Biography by Bruce Eder
No popular music act of the '60s, '70s, '80s, or '90s experienced more ups and downs in popularity, or attracted a more varied audience across the decades than the Bee Gees. Beginning in the mid- to late '60s as a Beatlesque ensemble, they quickly developed as songwriters in their own right and style, perfecting in the process a progressive pop sound all their own. Then, after hitting a trough in their popularity in the early '70s, they reinvented themselves as perhaps the most successful white soul act of all time during the disco era. Their popularity faded with the passing of disco's appeal, but the Bee Gees made a successful comeback in virtually every corner of the globe. What remained a constant through their history is their extraordinary singing, rooted in three voices that were appealing individually and comprised so perfectly and naturally by melding together that they make such acts as the Beatles, the Everly Brothers, and Simon & Garfunkel -- all noted for their harmonies -- almost seem arch and artificial.
The group was also rock's most successful brother act. Barry Gibb, born on September 1, 1946, in Manchester, England, and his fraternal twin brothers Robin Gibb and Maurice Gibb, born on December 22, 1949, on the Isle of Man, were three of five children of Hugh Gibb, a bandleader, and Barbara Gibb, a former singer. The three of them gravitated toward music very early on, encouraged by their father, who reportedly saw his sons at first as a diminutive version of the Mills Brothers, a '30s and '40s black American harmony group. The three Gibb brothers made their earliest performances at local movie theaters in Manchester in 1955, singing between shows. Their intention was merely to mime to records as a novelty entertainment act, but when the records got broken, they sang for real and got a rousing response from the delighted audience. They performed under a variety of names, including the Blue Cats and (reportedly) the Rattlesnakes, and for a time, fell under the influence of England's skiffle king, Lonnie Donegan, and proto-rock & roller Tommy Steele.
Their early lives were interrupted when the family moved to Australia in 1958, resettling in Brisbane. The trio, known as the Brothers Gibb -- with Barry writing songs by then -- continued performing at talent shows and attracted the attention of a local DJ, Bill Gates, which led to an extended engagement at the Beachcomber Nightclub. They eventually got their own local television show in Brisbane, and it was around this time that they took on the name the Bee Gees (for Brothers Gibb). In 1962, they landed their first recording contract with the Festival Records label in Australia, debuting with the single "Three Kisses of Love." The trio was astoundingly popular among the press and on television, and performed to very enthusiastic audience response. They eventually released an LP, The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs, but actual hit records eluded them in Australia. They were witness during 1963 and 1964 to the explosion of British beat music half a world away with the success of the Beatles, whose harmony-based approach to rock & roll and reliance on original songs only encouraged the three Gibb brothers to keep pushing in those directions.
By late 1966, however, they'd decided to stop trying to conquer the Australian music world, or to reach the rest of the world from Australia, and return to England -- which, thanks to the Beatles, was now the center of rock and popular music for the whole world. It was while on the boat, in mid-ocean, that the Gibb family learned that the Bee Gees had finally topped the charts back in Australia with their final release, "Spicks and Specks." Just as the Seekers had done upon leaving Australia, the group had sent demo recordings ahead of them to England, and "Spicks and Specks" had attracted the interest of Robert Stigwood (an associate of Brian Epstein). The trio was signed by Stigwood to a five-year contract upon their arrival, and they began shaping their sound anew in the environment of Swinging London in 1967. Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb alternated the lead vocal spot, harmonizing together and with Maurice Gibb. Barry played rhythm guitar as well, while Maurice, in addition to his backing vocal spot, was the triple-threat musician in the core lineup, playing bass, piano, organ, and Mellotron, among other instruments. The brothers soon expanded the group with the addition of guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen, whose presence turned them into a fully functional performing group. Their first English recording, "New York Mining Disaster 1941," released in mid-1967, made the Top 20 in England and America and established a pattern for the group's work for the next two years. As an original by the group, it had a haunting melody and a strange lyric; it wasn't so much psychedelic (though it could pass for psychedelia in a pop vein) as it was surreal. They had successful follow-ups with "Holiday" and "To Love Somebody."
