Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Bobby Hebb: R. I. P.

After God and my loved ones, music has been my most enduring source of pleasure, emotional satisfaction and occasional profundity. Singer Bobby Hebb, who passed away today from lung cancer at age 72, indirectly provided a monumental life lesson that I will never forget. As a performer, Hebb was famous for his self-penned 1966 chart topper, Sunny.

One day in 1966 when I was 9 or 10, we were shopping at the White Front, my mother’s favorite discount department store, near Disneyland. I was a badly spoiled child and Mom would always buy me anything my wicked, willful heart desired. That day I started to panic as we approached the checkstand because I hadn’t found anything I wanted and I certainly was not leaving the store until I did. Looking around in desperation, I grabbed the only item on display that I recognized or even remotely related to – the Bobby Hebb vinyl LP featuring Sunny.

On the strength of Sunny, Hebb toured that year with the Beatles, whose music was much more pleasing to the unsophisticated palate of a prepubescent child. I doubt that I listened to my Bobby Hebb album since 1966. Nevertheless, his record has survived six residential moves in 44 years and is currently stored in my garage. I kept Sunny as a tangible reminder of what a selfish, miserable brat I could be – and as a catalyst for change. The constant cycle of overindulgence and guilt filled me with self-loathing from a very young age and I was always making resolutions to be a better person. After my grandmother, who started the competition with my mother to see who could spoil me the worst, died when I was 14, Mom seemed as tired of our dysfunctional dynamic as I was. It took most of my teenage years before I fully liberated myself from the unhealthy patterns of childhood and then I shifted to the opposite extreme of compulsive unselfishness. When my beloved son Chris was born, I finally discovered the right balance of necessary selfishness and service to others.

Sunny is a fine jazz-tinged record with a catchy beat and Hebb’s smoothly soulful vocal. The song has been covered by a diverse array of artists such as Cher, James Brown, Mary Wells, Jose Feliciano, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, Del Shannon, Marvin Gaye, Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett, the Four Seasons, the Four Tops, the Electric Flag, Jamiroquai, Nick Cave, and actors Robert Mitchum and Leonard Nimoy.

Hebb later co-wrote A Natural Man, a 1971 hit for my mother's favorite singer, Lou Rawls, with the late comic actor Sandy Baron and continued to compose music into his final years. Coincidentally, Baron appeared on a comedy album my subversive Uncle Willie, a professional musician himself, gave me in 1965 or 1966 titled Sick Along With Us that became a childhood favorite. Fortysomething years later, I can still quote verbatim from some of the sketches like Sick Sound Waves and You'd Better Believe It.

“Are you a ditch digger?”

“No, I’m a brain surgeon.”

“Then why are you digging ditches?”

“Well, I’m not a very good brain surgeon.”

Here are the two songs for which Mr. Hebb is being remembered today. Enjoy his legacy.

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