Harmony turns a pleasing combination of musical elements into a whole. Synergy occurs when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In the story of the Bee Gees, harmony and synergy are the essential truths. Because when Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb got together to make music… in their boyhood bedroom in Manchester, in recording studios in London and Miami, on the biggest stages all over the world… their perfectly-blended voices made something special happen. Together, in silent synergy, in heavenly harmony, the brothers Gibb at a microphone together meant that something magical was about to take place.
That “something” first happened over a half-century ago, when the brothers first raised their voices together. And now, forever known as the Bee Gees, they are one of the greatest vocal groups and songwriting teams in the history of music. And that’s no exaggeration.
By the time their career had come full circle, with their final album (2001’s This Is Where I Came In), they had created a body of work that made them worthy of both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame and in the process, revealed the story of their life through the medium of the most consistently best-crafted, elegant pop music one could dream of.
The Bee Gees story, of course, is a real life… one of a family… a talented, determined, unstoppable trio of brothers (older brother Barry and fraternal twins Robin and Maurice)… who began singing together when they were just boys.
From the very beginning, singing together was really as natural as breathing and almost as essential. Born on the Isle of Man, where their late father Hugh was a big band leader, the Gibbs started harmonizing in their modest British bedroom in the mid-1950s when they were mere lads. Oldest brother Barry (then 9) and twins Robin and Maurice (only 6 years old) made their first public appearances in 1957 in Manchester at local cinemas, miming to the hits of the day. For one of the greatest singing groups in history, it’s more than a little ironic that they began their career as lip-synchers.
From the very beginning, singing together was as natural as breathing and almost as essential.
Anyway, after their family emigrated from Manchester to Australia in 1958, the soon-to-be-named Bee Gees began busking at a local racetrack, and then graduated to Aussie nightclubs. As pre-teens, they were a successful act, singing in a style influenced by the legendary Mills Brothers. In 1963, they earned their first record contract, and unlike most groups, they immediately began recording their own songs.
Then, in 1964, inspired by the Beatles, the brothers became a teenage pop group and honed their songwriting and recording skills as they earned national stardom “Down Under.” By the end of 1966, they were fast becoming the biggest fish in a small pond and feeling that fulfilling their ultimate destiny meant leaving Australia, they sailed home to England.
Ironically, it was while on the ship that they learned that they had gone to number one in Oz with Spicks And Specks. But there was no looking back, because the Bee Gees were bound for music’s real Emerald City, the swinging London of 1967.
In terms of worldwide attention, the Bee Gees story really began in February, 1967 when only weeks after arriving in England, they hooked up with legendary impresario Robert Stigwood, who immediately recognized their talent and quickly put them in the studio. He mounted an audacious publicity campaign, calling the Bee Gees, “the most significant new musical talent of 1967”. It was a lot to live up to, but the Bee Gees were clearly up to the challenge.
“The most significant new musical talent of 1967”
Robert Stigwood, impresario and entertainment entrepreneur
Bee Gees 1st was released in the post-Sgt. Pepper musical universe of the fall of 1967, just in time for the group to be an integral part of the second Wave of a “British Invasion” that included Cream, the Moody Blues, Procol Harum and Traffic.
Their success was instantaneous. For nearly five years, beginning with their first international hit, New York Mining Disaster, 1941 the Bee Gees were massive pop stars. Fueled by songwriting talents that are virtually unequaled, their first four UK albums (especially the landmark orchestral pop concept record, Odessa) revealed their talent and ambition in full bloom. During their first run of success, they, with seeming ease, supplied themselves with an unending stream of hit singles (Massachusetts, To Love Somebody (originally written for Otis Redding), Holiday, I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You, I Started A Joke, Lonely Days, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart et al), and took perhaps equal pleasure in the fact that their hit songs were also being recorded by their idols, such as Elvis Presley (Words) Sarah Vaughn (Run To Me), Al Green and Janis Joplin.
