A. M. Rajah was born on 1 July 1929 in Ramachandrapuram, Chittoor District in present-day Andhra Pradesh to Manmadharaju and Lakshmamma. His father died when he was three months old and then the family moved to Renukapuram and Madras (Chennai) later. His tertiary education was at Pachaiyappa's College from where he graduated with a B.A. Degree. By this time, Rajah was an accomplished piano player and had won several prizes in singing competitions. He was well versed in Carnatic Music and Western Classical Music. He was also highly influenced by the Hindi and Gazal music and was the only answer from the South to North Indian singers like Talat Mehmood, Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi and Hemanta Kumar Mukhopadhyay.
During his University days, Rajah wrote, composed and sang two songs in his mother tongue, Telugu, with the instrumental support of the music director K. V. Mahadevan for HMV which were broadcast by All India Radio. Gemini Studios boss S. S. Vasan listened to these songs and, impressed, booked him for his next film, Samsaram (1951) with the approval of his music director, Emani Sankara Sastry, and also his good friend Kalki Krishnamurthy. By this time Rajah was also already recording songs for the films Rajambal (for R. S. Manohar, incidentally his senior in the University) with P. Leela and Kumaari (for M. G. Ramachandran) with Jikki for music composers M. S. Gnanamani and K. V. Mahadevan respectively. Rajah, with instant popularity after the Samsaram songs came on the air, went on to sing in various languages, including Hindi and was the uncrowned prince of the South in the early and mid-1950s.He was equally successful in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada films.
His first Telugu film was Adarsham (1952). He also acted and sang in the Telugu film Pakkinti Ammayi (1953) directed by C. Pullaiah. with music by G. Aswathama. He also appeared in Devadas, but in a small role. His first song in Malayalam was for film Lokaneethi (1952), music director being the composer V. Dakshinamoorthy. He sang for almost all the South Indian film music composers of the 1950s.
A. M. Rajah was the first male playback singer from the South to have recorded songs for a Hindi film in Bombay for Bahut Din Huye (1952) whereas M. S. Subbulakshmi was the first South Indian singer (cum actress) to record songs for a Hindi film Meera in 1947. However, when Gemini's Tamil film Chandralekha (1948) was dubbed in Hindi, T. A. Mothi, then an up-and-coming singer,sang in Hindi too. In 1953, Rajah and Jikki were hand picked by Shankar Jaikishan and Raj Kapoor for the multi-lingual film Aah and invited to Bombay to sing for Prema Lekhulu(Telugu) and Avan (Tamil) versions which were also big hits like the originals with Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar. Rajah-Jikki reigned as the most popular pair in the Tamil films in the 50's
Rajah also sang in few Sinhala films produced in Chennai and Sri Lanka with Jikki and K. Jamuna Rani and his songs are still fondly remembered there.
Many of his solo songs and duets with all the leading female playback singers of that era were big hits. P. Suseela was introduced by Pendyala Nageswara Rao in the film Petrathai (1952) in a duet with Rajah. In playback, what Mukesh was for Raj Kapoor, Rajah was for Gemini Ganesan. Rajah also sang many songs for Sivaji Ganesan and lent his voice to M. G. Ramachandran as well. Similarly, he sang for N. T. Rama Rao, A. Nageswara Rao and K. Jaggaiah in several Telugu films and for Sathyan and Prem Nazir in many Malayalm films. Kannada film industry was not very developed in the 50’s, most films being dubbed versions of Tamil and Telugu films. However, Rajah sang for the leading Kannada actors like Raj Kumar, Udaykumar and Kalyan Kumar in the 50s. His voice was found to suit these actors when they were young.
A. M. Rajah's exit from the film world remained always a controversial one because he had a large passionate fan base then and for several more decades as pointed out by famous film magazines like Pesum Padam and the Radio Ceylon. Rajah fell out with number of music composers and developed a reputation for being difficult to work with. His ways were rather direct and he had his own strong opinions about how songs must be composed and sung. His original promoter, K. V. Mahadevan, was the first to openly drop him after recording the song Kayile Inippathenna, Kaniyanal Kasappathenna which was followed by an heated argument at the sets of Manamulla Maru Tharam (1958). It was also known in the cinema circles that M. S. Viswanathan always resisted using Rajah in his films after their first and last collaboration in Genova. By this time,he already suffered the same fate in the Telugu film world too. The film critics at this stage noted that he was his own worst enemy.
However, he continued to sing for Malayalam films longer where particularly G. Devarajan was able to coax Rajah to sing from time to time.Rajah however continued to reside in Chennai. It is noteworthy that G. Devarajan mentioned in his book that not only Rajah was an excellent melodious singer, but also of a straightforward character often misunderstood. Most composers called him an arrogant cynic.
But Rajah still remained a big name because his songs continued to be popular for many decades and he continued his music by regularly having stage shows in India as well as overseas whilst carrying on his tourist car business. He made a comeback in the 1970s through composers V. Kumar and Sankar Ganesh, and the songs were amongst the hits of the respective years. Composer Sathyam brought him back to sing a duet with P. Suseela for the Telugu film Puttinellu Mettinellu (1973), which was also a hit. But, his return did not last long even though the songs were popular probably for the same reasons as before.
