By Joe Viglione
Salem and Rockport enjoyed the presence of a musical giant best known for a song that must have over 1,000 “cover versions” at this point in time, the immortal “Sunny.” On Aug. 3 2010, just a week and a day after his 72nd birthday, we lost this unique, wonderful and quite amazing human being: Bobby Hebb. On April 18, 2020 Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas paired up for a performance of ‘Sunny’ on the One World At Home television special. The song reverberates throughout the known universe and has maintained it’s popularity for over half a century.
Bobby Hebb was born in Nashville, Tenn., on July 26, 1938, but lived a good part of his life in Salem and Rockport. One of his first publishers was John R. (nee John Richbourg), owner of “Cape Ann Music,” a name that might have generated the initial seed for Bobby to seek out the wonders of this region. Or perhaps it was Bobby’s father that suggested Cape Ann as a wonderful place to live.
Either way, or both, Salem and Rockport enjoyed the presence of a musical giant best known for a song that must have over 1,000 “cover versions” at this point in time, the immortal “Sunny.”
On Aug. 3, 2010, just a week and a day after his 72nd birthday, we lost this unique, wonderful and quite amazing human being. One of Bobby’s sisters, Shirley, told me that Bobby was with 10 of his loved ones, including his daughter, when he passed away very peacefully at 10:50 a.m. Central time in Nashville.
Jerry Garcia said on the passing of Janis Joplin: “Death only matters to the person that’s dying. The rest of us are going to live without that voice. For those of us for whom she was a person, we’ll have to do without the person.”
It will be hard living without that friendly, upbeat, “sunny” voice calling me so frequently and always opening with: “How are you feeling, Joe?” Bobby and I were working on a new album, “Bobby Hebb Live,” going over the material he had recorded in concert over the past 15 years, but also we talked of the music of other artists, things of a philosophical nature and life in Boston and life in Nashville.
To those who drop in on Ted Cole’s Music, 30 Church St. in Salem, or the Record Exchange, 256 Washington St., you may want to look for an obscure 45 RPM on Crystal Ball Records. That single, “Judy,” was how I met Bobby Hebb after purchasing a copy in the 1980s at Cheapo Records in Central Square, Cambridge. I wrote to the Salem-based label and was pleasantly surprised to get a personal letter from Bobby Hebb himself.
It was in 1995, perhaps 10 years later, that I invited Mr. Hebb on to my public access show “Visual Radio” for program No. 3. A song from that 50-minute TV show, “Cut It Out (You’re Always Running Your Mouth)” was written by a school chum of Bobby’s from Nashville, Little Willie Brown. In the days since his passing thousands of people have viewed it, which is terrific for a very special reason: They are seeing the genius of the guitar player who did sessions for John Lee Hooker, Roscoe Shelton, Dave “Baby” Cortez and so many others.
The general public just doesn’t know the importance and influence of Bobby’s music outside of the big, big all-time hit, “Sunny.” On the two minutes and 44 seconds of “Cut It Out,” you can view Hebb’s hands and intuitive feel of the guitar … astonishing power that was up there on YouTube for people to view since Jan. 4, 2009, after airing on public access originally in 1995 and in re-runs in the years since. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? As a former booking agent said in a phone message to me, “You’re probably busy writing about Bobby, now that everyone suddenly cares about him because he’s gone.”
My colleague from California who left that message was partially correct. Yes, the world-at-large gives greater focus when people from the art and entertainment worlds have left this mortal coil, but there are some of us who knew of the brilliance of Bobby Hebb before he was taken from us, and who so appreciated his kindness and his incredible work.
There’s an amazing catalog of sound that he didn’t release to the world … Indeed, only three official albums saw the light of day, though, obviously, Bobby recorded many, many more songs. He was, after all, the “song a day man.”
Touching the world of music
“Sunny,” the album, was released in 1966. It was produced by the legendary Jerry Ross who co-wrote The Supremes & Temptations hit collaboration “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” Ross’ co-authors were Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who produced Bobby’s final single for Philips Records, “You Want To Change Me” b/w “Dreamy.” Gamble & Huff, of course, wrote MFSB’s 1974 instrumental hit “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia),” while Jerry Ross gave us hits from Keith (“98.6″), Spanky & Our Gang (“Sunday Will Never Be The Same”) and Jay & The Techniques.
“Apple, Peaches, Pumpkin’ Pie” was originally written for Bobby Hebb, but Bobby saw it as a “novelty” song and made the choice to walk away from another sure smash hit. Jay Proctor (of The Techniques) gained a career out of Bobby’s choice. Bobby may have been offered other hits, Carl Carlton’s “Everlasting Love” being one of them, but he had a specific vision and kept to it.
Producer Ross said on hearing of Bobby’s passing: “His music touched so many lives. Every minute of every day, on the radio, in the supermarkets, in the malls, in the clubs, on the elevator, they are playing ‘Sunny.’ My life changed the day I met Bobby Hebb.”
The legendary Peter Noone, lead singer of Herman’s Hermits — who is playing at The Mohegan Sun the night that I’m writing this on Aug. 6 — wrote: “Bobby Hebb …the world of music is a better place because of you.”
Tony, a fan of Hebb’s, wrote us to say, “He always saw the good side in everyone and everything. It was an honor to know him.”
On Aug. 18, 1966, while “Sunny” was riding high on the charts, Bobby Hebb played Revere’s Suffolk Downs with fellows named John, Paul, George and Ringo. Along with members of The Ronettes (without Ronnie Spector), Barry Tashian and The Remains and The Cyrkle, the man who would move to the area, Bobby Hebb, was the only other act on the bill to get a thunderous applause equal to that of The Fab 4.
You can hear that applause on a Japanese release of the Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens show from the night before, Aug. 17, 1966. Though The Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball” and “Turn Down Day” were hits in the summer of ’66 as well, with all due respect to that wonderful group, this was the Beatles/Bobby Hebb show.
A Lynn resident by the name of Jim Tournas got Bobby a role in a PBS special for “Nova” about alien abductions. The legendary story of Betty and Barney Hill features Bobby Hebb as Barney Hill, and it is a treat for fans of the man to see him in an acting role.
Bobby Hebb’s talent lives on. There’s a lot more music to be heard, which calls to mind a song he and his good friend Sandy Baron wrote for Lou Rawls. The song was for Marvin Gaye but it is poignant now and applies to Bobby as well: “His Song Shall Be Sung.”
Do you have comments or anecdotes about the career of Bobby Hebb? E-mail music writer and producer Joe Viglione at email@example.com for a possible follow-up story.