In the early 1970s, despite a pair of major hit singles in America, the Bee Gees fell out of favor, particularly at home. In England, in a music scene where stacks of Marshall amplifiers ruled the day, there didn’t seem to be a place for them amidst the heavy metal thunder of Led Zeppelin or in a glam-rock era when the next big thing came along every month. There just wasn’t much of a demand for three young men singing beautifully-crafted pop songs.
Steadfastly refusing to become an oldies act, the brothers wrote and recorded new albums and struggling to connect with listeners, they relocated to America where they hoped to re-establish their musical identity.
It was when they joined forces with legendary producer Arif Mardin and rediscovered their love of soul music that the next chapter in their history began in earnest; they started making R&B-drenched records that reflected their real passion.
In truth, the brothers had always been most inspired by great soul artists such as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, so when they gave that part of their creative heart free reign, it fueled the Bee Gees return to the top. Their comeback began in 1975 with Jive Talkin’, the first of their dance-tinged number one hits that would trigger an unprecedented second round of superstardom. By writing and singing straight from the gut, they had returned to the top. Unpredictably, they would soon be bigger than ever.
Jive Talkin’ triggered an unprecedented second round of superstardom
1975’s Main Course album (which also featured the Top 10 hit Nights On Broadway) was followed by 1976’s smash, Children Of the World (including the number one You Should Be Dancing and number three Love So Right). Next came a “standing room only” arena tour that proved the Bee Gees were bigger stars than ever. Nobody realized that what was to come next would turn them into icons for a generation.
In early 1977, the Bee Gees were focused on two things: writing songs for their new studio album; and launching the career of their baby brother Andy, when they received a request from their manager, Robert Stigwood, who was producing a new film, a “little” movie set in a dance club in New York. He asked the brothers for a few songs for the soundtrack. The songs they sent him made music history.
1977’s Saturday Night Fever, which sparked not only a cultural phenomenon but was, for two decades, the biggest selling soundtrack record ever (around forty million copies to date), began a miraculous string of number one hit singles for the Bee Gees, starting off with How Deep Is Your Love, Stayin’ Alive and Night Fever.
At the same time that Saturday Night Fever was burning brightly, another member of the Gibb family was also tearing up the charts. Barry, at Robert Stigwood’s behest, somehow found the time to oversee the launch of baby brother Andy’s stateside career, and Andy’s first album, Flowing Rivers (which was actually released months prior to Saturday Night Ever) marked the beginning of the 19-year old’s white-hot stardom. Andy became the first solo artist to ever have his first three singles reach number one —I Just Want To Be Your Everything (which was written by Barry, preceded How Deep Is Your Love to the top of the charts), (Love Is) Thicker Than Water, a Barry-Andy collaboration, which replaced Stayin’ Alive at number one and the multi-million-selling Shadow Dancing, (Billboard’s number one single of 1978), which is also noteworthy for having been co-authored by all four Gibb brothers. Various creative combinations of Gibbs also led to three more top 10 singles for Andy, including Everlasting Love, the poignant (Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away and Desire.
In 1978, the Bee Gees were at a pinnacle they had often dreamed of. But they would only barely pause to enjoy the view before they set a new challenge for themselves—How do you top what was then the biggest-selling album of all time?
How do you top the biggest-selling album of all time?
With that question mark hanging over their heads, the brothers returned to the studio (for the third straight time with the men Barry Gibb calls the “unsung heroes,” co-producers Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten) determined to make their greatest album ever. Never ones to shy away from a challenge, the Bee Gees may have indeed done exactly what they intended.
Spirits Having Flown sold an unbelievable fifteen million copies worldwide and yielded three more million-selling, number one singles (Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Love You Inside Out). That album and the hugely successful Spirits tour (which included dates at places such as Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, where only the Beatles and Elton John had previously played) firmly and finally placed them in the pop pantheon.
