Relying on their top-notch songwriting and impeccable vocals, the Bee Gees were able to craft a long-running career that began in the late ’50s in Australia. Along the way they became a hit-producing psychedelic pop group in England during the ’60s and the biggest disco band in the world in the ’70s, and had a late comeback as adult contemporary crooners in the ’90s. Their long-reaching influence extended past sales figures and saw their sound and style mirrored in acts as disparate as Justin Timberlake and of Montreal.
The group was also music’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. The three of them gravitated toward music, encouraged by their father, who saw his sons at first as a diminutive version of the Mills Brothers. The three Gibb brothers made their earliest performances at local movie theaters in Manchester in 1955, singing between shows. The family moved to Australia in 1958, resettling near Brisbane. Now known as the Brothers Gibb — with Barry writing songs — they attracted the attention of a local DJ, and eventually got their own local television show. It was around this time that they took on the name the Bee Gees (for Brothers Gibb). The trio was astoundingly popular in the press and on television, but actual hit records eluded them.
By late 1966, they’d decided to return to England — which, thanks to the Beatles, was now the center of the world for rock and popular music. The group had sent demo recordings ahead of them, and “Spicks & Specks” — which became their first Australian hit while they were in mid-ocean — had attracted the interest of manager Robert Stigwood. The trio was signed by Stigwood upon their arrival, and began shaping their sound in the environment of Swinging London. Barry and Robin Gibb alternated the lead vocal spot, harmonizing together and with Maurice. Barry played rhythm guitar, while Maurice played bass, piano, organ, and Mellotron, among other instruments. Their first English recording, “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” an original by the group with a haunting melody and a strangely surreal, almost psychedelic ambience, was released in mid-1967 and made the Top 20 in England and America. They had successful follow-ups with “Holiday” and “To Love Somebody,” the latter actually written for Otis Redding to record, and “Massachusetts,” which topped the U.K. charts.
After Bee Gees' 1st, the Gibb brothers took over producing their own records. It was easy, amid the sheer beauty of their recordings, to overlook the range of influences that went into their sound, which came from a multitude of sources, including American country music and soul music. 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.
In 1969, the trio split up in a dispute involving the Odessa album. A lushly orchestrated double LP, it was their most ambitious recording to date, but they were unable to agree on which song would be the single, and Robin walked out. Barry and Maurice held on to the Bee Gees name for one LP, Cucumber Castle, while Robin released Robin's Reign. Without a group to promote it, the Odessa album never sold the way it might have, even with a hit, “First of May.” Cucumber Castle generated several successful singles in England and Germany, including the gorgeous, African-influenced “I.O.I.O.,” while Robin had a hit with “Saved by the Bell.”
In 1970, almost two years older and a good deal wiser, they decided to get back together. They related to each other better and had also evolved musically, now creating a progressive pop/rock sound similar to the Moody Blues. They came back on a high note with two dazzling songs: the soulful “Lonely Days,” the group’s first number one hit in America; and the achingly lyrical “Morning of My Life,” which proved so popular with fans that the group was still doing it in concert decades later.
Their success began to ebb, however, after another huge international hit with “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” in 1971. The single “Run to Me” made the Top 20 in 1972, but the album To Whom It May Concern was forgotten almost instantly after a brief chart run. Their fortunes continued in reverse during 1973 with Life in a Tin Can and the single “Saw a New Morning” — despite a move to America and a heavy promotional push, the song never made the Top 40 and the album stalled out.
The trio was falling into a deep creative and commercial hole. Rescue came from a suggestion by Eric Clapton that they try recording at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida, where he had just cut an album. The Bee Gees took his advice and came back with Mr. Natural (1974), produced by Arif Mardin. This record was a departure with its heavily Americanized R&B sound, and the following year they plunged headfirst into the new sound with Main Course — the emphasis was now on dance rhythms, high harmonies, and a funk beat. And 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, and was followed up with “Nights on Broadway” and then the album Children of the World, which yielded the hits “You Should Be Dancing” and “Love So Right.” Then, in 1977, their featured numbers on the soundtrack to the Robert Stigwood-produced Saturday Night Fever, “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” and “Night Fever,” each topped the charts, even as the soundtrack album stayed in the top spot for 24 weeks. In the process, the disco era in America was born — Saturday Night Fever, as an album and a film, supercharged the phenomenon and broadened its audience by tens of millions, with the Bee Gees at the forefront of the music.
It was a profound moment although, ironically, there wasn’t that much difference in their sound. Amid the dance numbers, the Bee Gees still did a healthy portion of romantic ballads that each offered memorable hooks. They’d simply decided, at Arif Mardin’s urging, to forget the fact that they were white Englishmen and plunged into soul music, emulating, in their own terms, the funkier Philadelphia soul sounds that all three brothers knew and loved. In one fell swoop, the group had managed to meld every influence they’d ever embraced, from the Mills Brothers and the Beatles to early-’70s soul, into something of their own that was virtually irresistible. Spirits Having Flown was their crowning commercial triumph, topping 30 million in sales and yielding three more number one singles.
By the end of the ’70s, however, the disco era was waning from a combination of the bad economy, political chaos domestically and internationally (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 organized by DJs. The Bee Gees themselves helped contribute to the end of the party with their participation (at Stigwood’s insistence) in the film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, “inspired” (if that’s the word) by the Beatles album. The movie was a commercial and critical disaster, and an embarrassment to all concerned.
In America, the Bee Gees were virtually invisible for most of the ’80s. Instead, Barry Gibb pursued work as a producer for other artists, creating hits for Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. By 1987 and the E.S.P. album, their sales had rebounded everywhere but the United States, yielding a number one single (outside of the U.S.) in “You Win Again.” Their 1989 album, One, got a good reception around the world and generated a Top Ten U.S. single. And in the ’90s, PolyGram Records released the four-CD anthology Tales from the Brothers Gibb, which sold well around the world. The trio’s 1997 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame led to a resurgence of interest, which heralded the release of the live album One Night Only (1998), cut at their first American concert in almost a decade.
The Bee Gees remained active until the January 2003 death of Maurice from cardiac arrest during surgery. Following his death, Robin and Barry decided to cease performing as the Bee Gees. Their recorded legacy, however, subsequently became more visible than it had been in decades with the move of their catalog to Warner/Reprise. The latter company began the long-awaited upgraded CD reissue of the Bee Gees’ post-1966 library, including the first-ever release of outtakes and rehearsal versions of songs. Robin was diagnosed with and underwent treatment for cancer in 2011. He died in London in May 2012 due to complications from cancer and intestinal surgery; he was 62 years old. Given the previous deaths of Andy (who had several number one hits and who died of an inflammatory heart virus in 1988) and Maurice Gibb, Robin was the third Gibb brother and second member of the Bee Gees to pass away. In the wake of tragedy, Barry kept working, appearing on other people’s records, playing concerts, and releasing a solo album titled In the Now in 2016. The next year the Bee Gees were honored at the 2017 Grammys; then their music was featured in the star-studded concert Stayin’ Alive: A Grammy Salute to the Music of the Bee Gees, which was broadcast by CBS in April. ~ Bruce Eder