If "Sunny" had been the only hit for Bobby Hebb, and that was quite nearly the case, it would be enough. One of the most popular compositions of all time, there were hundreds of versions recorded by artists around the globe in the '60s with many more materializing in the years since. But there was more to Bobby, who was 28 when his original version became a million seller, than meets the eye; at that point he had already spent 25 years in show business. Born Robert Von Hebb in 1938 into a music-obsessed family (his parents, both multi-instrumentalists, performed on the streets of Nashville in the '30s as Hebb's Kitchen Cabinet Orchestra), he and Harold (Hal) Hebb, his older brother by six years, worked together as a song-and-dance act starting in 1941 when Bobby was three, appearing at theaters and clubs in the Nashville area.
In 1951 Bobby caught the eye of longtime Nashville producer Owen Bradley, who got him an audition with Grand Ole Opry regular Roy Acuff. The 12-year-old found himself in a unique position when Acuff, impressed by the youngster's varied talents, took him under his wing, hiring the energetic child as an Opry regular. He performed with Acuff and his Smokey Mountain Boys, playing spoons, tap dancing and doing occasional backing vocals. For an African-American of any age it was an unheard-of situation. In 1955, not yet 18, Bobby joined the U.S. Navy and made the rounds for the next couple of years as a trumpeter with a Navy band that played in many foreign ports. At about this time Hal Hebb joined The Marigolds, led by Johnny Bragg (former leader of The Prisonaires and a repeat inmate, through the years, at the Tennessee State Penitentiary); the group had a hit with "Rollin' Stone" on the Nashville-based Excello label in the spring of '55.
Bobby played guitar in addition to the trumpet, a combination that kept him working steadily after his discharge from the Navy; he played on sessions for Excello and other labels. In 1959 he recorded a rousing, rhythmic version of "Night Train to Memphis" (written by Beasley Smith, Marvin Hughes and Owen Bradley, the song was first released on Okeh by his mentor Acuff in 1942). It became his first of two singles for former Nashville disc jockey John Richbourg's New York-based Rich Records. Bobby moved to New York City and spent a couple of years at the Blue Morocco Club opening for Mickey and Sylvia and other acts. During this time he wrote and recorded a down-home southern soul song, "Atlanta G.A.," which appeared on the FM label in 1961.
When Mickey Baker moved to France around 1962, he and Sylvia Robinson put their career together on hold. During this time she did a recording with Hebb of his song "You Broke My Heart and I Broke Your Jaw" as Bobby and Sylvia for Battle Records; the easygoing arrangement contradicts the song's curiously violent lyrics. His manager, Buster Newman, got him in the door at Mercury Records and one single, "Just a Little Bit More," came out on the company's Smash subsidiary. Tragedy struck the following year when, shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Hal was killed in a Nashville street fight. Bobby Hebb didn't make any recordings for some time, instead immersing himself in songwriting as a way to deal with his depression brought on by these unconnected, but devastating, deaths. During this time he composed the brightly optimistic "Sunny."
In 1966 he signed a contract with Smash sister label Philips and made his smooth soul recording of "Sunny" with soon-to-be bigtime producer Jerry Ross, arranger Joe Renzetti and backing vocals by eventual R&B stars Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson and Melba Moore. The 45 hit the charts in June and developed quickly. Bobby was added to the August '66 Beatles tour that turned out to be the band's farewell to performing live, not just in the U.S., but everywhere. Placed fourth on the bill behind The Ronettes (sadly without Ronnie) and The Cyrkle and above opening act The Remains, he had the biggest chart hit of any of them, including the Fab Four, at the time of the tour. "Sunny" reached number two on the Billboard singles charts in mid-August and number one on Cash Box at the end of the month as the tour was wrapping up.
The disc debuted on the U.K. charts in September and peaked just shy of the top ten, edging out a competing version by Brit Georgie Fame and a lower-charting version by American Cher. Next thing you know, the floodgates had opened and it seemed just about everyone had the song in their repertoire or on a vinyl release. Earlier songs Hebb had recorded popped up including "Betty Jo From Ohio" on the Boom label and "I Love Mary" ('...I love Agnes too!') on Scepter. The official Philips follow-up, "A Satisfied Mind," exposed Bobby's country background, though his intensely soulful rendition didn't make the connection an easy one (written by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes, the song had been a major C&W hit for three acts in 1955: Porter Wagoner, Red and Betty Foley and Jean Shepard). It put Bobby back in the top 40 in November.
"Love Me" (penned by Kenny Gamble) sounded almost identical to "Sunny" and spent just a few weeks on the charts at the beginning of 1967. Bobby had several more singles on Philips, wrapping with "You Want to Change Me," a Kenny Gamble-Leon Huff production with a strong "Philly Soul" sound, in the summer of '68. He returned in fine form in 1970 with an album on Epic, Love Games, featuring, among other solid tracks, "She Broke My Heart," a solo remake of his earlier jawbreakin' duet with Sylvia Robinson. Sandy Baron, a comedian and actor (with roles in several Broadway plays to his credit, he was also Della Reese's sidekick on her syndicated talk show Della in 1969 and '70), composed many songs during his career, having his greatest musical success with "A Natural Man," which he cowrote with Bobby Hebb; a 1971 recording by Lou Rawls was a top 20 hit and won Rawls a Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Vocal Performance, Male, an honor that had somehow bypassed Bobby.
Alcohol consumption slowed his progress in the 1970s, but Bobby continued to make records whenever the opportunity arose. In Britain, where older songs were often reissued successfully, he made the top 40 in the summer of '72 with "Love, Love, Love," the hit-worthy flip side of "A Satisfied Mind." Right about that time he had a one-shot for Chicago's Cadet Records, "I Was a Boy When You Needed a Man." In 1974, "Evil Woman" turned up on an odd label, Crystal Ball. He made his first of two singles for the Laurie label, "True I Love You," in 1975, following it with a disco revival of his great hit, "Sunny '76," which briefly appeared on the R&B charts in January of the bicentennial year. Remaining active until his death in 2010, Bobby Hebb recorded one final album, That's All I Wanna Know, in Germany in 2003. He also made a return to the Grand Ole Opry in October 2004 and was welcomed with open arms.