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One So True

Disc pays tribute to the song “Sunny,” and Bobby Hebb looks back on his creation

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Few songs have stuck in the popular consciousness the way Bobby Hebb’s 1966 hit “Sunny” has. If there’s any testament to the song’s classic status—aside from the fact that the song stays in steady rotation on oldies radio—it has to be the countless versions of the tune that have been recorded in the years since then. By the artist’s own count, some 500 (!) different versions have been committed to tape. “Sunny” has been reinterpreted by deep soul singers, jazz vocalists, easy-listening orchestras, and instrumental combos—by everyone from Jose Feliciano to the German disco group Boney M, who had a European hit with it in 1977.

Now the song is the subject of a new disc just released by Roof Music/Trocadero Records in Germany. A Collection of Various Interpretations of “Sunny” gathers some 16 of those interpretations, kicking off with the crisp drum roll of Hebb’s original before winding its way through a mellow version by Hawaiian exotica musician Arthur Lyman; a brassy, soulful reading by Dusty Springfield; an excellent, laid-back take by actor Robert Mitchum (who’s a pretty damn good singer, it turns out); and a dozen more recordings by Booker T. & the MG’s, The Ventures, Jimmy Smith, Wilson Pickett, Cher, and others.

If everyone knows the song “Sunny,” not that many people realize Hebb is a native Nashvillian, one of eight children from a musical family who lived at 1708 12th Ave. S., not far from what is now the intersection of Wedgewood Avenue. Born July 26, 1938, he started playing music at the age of 3, as a member of Hebb’s Kitchen Cabinet Orchestra, a gospel group that included his siblings and parents, both of whom were blind.

The song “Sunny” may be a remarkable tune, but the rest of Hebb’s career is no less so. After kicking around the jazz and R&B nightclubs that used to flourish in North Nashville, the barely teenaged Hebb got a gig as a member of Roy Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys, with whom he toured, appeared on TV, and regularly performed at the Ryman Auditorium playing his chosen instrument at the time—the spoons. Later, he played on sessions for Excello Records and recorded with producer and WLAC deejay John “R” Richbourg before moving to New York City in 1961.

The list of musicians with whom he has crossed paths is nothing short of mind-boggling: Pat Boone (a childhood friend who lived farther out Granny White Pike); Dr. John and James Booker (who played on some of his early, pre-“Sunny” sides cut in New Orleans); Bo Diddley (with whom he hung out during a stint in Chicago); Sylvia Vanderpool (of the duo Mickey and Sylvia, who gave him his first gig when he moved to New York); and Nicholas Ashford, Valerie Simpson, and Melba Moore (all of whom sang back up on the Sunny LP before going on to greater success with their own careers). And those are just a few.

It’s only too fitting that “Sunny” has lent itself so easily to so many different interpretations, for Hebb himself has clearly traveled through so many musical worlds. How many other people can say that they got songwriting advice from Hank Williams Sr. and went on tour with The Beatles?

I caught up with Hebb a few weeks ago, when he was in town for the South Nashville reunion that takes place every year in Sevier Park, reuniting people whose roots in the nearby neighborhood go back 50 years and more. Even though he’d come to Nashville to catch up with family and old friends, he was gracious enough to spend the better part of an hour talking to me—really gracious, when you consider the fact that I hadn’t exactly contacted him ahead of time. He’s a thoughtful, philosophical man with a pleasant demeanor and easy laugh.

I had the honor of presenting Hebb with news of, and a copy of, the new German disc, so I figured I’d ask him about his career and about “Sunny” in particular.

Did anything prompt you to leave Nashville in 1961?

My friend Skull Shulman told me, “Bobby, go to New York.” He said, “What you’re trying to do, man, you need to get to New York, so that you can sing and be exposed to the right people.”

How far had you gotten in Nashville at that point?

I was playing guitar at that particular time, and I was working at the Del Morocco [on Jefferson Street]. I was also working at The Subway [in Printers Alley]—when I was a little boy, it was called the Basement Bar.

So what did you find when you got to New York?

