One of the most famous groups of all time, the Bee Gees are a British-Australian group who catapulted into worldwide fame during the 1970s disco era.
The Bee Gee’s sound can also be easily identified by their tight, famous three-vocal harmonies, with Barry’s falsetto becoming the band’s trademark. It is that kind of vocal characteristic that the Bee Gees have made their own and unequalled by any other artists.
Their songs such as “Massachusetts”, “I Started A Joke”, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive” and “To Love Somebody” are now classics in pop music history.
The Gibb family
The phenomenon that is Bee Gees began early in the mid-1950s. The Gibb brothers — Barry, Robin and Maurice were all born in the Isle of Man in Great Britain. The family moved then moved to Manchester.
The Gibbs were a very musical family. Their father, the late Hugh Gibb, was an accomplished musician himself who played the drums and led a big band.
Just like any other British boys, the Gibb brothers were also caught up by the skiffle craze (home grown instruments and music), and they formed their own group the Rattlesnakes. Later on, the brothers concentrated on harmonizing their vocals. The Gibb brothers also had an infant brother Andy, who would one day become a popular artist in his own right.
The Gibb brothers establishing a career in Australia
The Gibb family migrated to Queensland, Australia, where the brothers would later establish their career. There, they began to perform in local shows until racetrack promoter Bill Goode discovered them playing in Brisbane. Goode then introduced the young brothers to disc jockey Bill Gates (no, not that Bill Gates) who later named the brothers/musical group “Bee Gees” after Goode’s, Barry Gibb’s and Gates’ own initials.
Australia’s rock pioneer Col Joyce helped the Bee Gees sign a contract with Leedon Records, a subsidiary of Festival Records during the early 1960s.
Although the Bee Gees scored a minor hit in 1965’s “Wine and Women”, Leedon decided to drop them because the group were unable to attain commercial success.
By the time that Leedon was to remove the group, newcomer Spin records came into the picture. The label’s Nat Kipner successfully lured the boys from Festival Records.
Under Spin’s direction, the boys were able to hone their recording and songwriting talents while working at the label’s small recording studio in the Sydney suburbs. The group released “Spicks and Specks”, their first major hit in Australia. But follow on singles flopped. Soured by another lack of success, the Gibb brothers returned to England.
The Bee Gees going back to England, and tasting their first commercial success
As Bee Gees were to return to their home country, their father Hugh Gibb sent a demo tape to the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, who was then also directing their family-owned business NEMS Enterprises. Robert Stigwood was newly employed at NEMS, and the demo tape fell into his hands. Impressed by what he listened on the tape, Stigwood called the Bee Gees for an audition. Soon, the brothers were signed to Polydor Records (ATCO Records was Polydor’s US distributor that would release the Bee Gees’ recordings later). Recording was underway, and Stigwood was widely promoting the band as “The Most Significant Talent” of 1967. Soon Vince Melouney and Colin Petersen joined the Bee Gees as lead guitarist and drummer respectively.
The group’s first international hit was “New York Mining Disaster 1941” which entered the US charts, hitting the Top 20 charts at #14, while it was #12 on the UK charts. It was followed three months later by “To Love Somebody” which charted higher in the US (at #17) than in their homeland (at #41). But “Massachusetts” would become their first #1 UK hit by September 1967 and even a global hit; despite this, it was just short of the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Stigwood was correct in his proclamation; the Bee Gees were a significant talent of 1967. They also immediately began to work on their second album.
In January the following year the Bee Gees kicked off their first US engagement, a tour to promote their second album, Horizontal. The album yielded a Top 20 US single, “Words”. The album itself charted very high on the Billboard 200 at #12, while it reached #16 on the UK albums chart. In their second home country Australia, the album went to #8.
In September 1968, the Bee Gees released their third international album (and fifth overall) Idea, which produced their first US Top 10 hit and second #1 UK smash “I’ve Gotta Message To You”. “I Started A Joke” went even higher on the US Top Ten at #6. Soon the Bee Gees were guesting on TV shows in the US. At the peak of their first major success, Melouney left the group to concentrate more on his passion, which is blues music.
In 1969, the band band released the double-album Odessa, which many rock critics felt that this the best Bee Gees album during the decade. “The First Of May” was the album’s only charting single, at #37. At the time, members of the band grew acrimonious with each other. Robin Gibb left the band; he admitted years later about their disintegration, “We had egos.”
Only Barry, Maurice and drummer Petersen continued to function as a group, and the Bee Gees released their next album Cucumber Castle, which produced singles such as “Don’t Forget To Remember” (at #73 in the US, #2 in the UK). Colin was subsequently fired from the group. Following singles did disappointingly on the charts, and it looked like the Bee Gees would be no more especially when each of the brothers pursued other musical interests.
