Popular music is generally regarded lightly; it’s seen as little more than a diversion or means of escape. There are of course exceptions—John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” immediately come to mind—but pop recordings are usually deemed more disposable than enduring, even dismissed as ephemera, their impact as fleeting as the weeks they might be fortunate enough to spend on the charts. Though widely held, this perception is nevertheless regrettable, particularly when numerous pop hits, heard in light of the circumstances that surrounded them, have demonstrated the power to speak to their historical moment.
Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” for example, might outwardly extol the virtues of a gifted baseball player but it also served as a veiled statement of black pride amid the last gasps of Jim Crow. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” might have proven an irresistible summons to the mosh pit and yet it also tapped the abandonment and rage felt by a generation that came of age to the death rattle of AIDS and a future mortgaged by Reaganomics. Even a record as loopy as Daft Punk’s ubiquitous “Lose Yourself to Dance” can be heard as an emblem of its era. As an inducement to surrender to the oblivion of the dance floor, it holds out the hope, if only for as long as the music lasts, of transcending the terror that menaces our world today.
“Sunny,” a pop-soul smash for Nashville singer-songwriter Bobby Hebb in 1966, might not at first blush seem like a beacon or anthem. Familiar, yes, and instantly identifiable, but maybe not prophetic. The record has been covered by hundreds of artists, from Dusty Springfield to Frank Sinatra. Stalling just short of the top of the pop (no. 2) and r&b (no. 3) charts, Hebb’s own recording of the song secured him a slot on the bill of the Beatles’ final tour of the United States. Popularity, not poignancy, is the legacy for which Hebb’s original tends to be remembered.
Yet “Sunny” is more than just a finger-popping staple. The song was written in the wake of a pair of tragedies that occurred within days of each other—the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the fatal stabbing, outside a Nashville nightclub, of Hebb’s older brother Harold. With its haunting melody, pressing rhythms, and determination, in the face of the grief that inspired it, to look on the positive side of things, Hebb’s recording of “Sunny” captured the spirit of its time. If only implicitly, it gave voice to the mix of promise and betrayal felt by millions of Americans hoping for an end to the war in Vietnam and for the arrival of freedom and equality as augured by the movement for civil rights.
Hebb, who died in 2010, refrained from politicizing the song’s significance in interviews but readily admitted that it was born of the wrenching events that precipitated it. “All my intentions were just to think of happier times—basically looking for a brighter day—because times were at a low tide,” he’s been quoted as saying. And to be sure, “Sunny” is not an overtly political song, not even an allegorical one after the fashion of Sam Cooke’s posthumous 1965 hit, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Still, listening in context—that is, listening with an awareness of the polarized social and political climate in which the song was conceived—it’s hard, after hearing Hebb’s buttoned-down croon rise to a ravaged moan as the record nears its climax, not to feel that something more than entertainment is going on here. Spurred in the later stanzas by staccato barbs of electric guitar, Hebb sounds like someone who’s trying to convince himself of something, someone who wants to put a brave face on things. As the horns swell and the arrangement gains momentum, it sounds as if he’s striving with all his might to will a better future into existence.
The record begins unassumingly enough. “Sunny, yesterday my life was filled with rain / Sunny, you smiled at me and really eased the pain,” Hebb sings to a snappy 4/4 rhythm. Soon, however, the tension begins to mount and the drummer goes from lightly accenting only the backbeats to bearing down hard on all four counts of each measure. Hebb expresses thanks for his encounter with Sunny and sees their meeting as a sign that his dark days—and, presumably, those of the nation, given that the shooting of President Kennedy was an impetus for the song—are behind him. He even goes so far as to say that he feels ten feet tall, but the edge in his voice, particularly as the second stanza gives way to the third and the vibraphone motif darkens, tells a different story. With the horns echoing his bleating cries of “Sunny” note for note, Hebb sounds as if he’s clinging to the hope that if he can only express enough gratitude he might one day have something to be thankful for.