New York was multicultural, and I got a chance to meet this type of individual who played this type of music, and this type, so...I was able to get lucky there, and I walked into something that was a very valuable school. I was hanging out with musicians: Bernard Purdie. Jimmy Castor. King Curtis. Irene Reed. Waymon Reed, the trumpet player—played with Count Basie; he was from Nashville. I could name quite a few: Sarah Vaughan, a singer; Big Maybelle, a singer. That’s the people I was hanging out with. So I could learn more about this way of living, because it was everyone else’s life.

Did you expect that “Sunny” was going to be such a hit?

No. That was a surprise. 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, that’s all.... I wanted “Sunny” to be the second release. I did not have a follow-up. My idea was to do something a little different to be introduced and come back with “Sunny.”

Very few people know what I really meant when I said “Sunny.” The other things, yes, but who I was talking to, or what I was talking about when I said “Sunny”—that still remains a mystery because it can be taken in quite a few ways.

I’d heard that the song was written for your late brother (and mentor) Harold.

Everyone seems to think that, because of the love, I suppose. But the love is always there.

“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. Instead of confusing, and building chaos, let’s make this day a nice day for everyone. 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.

Because this was a fight for peace—not necessarily a peace in Vietnam, but how about within?

When you put it that way, it sounds like “Sunny” is a companion piece to your version of “A Satisfied Mind” (the follow-up single to “Sunny”)

That was the only song I could come up with to say what I was basically trying to offer, share with other people.

Is there a particular version of “Sunny” you like?

There’s quite a few of them that I really like. There’s Frank Sinatra’s with Duke Ellington. Cher, of Sonny and Cher. I like the way that Ella Fitzgerald did it. I like the way that Tom Jones and Ella Fitzgerald did it together on television. Gee, I like the way that Billy Preston did it. I don’t know, there’s so many people out there that I just loved the way they did it—the way Nancy Wilson did it....

Gee, the one guy that I wanted to record it never did do it.

Who’s that?

Ray Charles [laughs].

How did your career change after the song became a hit?

I went on the Beatles tour—but I did not open up for The Beatles. Barry and the Remains opened the show for The Beatles. Then you had The Ronettes. Then you had The Cyrcle—“Red Rubber Ball.” Then I came on, and The Beatles came on. I was the costar of that show.

Any particular memories of The Beatles?

Well, Ringo wanted me to do some things with him, and I told him that I couldn’t play piano well enough. But I recommended a pianist for him, and he did use this guy, and this guy became very, very successful with him.

Who’s that?

Billy Preston. Someone else may have mentioned his name to him.

We talked, Ringo and I did, about things. Paul was more into photography. John on the tour was just quiet. He just said “hello,” you know, and that was all.

Your next LP, 1968’s Love Games, was a much darker record.

I was asked to write those things down. I suppose it’s a good thing I did, because I never would have been able to talk about divorce if I hadn’t written them. Everything in it was true, except for one thing: “She Broke My Heart, and I Broke Her Jaw.” That part was not true, and I wouldn’t dare put something out there today to suggest any form of violence, whether mental or physical. Not even as to joke about it.

If you want to see how cold life really can become sometimes, you go and hear a judge’s decision in a divorce case. And that’s how I felt at that particular time. I don’t feel that way anymore. But at that moment, what can one say after losing the homecoming football game?

What kind of music are you doing these days?

For what I have in mind today, for 2000, between now and 2010, it leans a little closer to what James Brown is saying on things like “Cold Sweat.” Because I like the way Brother James Brown is doing it and has been doing it for years.

I have one particular song designed to try to bring music just a little closer to the human voice. It’s called “Another Plane of Existence.” This particular story is about outer space and actual individuals who have visited here, like the case of Betty and Barney Hill. I do know that this particular song does something with biological music, I know that for a fact. So we have made progress in music, and quite a few other ways.

Have you ever listened to Sun Ra?

Yeah, he’s out there.

So what’s it like to come back to Nashville after so much time away? Do you still have a connection to this place?

Oh, I’m always home. When I come home, I am home, it’s as simple as that. When I’m on the plane and I look down, and I see how the Cumberland River bends and I see those hills, I know that I’m home. The slope of that hill, I love it. I want to know how the fishing’s going—they tell me the crappies are this big now [gestures]. So this is progress, you know what I mean? How big are the largemouths? “Oh, man, they’re this big.” n

For information about A Collection of Various Interpretations of “Sunny” visit http://www.sunny-the-song.de, or send an e-mail to mail@roofmusic.de.

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