Manna Dey was one of the earliest singers in the industry. He was one of the most versatile singers, at par with the likes of the late Mohammad Rafi. He sang for many comedians, including Mehmood, however, he didn’t sing so much for the heroes.
Dey didn’t get the kind of opportunities he deserved for his virtuosity as a playback singer because his voice didn’t suit many of the leading stars. Those days, actors were particular about who sang for them.
It was Talat Mahmood for Dilip Kumar in his early films, before Rafi took over. Mukesh was Raj Kapoor’s voice; Kishore Kumar and Hemant Kumar sang for Dev Anand; Rafi for Shammi Kapoor and Kishore for Rajesh Khanna. Unlike today, when five different singers might sing for one actor in one film, back then, an actor’s screen image was sort of synonymous with his voice. Songs are now treated as an independent entity outside the actor.
In Dey’s time, who sang for whom was critical and his voice didn’t match Kumar or Anand. Kapoor, however, did use him when Mukesh couldn’t do justice to certain numbers like ‘Yeh raat bheegi bheegi,’ and ‘Aaja sanam’ (Chori Chori; 1956) ‘Dil ka haal sune dilwala’ (Shri 420; 1955).
With his range and versatility, Dey would have been a big success today — when anyone can sing for any actor.
The late composers Shankar-Jaikishan offered him a vast variety of songs, especially the times they made highly classical scores. And that kind of singing was Dey’s forte. In his time, Dey sang some brilliant numbers and till date, he will be remembered for them.