K. J. Yesudas was born in Fort Kochi, in the erstwhile Kingdom of Cochin, in a Latin-rite Roman Catholic Christian family to late Augustine Joseph and late Elizabeth Joseph. His father, who was a well-known Malayalam classical musician and stage actor, was his first guru. Yesudas was the eldest of five children, followed by three younger brothers and a younger sister. He started his academic music training at R.L.V. Music Academy, Thrippunithura. Later he studied at Swathi Thirunal College of Music, Thiruvananthapuram under the tutelage of the Carnatic music maestro late Sh. K.R. Kumaraswamy Iyer and the late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer but could not complete his studies due to financial constraints. For a brief period, he was with Sri Vechur Harihara Subramania Iyer, after which he took advanced training from Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. He completed the Ganabooshanam course at R.L.V. Music Academy, Thripunithura, Cochin and studied at Sree Swathithirunal Music Academy, Trivandrum under the tutelage of the Carnatic music maestro late Sh. K.R.Kumaraswamy Iyer. In 2011 Yesudas completed his 50 years as a playback singer.
The first song sung by Yesudas is Jaathi Bhedam Matha Dwesham (music: M B Sreenivasan) on 14 November 1961, which he usually sings on all the special occasions in front of the audience. But the first film song was 'Attention Penne Attention', which he sang with Santha P. Nair, a veteran singer of that time. Yesudas began his career in playback singing in the Malayalam movie Kaalpadukal (1962) and Tamil, Telugu and Kannada movies in the early 1960s.
He got the first break in his music career with the hit Malayalam film named Bharya ( music by G. Devarajan and lyrics by Vayalar Ramavarma). In 1967, he sang hit songs in the composition of M.S.Baburaj for the film Udhyogastha directed by P.Venu. He sang in Tamil for Bommai first (music: S. Balachander), but the first released movie was Konjum Kumari (music: Veda). In 1965, he was invited by the Soviet Union government to perform at music concerts in various cities in the USSR and also sang a Russian song over Radio Kazakhstan. The trio of Salil, Yesudas and Prem Nazir entered the Malayalam Cinema Industry of the 1970s.
In 1970 he was nominated to head the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy and was the youngest person ever to occupy the post.
By the 1970s Yesudas entered Bollywood. The first Hindi song he sang was for the movie Jai Jawan Jai Kissan (1971), but the first released movie was Chhoti Si Baat. He has sung Hindi songs for many leading actors in Hindi cinema including Amitabh Bachchan, Amol Palekar and Jeetendra. He has sung many evergreen Hindi film songs for music directors including Ravindra Jain, Bappi Lahiri, Khayyam, Rajkamal and Salil Chowdhury.
Yesudas' most popular Hindi songs are in the 1976 movie Chitchor, with music given by Ravindra Jain.
On 14 November 1999, Yesudas was presented with an honorary award by UNESCO for "Outstanding Achievements in Music and Peace" at the "Music for Peace" event in Paris.a concert held to mark the dawn of the new millennium and whose attendees included artistes such as Lionel Richie, Ray Charles, Montserrat Caballé, and Zubin Mehta.
In 2001 he sang for album Ahimsa in Sanskrit, Latin and English and in a mix of styles including new-age and Carnatic. In his music concerts in the Middle East he sings Arabic songs in the Carnatic style. He frequently serves as a cultural ambassador for India through his performances abroad, promoting Indian music.
In 2009 Yesudas began a cross-country musical campaign against terrorism in Thiruvananthapuram, with the motto 'Music For Peace'. Kavita Karkare, wife of Hemant Karkare, handed over the torch to Yesudas to mark the launch of the 'Shanthi Sangeetha Yatra'. Yesudas has performed for 36 times in the 36-year-old Soorya Music festival organised by Soorya Krishnamoorthy.
Yesudas is married to Prabha. They have three sons, Vinod, Vijay and Vishal. Their second son Vijay Yesudas is a musician who won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer in 2007 and 2013.
