(by Michael Musto, 1979)

In a luxurious penthouse suite of a posh Atlanta hotel, Barry Gibb -big brother and resident matinee idol of the Bee Gees - leans forward in his chair and tosses a bombshell. "It looks like we can't go on being the Bee Gees," says the 33 year old singer-composer.The remark couldn't be more surprising or untimely. The Bee Gees have just completed their first North American tour in three years - a 3-week, 38 city whirlwind that cemented the reputation of Barry and his non-identical twin brothers, Maurice and Robin (who'll turn 30 on Dec. 22), as the hottest act in show business. In addition, a Bee Gees Greatest Hits album has just been released and Spirits Having Flown, their latest album, is still on the charts (after 10 months), as is their 1977 soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever - the champ LP of all time with 27 million copies sold.

Right now, the Brothers Gibb, of the soaring harmonies and wailing falsettos, are preparing for their biggest blockbuster yet - a 90 minute NBC-TV special, their first ever, to be aired on Nov. 21. The TV special will cap the most feverishly active and successful period for the Bee Gees in a career spanning 23 years. That's why the news of the breakup is so shocking. Barry takes pains to explain the reasons: "With this tour, all the hyperactivity began to take its toll. I found myself either on top of the world or totally depressed. A couple of times I was at the point of bursting into tears. Being Bee Gees is like three people being one person. It's impossible. We are each of us having an identity crisis. It could drive all of us crazy."

Why hasn't it? "Family," pipes in brother Maurice (pronounced Mor-ris) from another room. "It's the family that comes first, then the career," says Maurice as he enters with brother Robin (the beardless one) in tow.

Helping the brothers keep a steady pace as they jet around the world in their own 707 with a business entourage of 90 are their wives, children, sisters Leslie and Berri, singing kid brother Andy (at 21, the baby), mother Barbara, 58, grandmother Laura Pass, 80, and father Hugh, 61, a retired band leader.

For the Brothers Gibb, the family anchors them to reality. It's this anchor that they fear losing if they don't split up, slow down nd discover their own identities. "I spend all my time in the studio," moans Barry, who writes most of the band's songs. "It will probably ruin my marriage."

Barry, wife Lynda, 29, and sons Stevie, 5, and Ashley, 2, live in a lavish $500,000 home in Key Biscayne, Fla., that doubles as the Bee Gees' business office. "My house is never empty," complains Barry. "There are always people passing through. Dick Ashby, our personal manager, lives in my house. All the business flows through there. I used to like being close to it. Now I want a retreat."

Robin, wife Molly, 32, and their children -Spencer, 7, and Melissa, 5- have always maintained a home in Surrey, England (where the children go to school), but recently purchased a hideaway on Long Island, near the sound, to further separate business from their personal lives.

Maurice, once the rebel of the brothers, now lives quietly in Miami with his second wife, Yvonne, 29, and their 3-year-old son, Adam, who was born four months into their marriage. "If you want to call him a lovechild, you can," says Maurice amiably.

The Gibbs weren't always so idyllic a family. In 1969, personality clashes caused the first breakup. After 10 years in Australia, they had just established themselves in their native England with hits like "Words" and "I Started A Joke." Even their manager Robert Stigwood, couldn't prevent the breakup. Headlines about their antics with women, cars,and drugs made as many waves as their music.

"We would have stuck together if it weren't for speed," Barry insists. "Pep pills, purple hearts, dexadrines, cocaine-you name it. Drugs are evil."

Brother Maurice suffered from an additional problem: alcoholism. "When my first marriage [to pop singer Lulu] broke up, I became a drinker," he confesses. "I lost my self-confidence, the house I lived in for six years, my whole life. So I hit the bottle. Then I woke up one day and said, 'It's time to start moving.'"

His brothers agreed and restored their career and family ties. Today, at the top of a music industry that once rejected them, they are stronger than ever as a family unit. When they're on the road, their wives join them whenever a birthday, anniversary or family reunion comes up. At home, they've given up almost all their past extravagances, despite an annual income estimated at $5 million. After a concert, they retreat to their families. "I boogie in my own bed now, " says Robin with a laugh.

"I think maturity is setting in, " adds Maurice. "But I'm still the gayest one. I don't mean gay as in homosexual - I mean going out socially." Still, the riots they cause whenever they go out have forced them to seek additional indoor pastimes.

"We're all TV freaks, " says Maurice, " especially for Lucy' and'Sgt. Bilko'". Despite his humorous manner, Maurice has touched on the most serious problem facing the Bee Gees: feeling trapped. As a group, they have done all they could hope to do, including surpassing the Beatles in sales. They are "tired" of the Disco label and sick at the thought that they might grow old repeating themselves.

"We need to challenge ourselves, " says Barry. "It's now or never." As a result, all three Gibbs are planning projects in the expectation of going their own ways - this time amicably. In January, Barry will produce Barbra Streisand's next album; Robin will produce LP's for Tina Turner, Jimmy Ruffin, and Maurice would like to study at London's Royal Acadamy of Dramatic Art.

Today the Bee Gees are facing their imminent breakup with a sense of relief. "I can't see us together singing 'You Should Be Dancing' at 40," says Maurice. "We'd probably have seizures from the strain."

Will the Bee Gees, like the Beatles, divide only to become something less than the sum of its parts? "Absolutely not," says Barry with a quick supporting wink to his brothers. "We may break up, but we are never going to dry up."

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