THE BEE GEES STORY – The Bee Gees were a pop music group formed in 1958. Their lineup consisted of brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb. The trio were especially successful as a popular music act in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and later as prominent performers of the disco music era in the mid-to-late 1970s. The group sang recognisable three-part tight harmonies; Robin’s clear vibrato lead vocals were a hallmark of their earlier hits, while Barry’s R&B falsetto became their signature sound during the mid-to-late 1970s and 1980s. The Bee Gees wrote all of their own hits, as well as writing and producing several major hits for other artists.
Born on the Isle of Man to English parents, the Gibb brothers lived in Chorlton, Manchester, England, until the late 1950s. There, in 1955, they formed the skiffle/rock and roll group the Rattlesnakes. The family then moved to Redcliffe, in the Moreton Bay Region, Queensland, Australia, and then to Cribb Island. After achieving their first chart success in Australia as the Bee Gees with “Spicks and Specks” (their 12th single), they returned to the UK in January 1967, when producer Robert Stigwood began promoting them to a worldwide audience.
The Bee Gees have sold more than 220 million records worldwide, making them one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997; the presenter of the award to “Britain’s first family of harmony” was Brian Wilson, historical frontman of the Beach Boys, another “family act” featuring three harmonising brothers. The Bee Gees’ Hall of Fame citation says, “Only Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks and Paul McCartney have outsold the Bee Gees.”. The Bee Gees are the third most successful band in Billboard charts history after The Beatles and The Supremes.
Following Maurice’s death in January 2003 at the age of 53, Barry and Robin retired the group’s name after 45 years of activity. In 2009, Robin announced that he and Barry had agreed the Bee Gees would re-form and perform again. Robin died in May 2012, aged 62, after a prolonged struggle with cancer and other health problems, leaving Barry as the only surviving member of the group.
1955–1966: Music origins, Bee Gees formation and popularity in Australia
Born on the Isle of Man during the 1940s, the Gibb brothers moved to their father Hugh Gibb’s hometown of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, England in 1955. They formed a skiffle/rock-and-roll group, the Rattlesnakes, which consisted of Barry on guitar and vocals, Robin and Maurice on vocals and friends Paul Frost on drums and Kenny Horrocks on tea-chest bass. In December 1957, the boys began to sing in harmony. The story is told that they were going to lip sync to a record in the local Gaumont cinema (as other children had done on previous weeks), but as they were running to the theatre, the fragile shellac 78-RPM record broke. The brothers had to sing live and received such a positive response from the audience that they decided to pursue a singing career. In May 1958, the Rattlesnakes were disbanded when Frost and Horrocks left, so the Gibb brothers then formed Wee Johnny Hayes and the Blue Cats, with Barry as Johnny Hayes.
In August 1958, the Gibb family, including older sister Lesley and infant brother Andy, emigrated to Redcliffe, just north-east of Brisbane in Queensland, Australia. The young brothers began performing to raise pocket money. They were introduced to Brisbane radio presenter jockey Bill Gates by speedway promoter and driver Bill Goode, who had hired the brothers to entertain the crowd at the Redcliffe Speedway in 1960. The crowd at the speedway would throw money onto the track for the boys, who generally performed during the interval of meetings (usually on the back of a truck that drove around the track) and, in a deal with Goode, any money they collected from the crowd they were allowed to keep. Gates renamed them the BGs (later changed to “Bee Gees”) after his, Goode’s and Barry Gibb’s initials. The name was not specifically a reference to “Brothers Gibb”, despite popular belief.
By 1960, the Bee Gees were featured on television shows, including their performance of “Time Is Passing By”. In the next few years they began working regularly at resorts on the Queensland coast. For his songwriting, Barry sparked the interest of Australian star Col Joye, who helped them get a recording deal in 1963 with Festival Records subsidiary Leedon Records, under the name “Bee Gees”. The three released two or three singles a year, while Barry supplied additional songs to other Australian artists. In 1962, the Bee Gees were chosen as the supporting act for Chubby Checker’s concert at the Sydney Stadium.
From 1963 to 1966, the Gibb family lived at 171 Bunnerong Road, Maroubra, in Sydney. Just prior to his death, Robin Gibb recorded the song “Sydney,” about the brothers’ experience of living in that city. It was released on his posthumous album 50 St. Catherine’s Drive. The house was demolished in 2016.