Sree Narayana Guru’s great message, "One religion and One God for all humanity", influenced young Yesudas in his dealings with his fellow men. He had his own heroes among the musicians too. Mohammed Rafi, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and Balamurali Krishna are the ones he admires the most. Yesudas has been visiting Kollur Mookambika temple, Kollur, Karnataka on his birthday to sing keerthans of Saraswati devi, the Goddess of knowledge, music and the arts. The music festival started on his 60th birthday in 2000. The nine-day music festival begins every January at Kollur Mookambika Temple. On Sunday, 10 January 2010, he celebrated his 70th birthday (Sapthathi) at Kollur Sri Mookambika Temple with 'Sangeetharchana' (classical devotional songs), along with 70 singers before goddess Mookambika. The Sangeetharchana included "Pancharatna Gayana" of Thyagaraja's poems. He also took part in the Vidyarambha function. All India Radio broadcast the special Sangeetharchana all over Kerala. Yesudas also has many songs devoted to Lord Ayyappa including the hit song "Harivarasanam". In 2002, during Marad massacare, he visited the place along with the veteran poet Sugathakumari, and conducted classes against violence. Harivarasanam, a devotional song musical version composed by G. Devarajan, recited before closing the temple at Sabarimala was sung by Yesudas. Though there have been many different renditions of this song by many different renowned singers, Sabarimala officially uses Yesudas' voice for Harivarasanam every day.
In 1980 Yesudas established the Tharangani Studio at Trivandrum. In 1992 the office and studio were moved to Chennai, Tamil Nadu and the company was incorporated in the US in 1998. Tharangni Studio and Tharangni Records became a recording center in Kerala which, for the first time, brought out audio cassettes of Malayalam film songs in stereo. The record company also had a voice mixing studio in Studio27, Chennai. The studio continues to produce and present events of Yesudas both for film and Indian classical music concerts throughout the world.
Yesudas has recorded over 70,000 songs and has won scores of accolades including the coveted Padma Shri (1975), Padma Bhushan (2002), Padma Vibhushan (2017) and seven National Awards for Best Playback Singer. He is the only singer who has been accorded the title Asthana Gayakan (official singer) of Kerala State.National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer a record seven times by the Government of IndiaKerala State Film Award for Best Singer a record 25 times for the best playback singer by the Government of KeralaJ. C. Daniel Award from Government of KeralaAndhra Pradesh State Film Awards four times for the best playback singer by the Government of Andhra PradeshTamil Nadu State Film Awards five times for the best playback singer by the Government of Tamil NaduWest Bengal State Film Awards one time for the best playback singer by the Government of West BengalSangeetha Kalasikhamani, 2002 by The Indian Fine arts Society, ChennaiSwaralaya Yesudas award is a prestigious award for music artists in recognition of their outstanding performance. The award is instituted jointly by Swaralaya, an organisation that promotes music and Kairali Channel, based in Trivandrum, Kerala. Awards have been given annually since 2000. Yesudas presents the awards at a Gandharva Sandhya every January.
In his acceptance speech of winning the Swaralaya Kairali Yesudas Award (2006), AR Rahman said "I'm greatly honoured by Swaralaya's gesture, and getting this award from my most favourite singer Mr Yesudas. He is one of my most favourite voices' ever in the world."
Ravindra Jain, in an interview wherein the blind music director confessed that if ever he happened to regain vision, the first person he would like to see would be Yesudas.
Bappi Lahiri said in an interview with Filmfare in 2012: 'Yesudas’ voice is touched by God. After Kishoreda, he was another singer who brought out the best in me. He is a yogi, a mystic who lives for music. He takes your tunes to another level. And his note is perfect, you can rely on him to deliver it right the first time. Working with him made me touch base with my melodious side. He is vastly under-utilised in Hindi films. I wish Hindi film composers of today realise his genius and offer him assignments.”
On 2 October 2014, Yesudas sparked a row while speaking at a public function on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanthi, where he stated that "Women should not wear jeans and trouble others. You should dress modestly and do not behave like men". This resulted in a number of protests from Womens' Rights and Political organizations, who asked him to withdraw the comment.