Robert Stigwood arranged for Polydor to release the Bee Gees' records in England and Europe, and for Atlantic Records to issue their work in America. Atlantic had missed out on the entire British Invasion and now they had a group whose music resembled that of the Beatles at their most accessible. The Bee Gees' records had gorgeous melodies and arrangements and were steeped in romantic yet complex lyrics, many of them containing a strangely downbeat mood that no one seemed to mind. One curious offshoot of their appeal was that Stigwood was able to convince Atlantic Records, as part of the deal for the Bee Gees, to accept and release the recordings of a relatively unknown trio called Cream. At the time, Eric Clapton was not much more than a cult figure in the United States, more "rumor" than star (his recordings with the Yardbirds had never even appeared in America with his name mentioned on them), but Atlantic -- which recorded Disraeli Gears -- helped change that, selling millions of records in the bargain.
The Bee Gees single "Massachusetts" was a chart-topper in England and launched the group on their first wave of stardom. Their music was made even more attractive by the fact that their albums were unusually well put together. Reflecting the influence of the Beatles, a lot of attention was lavished on the group's LP tracks rather than relying on the presence of a hit or two to justify their existence. Bee Gees 1st, cut in early 1967, had its weaker spots, but not a throwaway track on it, while Horizontal and Idea were strong LPs filled with beautiful and unusual songs and lush arrangements (courtesy of conductor Bill Shepherd), all carefully recorded, mixing electric instruments and orchestra. What made their work even more impressive was that after Bee Gees 1st, which was produced by their Australian friend Ossie Byrne, the three Gibb brothers took over producing their own records; even more surprising, as is now known from various bootleg releases of live performances of the period, the group -- with Melouney and Petersen in the lineup -- was also able to perform their music note-perfect, with spot-on vocals while on-stage, something that the Beatles had never even attempted seriously with their post-1965 efforts.
The group enjoyed two major hits in 1968, "I Started a Joke" and "I've Gotta Get a Message to You," both from Idea. Whatever they put out seemed to work, including the delightful psychedelic pop ode "Barker of the UFO," a B-side that is a spot-on perfect example of late-'60s English freakbeat, hardly a genre on which the Bee Gees are commonly thought to have contributed. It was easy, amid the sheer beauty of their records, to overlook the range of influences that went into their sound -- the Bee Gees may have been making pop/rock, but their underlying sounds came from a multitude of sources, including American country music and soul music. Indeed, one of the group's biggest hits, "To Love Somebody," had been written for Otis Redding to record, but the Stax/Volt singing legend didn't live long enough to record it himself. At this point in their history, they were most comfortable deconstructing elements in the singing and harmonies of black American music and rebuilding them in their style, as the Beatles had done with the music of the Shirelles and various Motown acts.
It was in 1969 when the trio lost all the momentum they'd built up, ironically over a dispute involving their most ambitious recording to date. They'd just finished a double-LP set, called Odessa, a lushly orchestrated, heavily overdubbed, and thoroughly haunting body of music. The seven-minute-long title track was filled with eerie images and ideas and gorgeous choruses around a haunting lead performance and it was only the jumping-off point for the album. The brothers, however, were unable to agree on which song was to be the single and in the resulting dispute, Robin decided to part company with Barry and Maurice. They held on to the Bee Gees name for one LP, Cucumber Castle, while Robin released the album Robin's Reign, on which he was producer, arranger, and songwriter, and sang all of the parts himself.
Eventually, even Barry and Maurice Gibb parted company. Melouney had left at the outset of the Odessa sessions and Petersen left the two-man group behind a few days into Cucumber Castle, though not without a good deal of legal squabbling. (At one point the drummer, in a bizarre twist, filed a lawsuit claiming that he owned the Bee Gees name.) Without a group to tour behind or even make television appearances promoting it, the Odessa album never sold the way it might have, even with a hit, "First of May." Cucumber Castle was at least peripherally connected to a British television special of the same name -- sort of the Bee Gees' better (and funnier) answer to the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour movie -- and generated several singles that were successful in England and/or Germany, including the reggae-influenced "I.O.I.O." and "Don't Forget to Remember." Ironically, even during a period with their music partnership in tatters, the Gibb brothers were writing and recording profoundly beautiful songs -- Robin Gibb's "Saved by the Bell," with its lush, ornate multi-layered vocals, justifiably topped the British charts, and the two-man Bee Gees B-side "Sun in My Morning" was one of the prettiest songs ever issued by the group.
