an artist, Bobby Hebb was pretty much a one-hit wonder. But, what a hit it was! This single copyright, which has enjoyed more than seven million radio spins, became a truly timeless pop-music standard, inspiring covers by Dusty Springfield, Marvin Gaye, and Cher, among many others. Like another song with a one-word, two syllable title (“Feelings” by Morris Albert) “Sunny” became an instant lounge and piano-bar favorite, guaranteed to provoke smiles, singalongs, and a snifter filled with greenbacks.
Until I read Mr. Cooper’s article, I didn’t know Hebb had also penned “Natural Man” for Lou Rawls (a decent-sized chart performer, but by no means the megahit that “Sunny” turned out to be). I was surprised to learn that Hebb had played with Roy Acuff at the Grand Ol’ Opry, had learned a thing or two about songwriting from one Mr. Hank Williams, and was one of the pioneers of the Nashville R&B scene. I was aware, however, that Hebb had opened for a little combo from Liverpool, England during its final tour in 1966. I know this, because I was in the audience at the Portland (Oregon) Memorial Coliseum when one, lone, black man sat on a stool with a guitar and kept more than 10,000 extremely anxious Beatle fans enthralled for his brief, 20-minute segment. Also on the bill that night were Cannibal and the Headhunters performing “Land of a Thousand Dances,” The McCoys doing “Hang On Sloopy,” and the Standells with “Dirty Water”. But it was Hebb who stood out, while sitting down, plucking his six-string acoustic, and rasping his soulful set.
In the intervening years, while pursuing my own songwriting, performing, and producing ambitions, I developed the theory (based on nothing but idol speculation) that Bobby Hebb had used the fortune he’d gleaned from “Sunny’s” evergreen popularity to purchase a tropical island somewhere. I pictured him lounging on white sand, doffing a straw hat, sipping a sweet rum recipe, strumming his git-box, and gazing out over warm, transparent, blue water. I mean, that’s what we tunesmiths dream about, isn’t it? To compose a song that is so freakin’ huge that it not only relieves all financial pressure for the rest of our lives, but sets up our heirs for generations as well. Anyway, I hope that Bobby Hebb took some time to enjoy his post-Sunny riches. But, he wasn’t just layin’ around on a beach, resting on one immense hit song’s laurels. He kept pickin’, grinnin’, makin’ ‘em up, and recordin’ ‘em till he packed up his axe and moved on up to Songwriter Heaven. And, he did all that right under my ignorant nose, even while I was repeating that same spontaneous, sporadic question: “Whatever happened to Bobby Hebb?”
I was particularly interested to learn that “Sunny,” with its upbeat title and positive, life-affirming theme, was inspired by the pain of personal tragedy. In November, 1963, Hebb’s brother and musical partner, Harold, fell victim to a fatal stab wound. Bobby was numbing his grief with Jack Daniels, when the tune popped into his head, offering what The Tennessean’s Cooper called a desperately needed “pick-me-up” for the singer/songwriter’s tortured soul. Obviously, Hebb wasn’t the only person to receive an emotional boost from his song’s cheery outlook, gentle, mid-tempo groove, and unforgettable melody. Like “Happy Days are Here Again” and “Pennies From Heaven” did in the throes of the Great Depression, “Sunny” helped us get through the disillusioning days of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
I love a sad, rip-your-guts-out song as much as the next sap. But, Bobby Hebb showed us that an uplifting tune in the face of overwhelming sadness can be exactly what the doctor ordered. Now, for Hebb, who has gone to meet his Maker, “The dark days are done. The bright days are here.” Thank you, Sir, for gracing us with such a perfect song of courage and love; or as Peter Cooper so beautifully described it, “an ode to disposition and a melodic plea for peace.”
In a Tennessean interview with Tim Ghianni in 2004, Hebb said, “We’re in the University of Life, and the last time I checked, no one is in a hurry to graduate.” No “Pomp and Circumstance” for this old soul. He accepted his degree in life at the Pearly Gates, accompanied by a simple pop/soul tune entitled “Sunny.” Godspeed, Bobby Hebb.