Robert Von “Bobby” Hebb was born in Nashville, Tennessee on July 26, 1938. The singer, musician, songwriter, recording artist, and performer became best known for his 1966 hit “Sunny.” “Sunny” was recorded in New York City and released as a single in 1966. “Sunny” reached No. 3 on the R&B charts, No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and No. 12 in the United Kingdom. When Hebb toured with The Beatles in 1966 his “Sunny” was, at the time of the tour, ranked higher than any Beatles song then on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and he frequently headlined stops on that tour. BMI rated “Sunny” number 25 in its “Top 100 songs of the century.”
Hebb’s recording went on to become one of the most frequently played and performed of its era. The hundreds of artists who recorded their own versions include Marvin Gaye, Dusty Springfield, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra (with Duke Ellington), Cher, José Feliciano, Wes Montgomery, James Brown, the Ventures, the Four Seasons, Nancy Wilson, Jimmy Smith, the Four Tops, Booker T and the MGs and Boney M.
The original, however, remains unquestionably the greatest. It is two minutes and 44 seconds of unrepeatable pop-soul alchemy, recorded almost as an afterthought at the end of a session in which greater attention had been paid to other songs. A two-second snare-drum roll, an irresistibly cool bass figure, the mentholated chimes of a vibraphone, and a guitar and a hi-hat italicising the backbeat introduced Hebb’s light-toned but unmistakably ardent voice, soon buttressed by a purring horn section, kicking drums and cooing backup vocals. It was a gift to music lovers everywhere.
Hebb’s parents were both musicians. His father, William Hebb, played trombone and guitar, and his mother, Ovalla Hebb, played piano and guitar. Bobby and his older brother Harold Hebb performed as a song-and-dance team in Nashville beginning when Bobby was three and Harold was nine. Bobby made his stage debut on his third birthday, July 26, 1941 at The Bijou Theater, and the young brothers worked quite a few nightclubs before Bobby entered first grade.
Bobby Hebb, with so much musical influence and inspiration, would go on to pen hundreds upon hundreds of tunes. When he joined Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys around 1952 in Nashville, he was one of the first African American artists to perform on The Grand Ole Opry, before Charley Pride. Hebb moved to Chicago in 1954, and joined the navy in 1955, playing the trumpet in a navy band.
“I learned West Coast jazz in the navy,” he has said. Around 1958 Bobby Hebb tracked “Night Train to Memphis,” a song written by Owen Bradley for Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys. In 1961 Hebb worked with Dr. John and left Nashville for New York.
“I went for two weeks and stayed two years,” he said. On November 23, 1963, the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Bobby’s brother Harold was killed in a knife fight outside a Nashville nightclub. Hebb was devastated by both events and sought comfort in songwriting.
“I needed to pick myself up,” Hebb said. The song came to him one morning when he had just returned to his home in Harlem from an all-night music session and a bout of heavy drinking, the sight of a purple dawn being its immediate inspiration. The song’s key lines:
Sunny, yesterday my life was filled with rain.
Sunny, you smiled at me and really eased the pain.
The dark days are gone and the bright days are here.
My sunny one shines so sincere.
Sunny one so true, I love you.
“All my intentions were just to think of happier times – basically looking for a brighter day.”
Bobby Hebb died in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee on August 3, 2010 at age 72 from lung cancer. He is interred at Nashville’s Spring Hill Cemetery.