The Bee Gees - Biography
By Bill Gerdes
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, in one of the most curious aphorisms to come out of literature, that “there are no second acts in America.” Though thoroughly British-cum-Australian, The Bee Gees did their best to prove Fitzgerald off his rocker, riding three different musical crests throughout the globe—first hippie, then disco, and finally the nostalgia era. Brothers Maurice, Robin, and Barry Gibb have come back for seconds and thirds.
In the early ’50s, Hugh Gibb, father of the siblings that would become The Bee Gees, returned the family to Chorlton-cum-Hardy near Manchester, England, where he grew up. The brothers began singing harmony when the youngest, Andy, was only five years old. As the story goes, The Bee Gees first “break” came when, on their way to lip sync at a local movie theater, Maurice dropped and broke the record the boys were going to sing to. Forced to go on with it, they went ahead and sung live and received an enormous response. At this point, the brothers figured out they wanted to pursue a singing career.
The entire family emigrated in 1958 to Redcliffe, Australia, when the Gibb’s were still fairly young, and it was there that their singing career took off in earnest. They called themselves The Rattlesnakes at first, and then operated under the moniker Wee Johnny Hayes & the Bluecats. Finally, a promoter named Bill Goode introduced them to radio DJ Bill Gates, who christened them “The Bee Gees” after their own shared initials—Bill Gates/Bill Goode. This comes in contrast to the theory that it was an acronym for Brothers Gibb. In either case, The Bee Gees had arrived, and it their career soon began to gather steam.
As early as 1960, The Bee Gees were appearing on local Australian television and working at resorts along Queensland coasts, with the exposure landing them a record deal with Festival Records in 1963. By 1965, The Bee Gees had made a small splash with the single “Wine and Women,” a release that led to the group’s first album, Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs (1965 Leedon/Calendar). A year later, they decided to try their luck back in England, where so much was happening in the mid-1960s and with the British Invasion so strong in America.
Yet before The Bee Gees set sail for their native land, the seeds of their breakout fame had been sown. During their ship ride to England, a track they had recorded—the Merseybeat number, “Spicks and Specks”—went to the top of the charts in Australia, thus attracted the group international attention. More importantly, the band had sent some demo tapes to Brian Epstein, the famous manager of The Beatles, who passed them along to manager Robert Stigwood, who was already familiar with the single via Ronald Rennie. Shortly after The Bee Gees arrival in the UK, they were signed to a five-year contract to Polydor Records, with a huge promotional budget behind them designed to coincide with their first international LP.
The ensuing album, while somewhat disingenuously titled, Bee Gees’ 1st (1967), achieved a fair amount of success in both the UK (hitting #8) and America (peaking at #7). “New York Mining Disaster 1941” was the first single off the album, and the track was soon in heavy rotation by DJ’s across in Britain and Stateside. The follow-up—“To Love Somebody”—became one of the bands biggest tunes, the vocals quavering at the fore. Many artists covered it over the years, from Janis Joplin to Michael Bolton to Ray Lamontagne.
In the late 1960’s, already heartthrobs to many fans, The Bee Gees were very much a band as opposed to a singing group, which they’d become less than a decade later—Robin sang and dabbled on violin and piano, twin brother Maurice was on bass, Barry played rhythm guitar, with Vince Melouney on lead guitar and Colin Petersen on percussion. It was this version of The Bee Gees that put out Horizontal (1968 Polydor), an LP that helped cement the band’s growing status in the United States. The album also catapulted the band to the public eye, with appearances on popular television programs, such as The Ed Sullivan Show and Laugh In. Containing rich ballads, such as “And The Sun Will Shine” and “Really And Sincerely,” Horizontal was a definite success, although not a huge one, as it peaked at #12 in the US.
The next few years were not without plenty of ups and downs for The Bee Gees. In 1968, guitarist Vince Melouney—the only man to write a Bee Gee’s song not named Gibb, credited on the track “Such a Shame”—left the band. Then, on the heels of 1969’s album, Odessa (Polydor), Robin quit the band, too, due to a discrepancy in single selection. The timing was awful, as The Bee Gees’ double LP was clearly their finest of the decade, showing off a range and depth not to be found on previous efforts. Though it peaked at #20 on the Billboard chart, songs like “Marley Purt Drive” and “Give Your Best” showed the brothers had a flair for county-tinged pop. The ballad “First Of May” became another signature Bee Gees’ tune in an increasingly long line. Robin argued that the flipside to the single, “Lamplight,” should have been the first single to be released, and when it wasn’t he left the band.
Also in 1969, The Bee Gees—still considered an Australia trio, and still years ahead of becoming the duplicitous linchpins of Saturday Night Fever—released a compilation album, Best of Bee Gees (Polydor), which featured the songs “Holiday” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You.” As the decade petered out, they recruited their sister, Leslie, before all three brothers’ started out on solo careers and diversified. Barry Gibb even starred in the West End musical, Sing a Rude Song. They released the underrated, country-tinted Cucumber Castle (1970 Polydor), followed by the Maurice/Barry Gibb-led 2 Years On (1971 Polydor) after a break-up, a lawsuit with Peterson to retain the name, and television interludes, but by 1973 it was a clear that a change was needed.