From 1977-1979, the Bee Gees were, very simply, the biggest group in the world. Among the records they set during that “Feverish” era that may never be equaled: the Bee Gees became the only recording artists to write and produce six straight number one singles; they were the first composers to have five songs in the top 10 at the same time; and when, from February 1978 through mid-May of that same year, the number one record was a Gibb composition (featuring either the group, brother Andy or Yvonne Elliman), it was the first four straight songwriting number ones ’s ever, breaking Lennon‐McCartney’s record from 1964.
To give you an idea of how important the Bee Gees had become, when the brothers Gibb donated all the royalties from Too Much Heaven to UNICEF, that generous gesture ultimately lead to a TV special and album that to date has generated over ten million dollars for the children’s emergency fund. Even when it came to their charitable activity, the Bee Gees were setting records.
As the new decade began, the Bee Gees decided it was time to take a breather from group activities, and in the early 1980s, the brothers concentrated on their families, slowing down their prolific pace.
Of course, nothing could stop the flow of great music and seemingly in their spare time, the brothers wrote and Barry (again, with Karl and Albhy) produced a string of hits for some of their favorite singers&rsquyo;Guilty, the Grammy Award winning Barbra Streisand album (three top 10 singles including the number one, Woman In Love and, at fifteen million sold, the biggest album of her career), a giant, UK number one for Diana Ross (Chain Reaction), Dionne Warwick’s 1982 return to the top 10 (Heartbreaker) and Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ duet, Islands In The Stream, a 1983 number one hit and the most successful single in the history of RCA Records.
After a series of solo excursions (including Robin’s hit Juliet), by the mid-1980s, the brothers Gibb were again ready to join forces and re-take their place center stage as the BeeGees. And inspired by the international welcome received by hits like the anthemic You Win Again and their spiritual One, the brothers, after a near ten-year hiatus, returned to live performing in 1989. Their SRO tour covered three continents and attracted what was now three generations of Bee Gees fans.
The first half of the 1990s was marked by continued international success for the group, with albums like 1991’s High Civilization and 1993’s Size Isn’t Everything. That album proved that the brothers still had the ability to create catchy up-tempo, R&B influenced tracks (like the hit single Paying The Price Of Love) or from-the-heart pop songs that touch people everywhere, like How To Fall In Love, Pt. 1 and the epic ballad For Whom The Bell Tolls (a number five hit in the UK).
In 1994, in recognition of their remarkable and still-growing body of work, the brothers Gibb were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. By 1996, as the Bee Gees approached the 30th anniversary of their first international hit, there also seemed to be a shift in the pop culture zeitgeist.
Their fans around the world had always remained loyal, but in the media… among the power-brokers and gatekeepers… it suddenly became hip to love Bee Gees music.
Again demonstrating the lasting quality of their work, in 1996 the Gibb’s songwriting earned them four more number one singles (Stayin’ Alive by Ntrance, How Deep Is Your Love by Take That, Words by Boyzone and the brothers’ own version of First Of May) adding to a worldwide career total that&rsuo;s in the dozens. Remarkably, they have written number one UK chart hits in each of four consecutive decades from the sixties to the nineties.
By 1997, as they entered their 30th year on the world music scene, the Bee Gees had become legends, with career statistics befitting their status. They were one of the top five most successful recording artists of all time (behind only Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney) with well over two hundred million records sold worldwide. Over the years, in the U.S. alone, they had racked up seven million-selling singles, five others that sold over two million, nine gold albums, three platinum and three consecutive number one LPs.
By 1997 they were in the top five most successful recording artists of all time
While the brothers had also previously earned a modicum of industry recognition (including sixteen Grammy nominations and seven Grammy Awards), it was in 1997 that they received long overdue acknowledgment that was commensurate with their stature, achievements and now-iconic status. In quick order, they received the American, World and British Music Awards “Lifetime Achievement” honors and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, making them part of a very select group of artists to be in both the Rock and Songwriter Hall of Fames.
