He wrote and recorded a classic soul song that has been covered by hundreds of artists, from Georgie Fame to Del Shannon, and from Wilson Pickett to the Four Tops. He was the versatile Bobby Hebb, the R&B man from Nashville born on July 26, 1936, who gave us “Sunny.”
Hebb performed on stage even before he was in kindergarten, and when he wrote “Sunny,” inspiration came at perhaps the darkest time in his life. It was in November 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated. Just 24 hours later, Hebb’s brother Harold, or Hal (with whom he had formed a song and dance act as a small child) was killed in a fight in their home town.
To help him through such grim experiences, Hebb decided to focus on the positive and create a song that celebrated happy times. Its upbeat sentiment and catchy melody, intertwined with a little poignant dreaminess, caught on fast. “Sunny” was first recorded by the Japanese artist Mieko Horota, in 1965, before Bobby cut his version of the song for Philips and released it in April 1966.
The single went to No.3 R&B, No.2 pop (for two weeks, second only to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer In The City”) and No.12 in the UK. Georgie Fame’s swift cover entered the British chart only two weeks later; the two renditions were in the Top 15 at the same time, and Fame’s peaked at No.13.
In 1966 alone, there were at least 11 other high-profile covers of “Sunny.” The song proved its versatility to be interpreted in R&B (Pickett, Billy Preston, Della Reese, Chuck Jackson) and pop (Shannon, Cher, Manfred Mann, Bobby Vee, Chris Montez, John Walker of the Walker Brothers, and Britain’s Alan Bown Set).
The covers, and the royalties, continued to accrue for Hebb in 1967, when there were some 30 new takes on the tune including those by Andy Williams, Dusty Springfield, Nancy Wilson, Booker T and the MGs, Trini Lopez, and even Robert Mitchum.
Frank Sinatra gave the song his seal of approval in his collaboration with Duke Ellington in 1968, as did Motown via the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder. Their former signing Mary Wells also did it that year, along with Shirley Bassey, country star Eddy Arnold and everyone from Frankie Valli to Leonard Nimoy.
Remakes of “Sunny” have continued to emerge on an almost annual basis, including readings by James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Herb Alpert and Boney M’s UK hit of 1976. In 2014, Bryan Adams chose it for his Tracks Of My Years covers album. In April 2020, Billie Eilish and Finneas paid the song another compliment by performing it on the all-star live stream One World: Together At Home.
Hebb may never have repeated the success of “Sunny,” but his album of the same name from 1966 is well worth investigating, especially for the infectious “Love, Love, Love,” which became a belated UK Top 40 entry in 1972. He also made both the pop and R&B Top 40 in the US with another track from the album, a fine version of Porter Wagoner’s 1955 country No.1 “A Satisfied Mind.” Bobby died in 2010 at the age of 72.
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