A minor hit in 1965, “Wine and Women”, led to the group’s first LP, The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs. By 1966 Festival was, however, on the verge of dropping them from the Leedon roster because of their perceived lack of commercial success. It was at this time that they met the American-born songwriter, producer and entrepreneur Nat Kipner, who had just been appointed A&R manager of a new independent label, Spin Records. Kipner briefly took over as the group’s manager and successfully negotiated their transfer to Spin in exchange for granting Festival the Australian distribution rights to the group’s recordings.
Through Kipner the Bee Gees met engineer-producer, Ossie Byrne, who produced (or co-produced with Kipner) many of the earlier Spin recordings, most of which were cut at his own small, self-built St Clair Studio in the Sydney suburb of Hurstville. Byrne gave the Gibb brothers virtually unlimited access to St Clair Studio over a period of several months in mid-1966. The group later acknowledged that this enabled them to greatly improve their skills as recording artists. During this productive time they recorded a large batch of original material—including the song that would become their first major hit, “Spicks and Specks” (on which Byrne played the trumpet coda)—as well as cover versions of current hits by overseas acts such as the Beatles. They regularly collaborated with other local musicians, including members of beat band Steve & The Board, led by Steve Kipner, Nat’s teenage son.
Frustrated by their lack of success, the Gibbs began their return journey to England on 4 January 1967, with Ossie Byrne travelling with them. While at sea in January 1967, the Gibbs learned that “Spicks and Specks” had been awarded Best Single of the Year by Go-Set, Australia’s most popular and influential music newspaper.
1967–1969: International fame and touring years
Bee Gees’ 1st, Horizontal and Idea
Before their departure from Australia to England, Hugh Gibb sent demos to Brian Epstein, who managed the Beatles and directed NEMS, a British music store. Epstein passed the demo tapes to Robert Stigwood, who had recently joined NEMS. After an audition with Stigwood in February 1967, the Bee Gees signed a five-year contract whereby Polydor Records would release their records in the UK, and Atco Records would do so in the US. Work quickly began on the group’s first international album, and Stigwood launched a promotional campaign to coincide with its release.
Stigwood proclaimed that the Bee Gees were “The most significant new musical talent of 1967”, thus initiating the comparison of the Bee Gees to the Beatles. Before recording the first album, the group expanded to include Colin Petersen and Vince Melouney. “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” their second British single (their first-issued UK 45 rpm was “Spicks and Specks”), was issued to radio stations with a blank white label listing only the song title. Some DJs immediately assumed this was a new single by the Beatles and started playing the song in heavy rotation. This helped the song climb into the top 20 in both the UK and US.
No such chicanery was needed to boost the Bee Gees’ next single, “To Love Somebody”, into the US Top 20. Originally written for Otis Redding, “To Love Somebody”, a soulful ballad sung by Barry, has since become a pop standard covered by many artists. Another single, “Holiday”, released in the US, peaked at No. 16.
The parent album, Bee Gees 1st (their first internationally), peaked at No. 7 in the US and No. 8 in the UK. Bill Shepherd was credited as the arranger. After recording that album, the group recorded their first BBC session at the Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue, in London, with Bill Bebb as the producer, and they performed three songs. That session is included on BBC Sessions: 1967–1973 (2008). After the release of Bee Gees’ 1st, the group was first introduced in New York as “the English surprise.” At that time, the band made their first British TV appearance on Top of the Pops. Maurice recalled:
Jimmy Savile was on it and that was amazing because we’d seen pictures of him in the Beatles fan club book, so we thought we were really there! That show had Lulu, us, the Move, and the Stones doing ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’. You have to remember this was really before the superstar was invented so you were all in it together.
In late 1967, they began recording for the second album. On 21 December 1967, in a live broadcast from Liverpool Anglican Cathedral for a Christmas television special called How On Earth?, they performed their own song, “Thank You For Christmas” which was written especially for the programme, as well as a medley of the traditional Christmas carols “Silent Night,” “The First Noel” and “Mary’s Boy Child” (the latter incorrectly noted as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” on tape boxes and subsequent release). The songs were all pre-recorded on 1 December 1967 and the group lip-synched their performance. The recordings were eventually released on the “Horizontal” reissue bonus disc in 2008. The folk group the Settlers and Radio 1 disc-jockey, Kenny Everett, also performed on the programme which was presented by the Reverend Edward H. Patey, dean of the cathedral.