The lyrics never tell us exactly who Sunny is, and though it’s likely that he or she is a person, “Sunny” could just as easily be a concept or an ideal, such as freedom or contentment. But regardless of what he, she, or it may be, there’s no question that Hebb refers to Sunny as his “sweet, complete desire” and that, as his bereft groaning on the record’s final stanzas attests, Sunny remains just that—a desire, something longed for, perhaps even glimpsed, but not fully realized or grasped. A gospel impulse, a palpable sense of uplift, is evident in Hebb’s performance, but so is a certain tension and anxiety, more than a hint of the jagged edge of the blues. Theologians refer to this mingling of expressions, this convergence of fulfillment and frustration, as “the already and the not yet,” an eschatological predicament—much like that of Moses looking into but not being permitted to enter the Promised Land—in which a person gains a foretaste of what deliverance is like but nonetheless must wait for its arrival.
Composed twelve weeks after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1963 March on Washington, and only eight months before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, “Sunny” was born at just such a juncture between the already and the not yet. Gospel-steeped pop recordings from the mid-’60s like the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” and the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love” conveyed a similar mix of urgency and anticipation, resonating with audiences, both black and white, who hungered for justice and had ears to hear between the songs’ moral and stylistic lines. It’s hardly surprising that Hebb would have been concerned with such possibilities for human communion. He came of age amid the crippling Jim Crow laws of the pre-civil rights South but also during the nonviolent sit-ins that desegregated Nashville’s lunch counters. Music likewise gave him a chance to contemplate the meaning of Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community, beginning with the early instruction he received from his parents, Ovalla and William Hebb.
Blind musicians who made their home just blocks off Nashville’s country-identified Music Row, the Hebbs wanted their son, who as a child appeared with them and his brother Hal in nightclubs and at fraternity parties, to be exposed to a wide variety of music. From jazz, blues, and classical to country, gospel, and pop, Hebb’s parents instilled in their children an inclusive aesthetic that had them readily traversing not just musical boundaries, but lines of race and class as well. His early work as a professional musician included a stint, when he was just twelve years old, working with country star Roy Acuff, for whom he tap-danced and played the musical spoons on the Grand Ole Opry. Despite the novelty value of his contributions to the act, Hebb clearly took the experience to heart, so much so that several years before “Sunny” became an international hit he released a cover of his boss’s famous “Night Train to Memphis” as a solo artist. He also reminisced fondly about receiving songwriting advice from Hank Williams Sr. while in Acuff’s employ. Similarly, his experience with “Sunny” gave Hebb further opportunity for cultural reciprocity when it earned him an invitation to tour with the Beatles in 1966.
Of course Hebb was hardly the first or only musician of his day to use art to embrace integration as a path forward for this country. Others, such as the racially blended teams of musicians at Muscle Shoals’s Fame Studios, or the Memphis Horns, led by black saxophone player Andrew Love and white trumpeter Wayne Jackson, embodied this multiracial identity as well. Sly & the Family Stone represented the apotheosis of the ideal, including men and women and various races and ethnicities. Everyone sang, played an instrument, and had both lead and supporting roles within the group. Together they blended every species of popular music, modeling possibilities for human communion that indeed must have seemed, as the title of their debut album put it, like A Whole New Thing.
However inspiring, each of these breakthroughs offered but a glimpse of the harmony that might one day be achieved on a greater social and cultural scale. If anything, after the race riots in Detroit in 1967 and the assassination of Martin Luther King and conflagration at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the following year, the societal forecast grew darker; the possibilities for creating something resembling a beloved community seemed more and more remote as the ’60s bled on. Even Curtis Mayfield, who gave steadfast voice to his faith in the promise of freedom and equality with songs like “We’re a Winner” and “I Plan to Stay a Believer,” increasingly expressed his doubts about where the nation was headed as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s.
Hebb’s recording of “Sunny” isn’t typically included in discussions of popular music and race in this country; it isn’t even mentioned, for example, in A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America, historian Craig Werner’s wonderful book on the subject. Nevertheless, Hebb’s torn expression of gospel and blues impulses, of the already and the not yet, still has the power to seize the imagination when heard in light of the social and political realities of its day. Indeed, more than just a durable, hummable oldie, Hebb’s one big hit is as timely as ever, testifying prophetically to today’s “not yet.” In the face of all that has not yet come to pass in the half-century since Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington, Hebb’s stirring hope against hope remains both tonic and true.