John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” Is Evergreen

It arose out of tragedy, is packed with technique, and makes you smile.

By - Feb 25th, 2016 01:03 pm
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Bobby Hebb "Sunny" 45 Cover

Bobby Hebb “Sunny” 45 Cover

The sun is seen more than it’s felt in February. But the days do get longer, and there’s light (just a little) after 5:30, and the thermometer is moving into the Goldilocks zone once more. The easy pick this week would be “Here Comes The Sun,” by The Beatles, but let’s look at another lovely, lightly-roasted chestnut. Here’s the enduring “Sunny,” from the one-hit wonder, Bobby Hebb.

If you’re only going to have one hit, better make sure it is a gem, because you’ll wind up singing it every night of your career. I’d hate to be the band that had to go around singing a song they despise. A factory job has more appeal and is more dignified. But I’m certain Bobby Hebb could never have felt bad about singing this night after night.

This song is one of the most covered tunes in the history of pop. Guitarists like it for it’s tricky chords — they were novel but not strange. They also had a kind of integrity, like an elegant equation floating in the air in front of you. The chords seem like they were waiting around to be written and, thankfully, Bobby Hebb got there first. How he wrote it is quite a story, one I read for the first time after this song popped into my head.

On the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby’s older brother and musical partner, Harold Hebb, was stabbed to death outside a Nashville nightclub. Bobby wrote the song after that horrible day to help cope with his grief. It was a pep talk to himself, something to remind him to try to look at things positively. That tells you something about his character. So the song that sounds like a love song is actually a tribute to his fallen brother. I thought I liked Hebb about as much as I could, but now I like him even more.

There are couple other things — aside from the nice chord progression — you should know about, because they lift this song to its amazing heights. One of them is the half-step modulations that take each verse a little higher. This has been done more than a few times. I wrote about one, “Danke Schoen,” by Wayne Newton a while back. It’s kind of loungy, but the technique always seems to work.

The other element is the thoughtful production, which holds elements out, then adds them slowly as the song progresses. It’s starts with just just the bass and vocal. Then a little guitar bit of guitar sneaks in, playing on the backbeat. Next it’s vibes. Horns enter second verse, background vocals sneak in somewhere. A graph of this song looks like the kind of rising grade that makes truckers downshift and pray they make it to the top.

All this excitement is contrasted by a very laidback and soulful vocal. In the beginning, anyway. He’s got some real gravel, but he’s saving it for one word near the end. It’s diabolical when you analyze it, but angelic when you get swept away by the wonderful emotion. Science and art, combined with heart, and a good song becomes a great one. The lyrics:

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

Sunny, thank you for the sunshine bouquet
Sunny, thank you for the love you brought my way
You gave to me your all and all
Now I feel ten feet tall
Sunny one so true, I love you

Sunny, thank you for the truth you let me see
Sunny, thank you for the facts from A to C
My life was torn like a windblown sand
And the rock was formed when you held my hand
Sunny one so true, I love you

Sunny
Sunny, thank you for the smile upon your face
Sunny, thank you for the gleam that shows its grace
You’re my spark of nature’s fire
You’re my sweet complete desire
Sunny one so true, I love you

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

I love you
I love you
I love you
I love you
I love you
I love you

© Bobby Hebb

What else could this guy do? These are not amateur-hour lyrics; they have a real poetry about them. I never knew them all, but my new favorite is, ”thank you for the gleam that shows its grace.”

The son of two blind musicians, Hebb started performing at age three and his brother was nine. He performed on a TV show hosted by Patsy Cline’s producer, Harold Bradley. I wish I’d started at three, I might have gained the natural ease and authority it takes to write and sing something this good.

Nashville was once an important town for Rhythm and Blues. It had a lively “Bronze Town” entertainment district. But guess where they decided to put the freeway? Eminent domain brought black night life to a grinding halt in Nashville, as it did in many towns, including Milwaukee. I sure wish there had been room for everyone.

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” Is Evergreen”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    I didn’t know that this song was a tribute to his felled brother! The words “strange but novel” certainly fit well in terms of its sound. Thank you for your ever-continuing research and care for the songs that have made up part of the emotional component of our lives!

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