CHANGING THEIR TUNE AND THEIR FORTUNES

(TV Guide, November 10, 1979)

Robin Gibb, who's one-third of the epidemically popular Bee Gees, sat on the manicured lawn behind his new 25-room Tudor mansion, enjoying a warm fall afternoon and a spectacular view of Long Island Sound. In a few hours, a seaplane would be taxiing up to his private dock to take him into Manhattan to Madison Square Garden for another of the Bee Gees' weeks of concerts; but just now Manhattan seemed very far away. Of more immediate interest was an anticipated call from his accountants in England.

Robin, who is 30ish and cleanshaven and whose long hair is a dazzlingly bright red, made a lot of money during the last two years. Since the beginning of 1978, the Bee Gees have tied the Beatles' record of six consecutive No.-1 singles and watched the soundtrack album from "Saturday Night Fever," which consisted mostly of their songs, become the biggest-selling album of all time.

During one week in 1978, five of the top 10 singles were songs written or produced by one or more of the Bee Gees. But unlike many pop performers who suddenly find themselves at the top of the heap, the three Bee Gees--Robin, his non identical twin Maurice, and their brother Barry, who is three years older--are taking success in stride. After all, they've seen it before. And even though the oldest Gibb brother is just 33, they've been singing together for more than 20 years.

"When we were little kids," Robin explained as his eyes followed a sailboat down the Sound, "we had natural- three-part harmony. We started singing in local theaters around Manchester –England- when Maurice and I were 7 or 8, and we turned professional around 1959-60, after the family had emigrated to Australia. Our dad, who'd been a professional drummer and bandleader for 20 years, was struggling to make ends meet; our mom was ill, and there were five kids. Singing wasn't a question of having a career at that point. It was a question of survival. We started performing between the races at the Redcliffe Speedway in Brisbane, and then we put an act together for the Australian nightclub circuit. That's when we began to have career ambitions."

Robin, who sang the high, quavering romantic leads on the early Bee Gees hits, is the group's moody loner; living in splendid seclusion with his wife and two children becomes him. Maurice, his twin (who, like brother Barry, lives in style in Miami), seems to be his opposite in almost every other respect. Bearded, dapper, with a receding hairline and a quick, penetrating wit, Maurice doesn't seem to take being a Bee Gee too seriously... except for the music.

The next day, sitting on the couch in a well-guarded Manhattan hotel suite, he continued the story. "The Beatles came to Australia in the mid-'60s," he said. "Just having them there was very exciting. We started pestering our dad to let us grow our hair long. We felt we had a lot in common with them; after all, we were born 75 miles away from where they were born." Maurice padded over to the suite's refrigerator and extracted a beer. "We sent out a number of audition records," he continued, "and one went to the Beatles' management office. Then we worked our way over to England by singing on the ship... Mom, Dad, everyone came along. We'd been in England only a few weeks when Robert Stigwood called from the Beatles' office and said he wanted to see us. So we were signed by the Beatles' management."

A number of people thought the Bee Gees' first hit singles were Beatles records. The confusion was encouraged by the wily Stigwood, who has remained their manager and now oversees a phenomenally successful record and film production company. But in those early days, Stigwood wasn't the master strategist he has since become. Feeling that he had found "the new Beatles," he promoted the Bee Gees lavishly, lent them money when their spending exceeded their ample incomes, and, probably unconsciously, contributed to the creation of three adolescent swelled heads.

"It was ridiculous," Maurice recalled. "Before I was 21, I had six Rolls-Royces and five Aston Martins. Now I have one Rolls In London, a station wagon in Miami, and a Caddy Seville, and that's it." The other Bee Gees remember Maurice drinking and carousing with the likes of Michael Caine, Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney, and keeping a phone book in his Rolls so that when he drove it, he'd be tall enough to see over the hood.