The answer would eventually be disco, and they began baby steps towards it. As they struggled to reinvent themselves as a singing outfit, the boogie, R&B and funk amalgamation of disco would gain steam in New York and across America as the decade progressed. The Bee Gees reformed as a new group and moved to the States, first to Los Angeles (where they released Life in a Tin Can in 1973, which featured the quasi-hit “Saw A New Morning”), and then to Miami. In 1974, they put out the soulful Mr. Natural (Polydor), produced by the venerable Arif Mardin (Aretha Franklin). By this point The Bee Gees were fully headed towards their second crest of stardom.
Inspired by their new surroundings and the aesthetic of being singers rather than players, as well as the sweeping subcultures they encountered, The Bee Gees wrote the first of their disco era hits with “Jive Talkin” and “Nights on Broadway,” tracks that ended up on the band’s twelfth but most dynamic shifting album, Main Course (1975 Polydor). This was disco. It was here that Barry first started singing in falsetto and with that tremulous timbre, something that defines the band’s later sound to this day and opened them up for both ridicule and praise. Millions of new fans flocked to The Bee Gees with Main Course, a natural antecedent of the wildly popular Philly Soul sound. The juxtaposition from the romantic ballads of the earlier works was steep enough that the subsequent album, Children of the World (1976 Polydor) all but rendered those albums products of a bygone day.
The 1977 film Saturday Night Fever completely transformed the career of The Bee Gees, catapulting them to superstar status as the disco movement became a mainstream phenomenon. Barry, Maurice, and Robin had little knowledge of the movie they were writing for, one that was already in post-production. With only an early draft of a script to go on they managed to write a soundtrack that cemented the success of the movie, invigorate and reinvigorate disco, and sell millions of records.
The tracks—“How Deep Is Your Love,” “Staying Alive” and “Night Fever”—all reached #1 in the States. Beginning at the end of 1977, over the next eight months they penned six songs that would end up on top of the charts, including two for their brother Andy Gibb (“I Just Want to Be Your Everything” and “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water”) and one for Yvonne Elliman (“If I Can’t Have You”). The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack became the highest-selling album in recording history. Though their next album, Spirits Having Flown (1979 Polydor) was also a hit, the backlash of by those who regarded the whole disco movement as a novelty was coming on strong.
As the 1980’s emerged and disco began to fade, the “disco sucks” cultural movement began to spread across the US with radio stations promising Bee Gee free weekends, and Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox sponsoring a “disco sucks night” in which records were blown up in the outfield. Such fallout was rampant. As the poster children for the genre, The Bee Gees couldn’t help but suffer from it. In the early part of the decade, they would release Living Eyes (1981 Polydor), which was a fine album and peaked at #41 on the charts, and Stayin’ Alive (1983 Polydor), the Saturday Night Fever sequel, but it didn’t come near the success of the original. It would take a wave of nostalgia to resurrect The Bee Gees career in the United States, although they managed to stay very popular in Europe, where an album like 1987’s E.S.P. (Warner Bros.)—on the strength of the single “You Win Again”—sold over three million copies.
And there was tragedy in the 1980’s as well. Youngest brother Andy died on March 10, 1988 from myocarditis, which the surviving Gibb brothers acknowledged may have been the result of Andy’s heavy use of drugs and alcohol. The Bee Gees later said that they had planned to add Andy to the band shortly before his death. They released a single as a tribute to him entitled “Wish You Were Here” on their 1989 album, One (Warner Bros). The album also featured the band’s first top ten single in a decade in, the title track “One,” setting the stage for one The Bee Gees’ next triumph.
After releasing a couple of albums in the 1990’s, such as the sweeping Size Isn’t Everything (1993 Polydor) and the subdued Still Waters (1997 Polydor), The Bee Gees returned for a huge one-night concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, their first show in 10 years. One Night Only (1998 Polygram) was an instant hit, selling over five million copies. The astounding CD sales prompted a string of concerts around the world, ending most fittingly in Australia, at the new Sydney Olympic Stadium. The last Bee Gees’ concert occurred on New Year Eve, 1999, and was called “BG2K.” Their final album was called This Is Where I Came In (2001 Uptown), which peaked at #16 on the Billboard chart.
The heart and soul of The Bee Gees, Maurice Gibb, died of a strangulated intestine on January 12, 2003. This brought finality to the decades-spanning many times platinum artists, as his passing prompted the surviving members of Barry and Robin to retire The Bee Gees’ name for good. Both Barry and Robin continued to work on solo projects.
Not only were The Bee Gees durable but they continued to put out new music that was artistically and commercially viable throughout their career, which spanned four decades. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and remain the second most successful American band (behind The Beach Boys) in total sales.