However, during the year 1970 the brothers got back together again, working on new material, songs of pain and heartbreak. One of them was “Lonely Days” (from their 1970 reunion album 2 Years On) which climbed to #3 on the US Hot 100. Finally, the Bee Gees achieved their first US number 1 hit, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” in the summer of 1970. On their 1972 LP To Whom It May Concern, it spawned another hit single “Run To Me” (at #16 US, #9 UK and #6 US adult contemporary).
During the early 1970s, however, the band experienced stagnation in their careers. Following albums such as Life In A Tin Can, Mr. Natural, and their second compilation album Best of Bee Gees failed commercially.
Finding a new style in disco
In 1975, the group (along with new drummer Geoff Bridgford who joined them in 1970) moved to Florida to record songs, at the suggestion from Eric Clapton. Also, at the urge of their manager Stigwood, the Bee Gees tried out disco, and they liked it. Their audience agreed with them. The result was the hit disco-oriented dance songs such as the #20 single “Nights On Broadway” and “Jive Talkin'”, which went to #1. Since their Idea days, this was the first time the Bee Gees scored simultaneous top 10 hits. The album Main Course became a Top 20 Billboard album chart at #14. Now the Bee Gees and their fans were beginning to embrace this new genre.
Barry Gibb found a new vocal style that will be forever synonymous with the band: his falsetto, which he used to great advantage. 1976’s Children Of The World was their first album since their 1969’s Bee Gees’ 1st to peak at the Top 10 of the Billboard’s 200 album charts at #8
The Bee Gees shooting to fame as legendary disco stars
The band would finally achieve legendary status when they provided the legendary soundtrack for the 1977 John Travolta film Saturday Night Fever. The film’s accompanying LP, Saturday Night Fever: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, was a worldwide hit, topping the charts worldwide. The majority of the soundtrack album was recorded by the Bee Gees — including smashes such as the #3 dance hit “More Than A Woman” and three chart-topping singles: “How Deep Is Your Love”, “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive”.
Like the soundtrack album (which sold 40 million copies worldwide), the film was also a huge global hit. Disco was in full swing.
The Bee Gees repeated their Saturday Night Fever success with another monster hit album Spirits Having Flown, released in 1979. It went to #1 in the US and UK as well as in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Germany. It spawned two #1 Billboard hits, “Tragedy” and “Love You Inside Out”. Spirits Having Flown sold 30 million copies becoming the Bee Gees’ real first #1 album (not counting the multi-artist Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album).
The Bee Gees in the 1980s
Ushering into the new decade, the Bee Gees struggled to break away from their image as disco stars with the quickly fading popularity of disco. This struggle is evidenced by their 1981 LP, Living Eyes — the album tanked. Their 1987 LP E.S.Pfailed to chart high on the Billboard 200 as well as its leadoff single “You Win Again”, although it went to #1 on the UK singles chart.
Since the 1980s the Bee Gees members have been involved in collaborations with many artists, including Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick and many others. Barry and Maurice Gibb co-wrote “Islands In The Stream” for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. It became a massive hit in 1983, topping in all Hot 100, country and adult contemporary charts.
In 1988 singer/teen idol Andy Gibb died of a heart disease which, his brothers believed, was the result of drug and alcohol abuse. The Bee Gees released their LP One the following year, which contains a song dedicated for Andy titled “Wish You Were Here”. One also spawned the group’s first Top 10 hit in a decade which is the title track (at #7).
The Bee Gees in the 1990s
In 1990, Bee Gees’ label Polydor released another compilation, Tales from the Brothers Gibb: A History In Song, in a boxed set. It contains all the band’s singles for the exception of those from Living Eyes.
During the 1990s, the group earned respectable hits, such as “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (at #109 in the US, #4 in the UK), and “Alone” which was the group’s only Top 40 single at that time (while it peaked at #5 in the UK).
The deaths of Maurice and Robin Gibb
Another tragedy struck in the Gibb family when Maurice, aged 53, died suddenly in 2003 from a heart attack.
Because of Maurice’s unexpected death, Barry and Robin retired from the limelight. However, six years later the remaining Gibb brothers announced that they were returning to perform, still under the name Bee Gees. Significant appearances included being guests on the BBC TV show Dancing With The Stars and on the ninth season of the American Idol. There were also talks of making a Bee Gees biofilm with no less than the premiere American filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
However, all these reunion plans came to a tragic halt when Robin Gibb was diagnosed with liver cancer in November 2011. Because of his grave condition, he had to cancel several appearances. He died on May 20, 2012, leaving Barry the sole surviving Gibb brother. The Bee Gees are no more.
The Bee Gees’ impact on the music industry
The Bee Gees are one of the few acts to have multiple successful arcs from the 60s to the 80s and are still popular more than 50 years after their start. They’ve sold more than 220 million records, making them as one of the best-selling artists in the 20th century. They were also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, elevating them to pop music immortality.