Bobby Hebb: Singer-songwriter whose hit single 'Sunny' became one of the most-covered songs of all time

Since its release in 1966, millions have enjoyed Bobby Hebb's soulful composition "Sunny", and the hundreds of cover versions by the likes of Cher, Georgie Fame, José Feliciano, Ella Fitzgerald, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Frank Sinatra, Dusty Springfield and Stevie Wonder, as well as more unlikely renditions by Boney M, Robert Mitchum and Leonard Nimoy. In 1990, BMI, the US performing-rights organisation of composers, listed "Sunny" as the 18th most-performed song from its catalogue, and it remains in the Top 25 two decades on.

Yet despite the upbeat nature of its lyrics about a girl, the "Sunny" of the title, whose smile "really eased the pain", Hebb's timeless classic was inspired by two tragic events: the fatal stabbing of his older brother Harold outside a club in Nashville on 23 November 1963, and the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas the previous day. "All my intentions were just to think of happier times – basically looking for a brighter day – because times were at a low tide," said Hebb. "I needed to pick myself up, and 'Sunny' became that pick-me-up. It was, and is, an ode to a sunny disposition and a melodic plea for peace."

"Sunny" peaked at No 2 in the US in August 1966 while Hebb appeared as special guest on The Beatles' final tour of the US. That year, he also charted in the US with a soulful adaptation of the country standard "A Satisfied Mind", and he returned to the UK Top 40 when the B-side of that single, the northern soul stomper "Love Love Love", was re-released in 1972. Four years later, Hebb made the charts again with "Sunny '76", a disco take on his signature song.

He was a prolific writer, known in the US as the "song-a-day man", with over 1,000 compositions to his name. In 1971, Lou Rawls won a Grammy with "A Natural Man", a song Hebb had co-written with Sandy Baron. In 2004, Hebb was part of another Grammy-winning team, as one of the performers included on the Best Historical Album, the compilation Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970.

Bobby Hebb was one of seven children born to Nashville musicians William and Ovalla Hebb, who were both blind, yet managed to teach their offspring to play guitar and piano. "They were always my inspirations," he stressed, also recalling his mother's advice when he took up songwriting: "You must have a story to tell."

In 1941, age three, he began performing with his dad's washboard band, Hebb's Kitchen Cabaret Orchestra. An appearance on a TV show hosted by record producer Owen Bradley brought Hebb to the attention of country star Roy Acuff, who hired him to play in his band The Smoky Mountain Boys. Hebb thus became one of the first African-Americans to appear on the legendary Grand Ole Opry, where he met Hank Williams. He attended Tennessee State Music College, where he learned to play the trumpet, drums and four-string banjo.

In the mid-1950s, while studying in Chicago to become a dental technician, Hebb recorded with the rock'n'roll pioneer Bo Diddley. Back in Nashville, he studied guitar with Chet Atkins and played on singles by local r'n'b artists Jimmy Church and Earl Gaines. In 1958, he made his debut as a vocalist on "Night Train to Memphis", but in 1961, he left for New York where he backed the rhythm'n'blues duo Mickey & Sylvia, and eventually replaced Mickey Baker alongside Sylvia Robinson, and was briefly renamed "Mr Clickety Clack" because of his spoon-playing.

Hebb admitted to interviewers that he had written "Sunny" "under the influence of Tennessee sipping whiskey, sour mash. I was intoxicated. I staggered in and started playing the guitar. I looked up and saw what looked like a purple sky. I started writing because I'd never seen that before. And when I finished, I was sober."

He worked "Sunny" into his act and included it at the end of an 18-song demo made with producer Jerry Ross, and it was eventually issued by Philips. Its success surprised its creator.

"Believe me, that was definitely a surprise. I had no idea that it would ever even become a nationwide hit. All I wanted was some airplay, just enough to keep me working," he later reflected, before explaining the song in greater detail. " 'Sunny' is your disposition. You either have a sunny disposition or you have a lousy disposition. Either you're screaming at someone and angry, or you say, 'No, uh-uh, I'm not angry. Let's discuss this thing in a nice and pleasant way.' Well, that pleasant way is a sunny disposition... Spread that type of news so that you can become a little more relaxed and not filled with chaos, because chaos can become a killer. This was a fight for peace, not necessarily in Vietnam, but how about within?"

"Sunny" became such a smash that in 1967, a fake Bobby Hebb talked promoters into booking him. The fact that the con man couldn't play trumpet, guitar or the spoons eventually put an end to this bizarre chapter. The real Hebb worked on other singles, but only the 1968 B-side "Dreamy", inspired by Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech came close to recapturing the magic.

In 1970, Hebb issued the much darker Love Games. "I never would have been able to talk about divorce if I hadn't written those things down. That's how I felt at that particular time," he said of what was effectively a concept album. Over the next three decades, he kept writing for various projects. "His Song Shall Be Sung", a song about Marvin Gaye and another collaboration with Baron, was also recorded by Rawls.

In 1999, Hebb participated in the documentary The Strange World of Northern Soul. He moved back to Nashville and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry again in 2004, nearly five decades since his last show with Acuff there. In 2005, he released the album That's All I Wanna Know, and he toured Germany the following year, and Japan in 2008. He died from lung cancer.

"We're in the University of Life and last time I checked, no one is in a hurry to graduate," Hebb said in 2004. His only regret was that Ray Charles wasn't one of the 500-plus artists who have recorded "Sunny".

Pierre Perrone

Robert Von Hebb (Bobby Hebb), singer-songwriter: born Nashville, Tennessee 26 July 1938; married (marriage dissolved, one daughter); died Nashville 3 August 2010.

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