In 1970, they finally decided to try and re-form. Almost two years older and a good deal wiser, they related to each other better and had also evolved musically out of pop-psychedelia and into a kind of pop-progressive rock sound, similar to the Moody Blues of the same era but with better singing and more attractive songs. They came back on a high note with two dazzling songs: "Lonely Days," the group's first number one hit in America and their first gold record in the United States. The other was "Morning of My Life," a song originally known as "In the Morning," originally authored by Barry Gibb; included on the soundtrack to the movie Melody, it proved so popular with fans that the group was still doing it in concert several years later.
They enjoyed another huge international success with "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" in 1971, but the accompanying album, Trafalgar, lacked some of the variety of sounds that had made their earlier LPs so interesting. Moreover, it and the 2 Years On LP that preceded it never reached higher than the mid-30s on the American charts (and never charted in England at all), a considerable falloff from their '60s albums' sales. In 1972, the group had another Top 20 hit with "Run to Me," but their album that year, To Whom It May Concern, was forgotten almost instantly after a brief run to number 35.
There was a sense that they were losing ground, particularly as the music world was increasingly defined by albums and driven by album sales. Pop/rock was developing around them in new and harder directions and the trio's Beatlesque harmonies and Paul McCartney-like melodies were starting to run a little thin at the source. Their 1973 album Life in a Tin Can and the accompanying single, "Saw a New Morning," which were used to launch the new RSO Records label, marked a change in the group's base of operations from England to America. Despite a heavy promotional tour, the single never made the Top 40 and the album stalled after climbing to the mid-60s.
When their proposed next album, tentatively titled A Kick in the Head (Is Worth Eight in the Pants), was rejected by Stigwood, the trio knew they were in a deep creative and commercial hole. Rescue came in the form of a suggestion by their RSO labelmate, Eric Clapton, that they try recording at the studio where he'd just cut 461 Ocean Boulevard, at Criteria Studios in Miami, FL. Stigwood agreed and the Bee Gees came back in 1974 with Mr. Natural, produced by Arif Mardin. This record was a departure for them with its heavily Americanized, R&B-flavored sound. The album didn't even sell as well as Life in a Tin Can and it yielded no hits, but it got better reviews and it pointed in a direction that seemed promising. It also seemed to free up the brothers' thinking about the kinds of songs they could do.
The next year, with Mardin again producing, they plunged head-first into the new sound with Main Course. This was the beginning of the Bee Gees' second (or third, if you count their Australian period) era. The emphasis was now on dance rhythms, high harmonies, and a funk beat. They had a new band in place, with Alan Kendall on lead guitar, Dennis Byron at the drums, and Blue Weaver on keyboards, but spearheading the new sound was Barry Gibb, who, for the first time, sang falsetto and discovered that he could delight audiences in that register. "Jive Talkin'," the first single off the album, became their second American number one single, but it was a long way from Lonely Days" in style. It was followed up with the hit "Nights on Broadway" and then the album Children of the World, which yielded the hits "You Should Be Dancing" and "Love So Right." In the midst of this string of new hits, the group released their first concert LP, Bee Gees Live, which gingerly walked a line between their old and new hits.
Then in 1977, coming off of their recent success, the group was approached about contributing to the soundtrack of a forthcoming movie, called Saturday Night Fever. Their featured numbers -- "Stayin' Alive," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "Night Fever" -- each made number one on the charts and the album stayed in the top spot for 24 weeks, even as the film broke existing box office records. In the process, the disco era was born -- or more properly, reborn. It had already taken root in Europe, where it had become passé, and in the black and gay subcultures in America as well, but there it had stalled out. Saturday Night Fever, as an album and a film, supercharged the phenomenon and broadened its audience to tens of millions of middle-class and working-class white listeners, with the Bee Gees at the forefront of the music.
Suddenly, they were outstripping the sales that the Beatles had enjoyed with their records in the 1960s, and were even eclipsing Paul McCartney's multi-platinum '70s-era popularity. It was a profound moment, joining the ranks of their one-time idols in the highest reaches of music success, if not musical or social significance. They could (and did) fill arenas across the country with their new fans, although some of their older admirers -- who were admittedly a minority in the context of the tens of millions of record sales they were enjoying in the mid-'70s -- resented the group's new sound and the disco era that it embodied.