But as proud of their legacy as they are, the Bee Gees have never been content to rest on their laurels, and in 1997, they created new music that launched yet another wave of Bee Gees fever. Still Waters featuring the worldwide Top Twenty hit Alone, became a monster hit album. Four decades into their career, producing an album of the quality of Still Waters wasn’t just shocking; it may be, as Bee Gees biographer David Leaf noted, “The best album ever by a veteran group, and certainly one of the best of their career”. However welcome that kind of praise may have been, the Bee Gees only wanted one thing—for people to hear their music.
“[Still Waters is] the best album ever by a veteran group, and certainly one of the best of their career”
David Leaf, Bee Gees biographer
So in the fall of ’97, the Bee Gees began a unique three year world mini-tour… playing special “One Night Only” events around the globe. Highlights of these stadium performances, which saw the brothers play to over a half-million people live and TV audiences estimated at another hundred million, included emotional homecomings as they opened Australia’s Olympic stadium and played a landmark show to over 75,000 screaming fellow countrymen at Wembley Stadium in London.
Other highlights from the “One Night Only” events included the guest appearance of superstar Celine Dion, joining the brothers for a beautiful ballad they wrote, Immortality, That song is featured in a stage version of Saturday Night Fever which became first a London and then a Broadway smash. At the same time, at the turn of the century, with artists such as Wylcef Jean and Pras sampling Bee Gees hooks, their sound was as much a part of the contemporary music scene as it was in ’67, ’70, ’77 or ’87.
And yet, despite all of their past success, as the new millennium began, the Bee Gees were not satisfied. Great artists never are. So with the creative restlessness that has always defined them, they returned to the studio to revisit their amazingly undiminished passion for making records that will fill people’s hearts with the love that is so deeply embedded in their music.
Even for the brothers Gibb, writing great songs and turning them into exciting records is not automatic—it takes a lot of hard work. For the brothers, the creation of what would be their final opus was a yearlong journey of songwriting, production, collaboration and self-discovery. With their still unconquerable spirit, they once again set a familiar goal; they were determined to make their best album ever.
The creation of the brothers’ final opus was a yearlong journey of songwriting, production, collaboration and self-discovery; they were determined to make their best album ever.
But unlike the Still Waters CD, which utilized some of the top producers in the business, the Bee Gees took a new approach on this self-produced effort. Working first separately and then together, but always with the same goal in mind: to make an incredible CD, the brothers first crafted a dozen or more songs worthy of the credit “B.R.M. Gibb.”
Then, meticulously working in the studio throughout the fall of 1999 and into 2000, the brothers added the final touches. Finally, in 2001, the Bee Gees were ready to again share their music with the world.
This Is Where I Came In was not just an album filled with memorable tunes and terrific singing. Nor is the title just the name of the first single. Rather it reflected the musical style of the record. By choosing to revisit their roots, by making music that sounds like nothing else in the world, the Bee Gees once again made a major statement. It would, sadly, be their last.
Only death could still their voices. Maurice passed in 2003 and nearly a decade later, in 2012, Robin left this mortal coil. The Bee Gees, as a recording and performing entity, was no more.
For those of us who love them, love the musical gifts they shared, the straight truth is that nobody did it longer and nobody did it better than the Bee Gees. With hit records in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 21st Century, they became the first group ever to have such success over a similar time span. Only Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand had significant careers that lasted as long, but unlike those legends, the brothers Gibb wrote, arranged and produced their own songs.
For over forty years on the worldwide stage, the Bee Gees timeless music connected with fans all over the planet. They set trends and transcended fads with the sheer purity of their creativity. We know now that their music is immortal. And as the mid-point of the second decade of the 21st Century approaches, the Bee Gees legacy is truly undeniable.
Harmony and synergy.
The result of fifty years singing together is a body of work that makes Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb—the Bee Gees—in the title of one of their songs, Children of The Universe.
© 2013 David Leaf