Song Swarm – Sunny
Bobby Hebb, the writer of “Sunny”, had a quite remarkable early life, which after 72 years came to an end in 2010. Born to blind parents, both musicians, Nashville-born Robert Von Hebb progressed from being a child musician to becoming one of the earlier black musicians to play at the Grand Ole Opry, as part of Ray Acuff’s band. In the early 1960s Hebb even had a minor hit with a country standard recorded by Acuff, “Night Train To Memphis”. When “Sunny” became a hit in 1966, Hebb was touring with The Beatles — he was among the support acts at their last ever concert, in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.
The genesis for “Sunny” was in a dual tragedy: the assassination of John F Kennedy and the following day the fatal stabbing in a mugging of Hebb’s older brother Harold, with whom he had performed in childhood. The song was a conscious statement of meeting the trauma of these events with a defiantly positive disposition. In 2007, he told the Associated Press about writing Sunny: “I was intoxicated. I came home 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.”
Still, it would be almost three years before Hebb would release the song himself — and een then he wasn’t the first. In a quite curious twist, it was first recorded in Japanese by the singer Mieko “Miko” Hirota, who had made her debut in her home country in 1962 with a cover of Connie Francis’ “Vacation”. Within three years, the by now 18-year-old singer became the first Japanese artist to appear at the Newport Jazz Festival (the line-up of which included Frank Sinatra), having just recently discovered her talent for the genre thanks to a chance meeting with American jazz promoter George Wein. The same year, in October 1965, she was the first of many to release “Sunny”, scoring a hit with it in Japan with her rather lovely jazzy version.
By the time Hebb got around to releasing it, apparently having recorded it as an after-thought at the end of a session. Hebb’s rightly became the definitive and most successful version. Apparently it is the 18th most performed song in the BMI catalog.
There’d be no Song Swarm of 65 songs of “Sunny” was not so adaptable. Of those, 45 were recorded within the first two years of its release. The genres cover pop (from Georgie Fame over Cher to Manfred Mann), soul (Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston — especially super — Stevie Wonder, Wilson Picket etc), country (Eddy Arnold, Floyd Cramer), jazz (Les McCann, Wes Montgomery, Young-Holt Trio), easy listening (Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Andy Williams), Latin (Willie Bobo, Trini Lopez, Johnny Colón) — and a few actors got into it as well: Robert Mitchum plays it straight, Leonard Nimoy tries to play it straight, and Bill Cosby plays it…well, that whole LP is bizarre, though his “Sunny” is among the least peculiar on it.
1966: Mieko Hirota • Bobby Hebb • Les McCann (Part 1) • Georgie Fame • Young-Holt Trio • Cher • Chris Montez • Willie Bobo • Wes Montgomery (alternate take) • Del Shannon • The Walker Brothers • Marvin Gaye • Chuck Jackson • Billy Preston • 1967: Andy Williams • Booker T. & The MG’s • Dusty Springfield • The Ventures • Herbie Mann & Tamiko Jones • Johnny Rivers • Blossom Dearie • Robert Mitchum • Wilson Pickett • Frank Sinatra & Duke Ellington • 1968: The Four Tops • Manfred Mann • Bill Cosby • Eddy Arnold • Floyd Cramer • Mary Wells • Leonard Nimoy • Stevie Wonder • Frankie Valli • José Feliciano • Maxine Brown • Shirley Bassey • Nancy Wilson • Brother Jack & David Newman • George Benson • Trini Lopez • Johnny Colón and his Orchestra • Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers • 1969: James Brown & Marva Whitney • Electric Flag • Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Bra • 1970: Ella Fitzgerald • Tom Jones & Ella Fitzgerald • Melba Moore • • • Pat Martino (1972) • Yambú (1975) • Bobby Hebb ’76 (1976) • Boney M (1976) • Hampton Hawes (1978) • Stanley Jordan (1986) • Joe McBride (1992) • Nick Cave (1995) • The Head Shop (1996) • Jamiroquai (2000) • John Schroeder Orchestra (2000) • Paul Carrack (2003) • Noon (2005) • Elisabeth Kontomanou (2005) • PillowTalk (2012) • Hippie Sabotage (2013)
Previous Song Swarms:
These Boots Are Made For Walking
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down
Like A Rolling Stone
Papa Was A Rolling Stone
Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Over The Rainbow
Georgia On My Mind
Light My Fire