He was booked early in his cinema life as one of the music composers (others being T. A. Kalyanam and M. S. Gnanamani) for F. Nagoor's Genova (1952), an M.G.R starrer, but he passed on this opportunity to M. S. Viswanathan (his first film). Rajah however sang all the songs in this film.
A. M. Rajah's debut as music composer was for the Telugu film Sobha (1958) starring N. T. Rama Rao and Anjali Devi and directed by Kamalakara Kameshwara Rao. It was C. V. Sridhar who gave his friend the second break to be a music director, fulfilling his promise that the day he directed his first film, Rajah would be its music director. The Film was Kalyana Parisu (1959) with Gemini Ganesan and B. Saroja Devi in the lead. Rajah received the Madras Film Fans Association award of Best Music Director in 1959 for this film.In the same year he composed music for Anbukkor Anni (1958) directed by T. R. Raghunath. Sridhar and Rajah thereafter combined for films Vidivelli (1960) produced by Sivaji Ganesan under his banner Prabhuram Pictures and Then Nilavu (1961) produced by Sridhar under his own banner Chitralaya. They fell out after the film was completed and Rajah refused to do the background music, but eventually did under pressure from mutual friends. Sridhar, however, went back to Rajah for Nenjil Or Alayam (1962), but Rajah refused. He then composed music for Aadi Perukku (1962) directed by K. Shankar. Thus ended Rajah's active film career which witnessed a meteoric rise and then an abrupt end after just 10 years. All his films as music composer were musical hits with Kalyana Parisu and Then Nilavu joining the list of all-time greats.
Rajah gave a major break to S. Janaki in the film Then Nilavu with two beautiful duets to sing with him and that too singing for Vyjayanthimala.
In the 1970s, he composed music for films Amma Enna Stree(Malayalam-1970), Veetu Mapillai (Tamil-1973) and Enakkoru Magan Pirappan (Tamil-1975).Franklyn
S. V. Venkatraman, G. Ramanathan, S. Rajeswara Rao, C. N. Pandurangan, R. Sudharsanam, S. M. Subbaiah Naidu, C. R. Subburaman, G. Govindarajulu Naidu, S. Dakshinamurthi, Pasupuleti Ramesh Naidu, Adepalli Rama Rao, Emani Sankara Sastry, Master Venu, K. Raghavan, P. S. Diwakar, K. Vara Prasada Rao, T. A. Kalyanam, M. S. Gnanamani, Pendyala Nageswara Rao, M. K. Athmanathan, K. V. Mahadevan, G. Aswathama, V. Dakshinamoorthy, T. G. Lingappa, P. Adinarayana Rao, T. R. Pappa, T. V. Raju, C. S. Jayaraman, Ghantasala, Vedha, R. Govardhanam, Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy, V. Kumar, Rajan-Nagendra, G. Devarajan, M. Ranga Rao, Vijaya Bhaskar, M. S. Baburaj, K. G. Moorthy, R. K. Shekhar, Brother Lakshmanan, Job Master, Jeevan and Hindi film music composers, Naushad, Shankar Jaikishan, C. Ramchandra and S. N. Tripathi.
He successfully paired with Jikki, P. Leela, Kaviyoor Revamma and P. Suseela producing good number of hit songs. Others were P. A. Periyanayaki, M. L. Vasanthakumari, R. Balasaraswathi Devi, Radha Jayalakshmi, A. P. Komala, K. Jamuna Rani, Santha P. Nair, T. V. Rathinam, M. S. Rajeswari, K. Rani, P. Andal, Rohini, Swarnalatha, Sarojini, S. Janaki, B. Vasantha, Madhuri, L. R. Eswari and singing actresses U. R. Jeevarathinam, P. Bhanumathi and S. Varalakshmi.
He married P. G. Krishnaveni (popularly known as Jikki), who reigned together with P. Leela as the top two female playback singers in the South during the early fifties. It is said that he met her on the sets of Samsaram and Kumari (1951) and proposed to her on the sets of Maheswari (1954) after they sang the duet Azhagu Nilavin Bavaniyile. They had four daughters and two sons. He had traveled extensively abroad. A. M. Rajah and Jikki have performed together in Malaysia and Singapore.
A. M. Rajah died on 7 April 1989 at the age of almost 60 in an unfortunate train accident when he tripped and fell into the tracks while boarding a moving train. He was on the way to perform a concert in a temple in Kanyakumari district, and when the train he was travelling reached Valliyur station in Tirunelveli district, one of his band members went for drinking water, and went missing for a while. Rajah stepped in the platform to find him, and found him at last. But, the train was already moving, and while going to board the train, Rajah slipped and fell into the tracks, killing him instantly. His wife Jikki outlived him for 15 years, finally dying in 2004. His children survive him.