Ironically, there wasn't that much difference in the group between the two eras. Apart from Barry Gibb's falsetto, the voices were the same and as good as ever, and they had a superb band and all of the production resources that a recording act could want. And amid the dance numbers, the group still did a healthy portion of romantic ballads that each offered a high "haunt" count and memorable hooks. They'd simply decided, at Arif Mardin's urging, to forget the fact that they were white Englishmen -- or the reticence that went with it -- and plunged head first into soul music, emulating, in their own terms, the funkier Philadelphia soul sounds that all three brothers knew and loved. Luckily for them, they had the voices, the band, and the songwriting skills to do it convincingly, so much so that by 1977 the Bee Gees were getting played on black radio stations that were normally unwilling to run any white acts. What's more, "Nights on Broadway" or "Love So Right" were no less beautiful songs or records than, say, "Melody Fair" or "First of May," and if one accepted Dennis Byron's and Maurice Gibb's driving beat on "You Should Be Dancing," it was impossible not to be impressed with the vocal acrobatics and the sheer panache of the song. In one fell swoop, the group had managed to meld every influence they'd ever embraced, from the Mills Brothers and the Beatles and early-'70s soul, into something of their own that was virtually irresistible. The worldwide sales of the 1979 Spirits Having Flown album topped 30 million and was accompanied by three more number one singles in "Tragedy," "Too Much Heaven," and "Love You Inside Out." As a sidelight to the group's success, a fourth Gibb brother, Andy Gibb, was enjoying massive chart success during this same period as a singer, working in a slightly lighter-textured dance vein.
By the end of the '70s, however, the disco era was on the wane, from a combination of the bad economy, political chaos domestically and around the world (leading to the election of Ronald Reagan), and a general burnout of the participants from too many drugs and profligate sex (which would precipitate an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases and herald the outbreak of AIDS in the United States). There had already been an ad hoc reaction against the group's dominance of the airwaves with mass burnings of Bee Gees posters and albums at public forums spurred on by DJs and ordinary listeners weary of the dance hits by the group that seemed to soar effortlessly to the top of the charts; meanwhile, some radio stations began looking askance at new releases by the group after 1979. The group itself helped contribute to the end of the party with their own excesses, in particular their participation (at Stigwood's insistence) in the film Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "inspired" (if that's the word) by the Beatles' album and songs. The movie was a box office and critical disaster and an embarrassment to all concerned; the accompanying soundtrack LP was a $1.99 cut-out only six months after its 1978 release, lingering in bargain bins and warehouses for years afterward.
In 1981, the group's new LP, Living Eyes, was recorded after an extended layoff in the wake of four years of hard work, but didn't even make the Top 40. Suddenly, with the disco era over and out of favor, the Bee Gees couldn't even get arrested and were being shunned for the excesses that it represented. The most tragic of all was the fate of Andy Gibb. The older Gibb brothers had, at various times, struggled with personal demons such as alcohol and drug use, but the youngest sibling fell very hard when the '70s ended, eventually losing his life in 1988, five days after his 30th birthday at the end of a horrendous downward personal spiral. In America, the Bee Gees were virtually invisible as recording artists for most of the '80s. Instead, Barry Gibb pursued work as a producer for other artists, creating hits for Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, among others; the Bee Gees had songs on the soundtrack to Stayin' Alive, the tepid sequel to Saturday Night Fever, but they were no longer taken seriously by the music press.
They made their first attempt at a comeback in 1987 with E.S.P., an album that got favorable reviews and sold well in every corner of the globe except the United States, yielding a number one single (outside of the U.S.) in "You Win Again." A new album in 1989, One, got a good reception around the world and even generated a Top Ten U.S. single in the form of its title track. Polygram Records, which had bought out the RSO Records catalog, struggled long and hard over the release of Tales from the Brothers Gibb, a box set anthology that was really aimed more at the international market rather than the United States, although it has sold well enough to remain in print in America. High Civilization (1991) and Size Isn't Everything (1993) attracted somewhat less attention, but their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 led to the release of Still Waters. In 1998, they issued the second live album in their history, One Night Only, cut at their first concert appearance in America in almost a decade, at the MGM Grand Hotel. In 2000, they participated in the making of the biographical video, This Is Where I Came In, which covered their whole history, and an accompanying album of the same name.
The Bee Gees remained active until the death of Maurice in January 2003. While receiving treatment for an intestinal blockage, he suffered cardiac arrest and died at the age of 53. Following his death, Robin and Barry decided to cease performing as the Bee Gees.
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