January 1968 began with a promotional trip to the US. Los Angeles Police were on alert in anticipation of a Beatles-type reception, and special security arrangements were being put in place. In February, Horizontal repeated the success of their first album, featuring the group’s first UK No. 1 single “Massachusetts” (a No. 11 US hit) and the No. 7 UK single “World.” The sound of the album Horizontal had a more “rock” sound than their previous release, although ballads like “And the Sun Will Shine” and “Really and Sincerely” were also prominent. The Horizontal album reached No. 12 in the US and No. 16 in the UK.
With the release of Horizontal, they also embarked on a Scandinavian tour with concerts in Copenhagen. Around the same time, the Bee Gees turned down an offer to write and perform the soundtrack for the film Wonderwall, according to director Joe Massot.
On 27 February 1968, the band, backed by the 17-piece Massachusetts String Orchestra, began their first tour of Germany with two concerts at Hamburg Musikhalle. In March 1968, the band was supported by Procol Harum (who had a well-known hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale”) on their German tour. As Robin’s partner Molly Hullis recalls: “Germans were wilder than the fans in England at the heights of Beatlemania.” The tour schedule took them to 11 venues in as many days with 18 concerts played, finishing with a brace of shows at the Stadthalle, Braunschweig.
After that, the group was off to Switzerland. As Maurice described it:
There were over 5,000 kids at the airport in Zurich. The entire ride to Bern, the kids were waving Union Jacks. When we got to the hotel, the police weren’t there to meet us and the kids crushed the car. We were inside and the windows were all getting smashed in, and we were on the floor.
On 17 March, the band performed “Words” on The Ed Sullivan Show. The other artists who performed on that night’s show were Lucille Ball, George Hamilton and Fran Jeffries. On 27 March 1968, the band performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Two more singles followed in early 1968: the ballad “Words” (No. 8 UK, No. 15 US) and the double A-sided single “Jumbo” backed with “The Singer Sang His Song”. “Jumbo”, the Bee Gees’ least successful single to date, only reached No. 25 in the UK and No. 57 in the US. The Bee Gees felt “The Singer Sang His Song” was the stronger of the two sides, an opinion shared by listeners in the Netherlands who made it a No. 3 hit.
Further Bee Gees chart singles followed: “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You”, their second UK No. 1 (No. 8 US), and “I Started a Joke” (No. 6 US), both culled from the band’s third album Idea. Idea reached No. 4 in the UK and was another top 20 album in the US (No. 17).
After the tour and TV special to promote the album, Vince Melouney left the group, desiring to play more of a blues style music than the Gibbs were writing. Melouney did achieve one feat while with the Bee Gees: his composition “Such a Shame” (from Idea) is the only song on any Bee Gees album not written by a Gibb brother.
The band were due to begin a seven-week tour of the US on 2 August 1968, but on 27 July, Robin collapsed and fell unconscious. He was admitted to a London nursing home suffering from nervous exhaustion, and the American tour was postponed. The band began recording their sixth album, which resulted in their spending a week recording at Atlantic Studios in New York. Robin, still feeling poorly, missed the New York sessions, but the rest of the band put away instrumental tracks and demos.
Odessa, Cucumber Castle and breakup
By 1969, Robin began to feel that Stigwood had been favouring Barry as the frontman.
The Bee Gees’ performances in early 1969 on the Top of the Pops and The Tom Jones Show performing “I Started a Joke” and “First of May” as a medley was one of the last live performances of the group with Robin.
Their next album, which was to have been a concept album called Masterpeace, evolved into the double-album Odessa. Most rock critics felt this was the best Bee Gees album of the 1960s with its progressive rock feel on the title track, the country-flavoured “Marley Purt Drive” and “Give Your Best”, and ballads such as “Melody Fair” and “First of May” (the last of which became the only single from the album and a UK # 6 hit). Feeling the flipside, “Lamplight,” should have been the A-side, Robin quit the group in mid-1969 and launched a solo career.
The first of many Bee Gees compilations, Best of Bee Gees, was released featuring the non-LP single “Words” plus the Australian hit “Spicks and Specks”. The single “Tomorrow Tomorrow” was also released and was a moderate hit in the UK, where it reached No. 23, but it was only No. 54 in the US. The compilation reached the top 10 in both the UK and the US.