There was bound to be trouble, and in 1969 Robin decided to launch a solo career, precipitating a breakup that lasted 15 months. During that period the brothers recorded individually; and although Robin had some success, the others failed to get off the ground. "All our solo records sounded just like Bee Gees," Maurice remembered, with a wry grin. Late in 1970. Robin suggested a reconciliation, and they returned to the studio as a group. Their first single, "Lonely Days," was another big hit, and they followed it with other original songs that have since become pop standards. (Remarkably, except for the sound track of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the Bee Gees have never recorded a song they didn't write; they were composing little ditties almost from the moment they began singing together as children.)

By the mid-'70s, their career had plunged into another nose dive. "We were in a rut," Maurice admitted, "just doing ballads all the time because we thought that's what everyone wanted to hear from us." Then, in 1975, they got together with Arif Mardin, a producer who had worked with Aretha Franklin and other black artists. There had always been some black influence in the Bee Gees' music -they wrote "To Love Somebody" hoping Otis Redding would record it- but basically they had been a sweet pop-harmony group. Mardin changed all that. Barry, who is serious and handsome and self-confident, is the group's most rabid black-music fan; and during the sessions with Mardin, his flexible, more black-inflected voice came to the lore.

"When we were cutting our song 'Nights on Broadway'," he recalled, "Arif asked me if I had any falsetto. He wanted somebody singing up high or maybe screaming. So I went out in the studio, and I found that not only could I scream in tune, I could sing a whole song in falsetto." His floating, dreamy falsetto on 'Nights on Broadway' caught on, and it figured prominently in the group's recent and most impressive run of hits. Powered by the emerging disco phenomenon and the worldwide impact of the Robert Stigwood film "Saturday Night Fever," these songs completed the transformation of the group's sound.

Maurice Gibb laughingly calls the new sound "danceable Beatles music." That's an exaggeration, but it's true that the Bee Gees have struck pay dirt by combining the rich pop-harmony singing characteristic of the early Beatles with the dance rhythms of contemporary black popular music, Rock critics have panned the group unmercifully for jumping on the disco bandwagon, but that isn't quite fair. The Bee Gees were using black rhythms long before disco fever hit, and they were never really rockers. Barry notes, "To most people our age, rock and roll was the be-all and end-all, but I think the romantic pop that came before rock and roll influenced us more."

The presentation the Bee Gees put together for their 38-city summer and fall tour, the centerpiece of their upcoming NBC special, included some spectacular staging and lighting effects. But as performers, the Bee Gees themselves remained strikingly unaffected. Unlike some other white artists who have appropriated elements of black music, they never parrot black slang or simulate the emotionalism of gospel-rooted black soul singers. Offstage as well as on, they are simply themselves.

Robin and Maurice were in perpetual motion at a small party following the Bee Gees' first Madison Square Garden concert, but Barry spent much of the evening sitting at a table with the group's parents, his own family and a few close friends. At 33, he's the oldest Bee Gee, and one gets the impression that he has felt responsible for his younger brothers from the beginning. In a group that prides itself on being family-oriented -all three Bee Gees are married, with children; and groupies and drugs don't seem to have a place in their lives- Barry is probably the most settled. "Having families keeps us sane," he says. "With all the ups and downs we've experienced, we have to have someone to sit at home with who'll tell us, 'Hey, you're just a person. Knock it off'."

By the time their television special is broadcast, the Bee Gees will be back in the recording studio. The next album, they promise, will have more variety, more of Robin's vulnerable leads and maybe, says Barry, none of his piping falsetto, They will also be producing and composing for other artists, including the youngest Gibb, Andy, who has become a star in his own right with their help.

And, having learned valuable lessons from their roles in Stigwood's film "Sgt. Pepper," an artistic and commercial fiasco, they'll be considering more suitable film work. But whatever individual directions they pursue, it seems likely that the Bee Gees will be around for a long time, and one suspects that they'll be together. "It's nice being very popular by yourself," Robin said with a smile, when asked why he initiated the group's reconciliation after their 1969 breakup. "But it's great when you can share it."

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