CHANGING THEIR TUNE AND
(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
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
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
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
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