While Robin pursued his solo career, Barry, Maurice and Petersen continued on as the Bee Gees recording their next album, Cucumber Castle. The band made their debut performance without Robin at Talk of the Town. They had recruited their sister, Lesley, into the group at this time. To accompany the album, they also filmed a TV special which aired on the BBC in 1971. Petersen played drums on the tracks recorded for the album but was fired from the group after filming began (he went on to form the Humpy Bong with Jonathan Kelly). His parts were edited out of the final cut of the film and Pentangle drummer Terry Cox was recruited to complete the recording of songs for the album.
After the album was released in early 1970, it seemed that the Bee Gees were finished. The leadoff single, “Don’t Forget to Remember”, was a big hit in the UK, reaching No. 2, but only reached No. 73 in the US. The next two singles, “I.O.I.O.” and “If I Only Had My Mind on Something Else”, barely scraped the charts. On 1 December 1969, Barry and Maurice parted ways professionally.
Maurice started to record his first solo album, The Loner, which was not released. Meanwhile, he released the single “Railroad” and starred in the West End musical Sing a Rude Song. In February 1970, Barry recorded a solo album which never saw official release either, although “I’ll Kiss Your Memory” was released as a single backed by “This Time” without much interest. Meanwhile, Robin saw success in Europe with his No. 2 hit “Saved by the Bell” and the album Robin’s Reign.
The Bee Gees were influenced by the Beatles, the Everly Brothers, the Mills Brothers, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder. On the 2014 documentary The Joy of the Bee Gees, Barry said that the Bee Gees were also influenced by the Hollies and Otis Redding.
In his 1980 Playboy magazine interview, John Lennon praised the Bee Gees, “Try to tell the kids in the seventies who were screaming to the Bee Gees that their music was just the Beatles redone. There is nothing wrong with the Bee Gees. They do a damn good job. There was nothing else going on then”.
In a 2007 interview with Duane Hitchings, who co-wrote Rod Stewart’s 1978 disco song “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, he noted that the song was:
a spoof on guys from the ‘cocaine lounge lizards’ of the Saturday Night Fever days. We Rock and Roll guys thought we were dead meat when that movie and the Bee Gees came out. The Bee Gees were brilliant musicians and really nice people. No big egos. Rod, in his brilliance, decided to do a spoof on disco. VERY smart man. There is no such thing as a “dumb” super success in the music business.
Kevin Parker of Tame Impala has said that listening to the Bee Gees after taking mushrooms inspired him to change the sound of the music he was making in his album Currents.
The English indie rock band the Cribs was also influenced by the Bee Gees. Cribs member Ryan Jarman said: “It must have had quite a big influence on us – pop melodies is something we always revert to. I always want to get back to pop melodies and I’m sure that’s due to that Bee Gees phase we went through”.
Following Robin’s death on 20 May 2012, Beyoncé remarked: “The Bee Gees were an early inspiration for me, Kelly Rowland and Michelle. We loved their songwriting and beautiful harmonies. Recording their classic song, ‘Emotion’ was a special time for Destiny’s Child. Sadly we lost Robin Gibb this week. My heart goes out to his brother Barry and the rest of his family.
Singer Jordin Sparks remarked that her favorite Bee Gees songs are “Too Much Heaven”, “Emotion” (although performed by Samantha Sang with Barry on the background vocals using his falsetto), and “Stayin’ Alive”.
Carrie Underwood said, about discovering the Bee Gees during her childhood, “My parents listened to the Bee Gees quite a bit when I was little, so I was definitely exposed to them at an early age. They just had a sound that was all their own, obviously, [it was] never duplicated”.
—Music historian Paul Gambaccini.
At one point, in 1978, the Gibb brothers were responsible for writing and/or performing nine of the songs in the Billboard Hot 100. In all, the Gibbs placed 13 singles onto the Hot 100 in 1978, with 12 making the Top 40. The Gibb brothers are fellows of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA). At least 2,500 artists have recorded their songs.
Singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw spoke about the Bee Gees’ influence with their own music as well as their songwriting:
Let’s talk about the Bee Gees. That’s an iconic group. Not just a great band, but a great group of songwriters. Even long after the Bee Gees’ success on the pop charts, they were still writing songs for other people, huge hit songs. Their talent went far beyond their moment of normal pop success. It is a loss to the music industry and a loss of an iconic group. The beauty of this industry is that we do pay tribute and every artist coming up is a fan of a generation prior to it, so there’s a real tradition element to it”.
In 2009, as part of the Q150 celebrations, the Bee Gees were announced as one of the Q150 Icons of Queensland for their role as “Influential Artists”.
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