While they have alternated over the course of the past 40 years between being superstars and pariahs and have had their share of detractors in the rock, pop, soul and dance genres, the fact is that the Bee Gees have been among the most creative and timeless acts of that period and have had few peers in the level of their contributions to popular music.
Born in England and raised in Australia, brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb were singing stars in Australia by the time they reached their mid-teens. However, it was their move back to Great Britain and their introduction to manager Robert Stigwood that began their grand international fame. Positioned as Beatles progeny during the latter part of the 60s British Invasion, the group's harmonies, interesting songwriting and offbeat sense of humor brought immediate popularity and acclaim. Their first U.S. hit, 1967's "New York Mining Disaster 1941," started a string of huge singles over a five year period, including the top 10 smashes "Lonely Days," "I Started a Joke," "Run to Me" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart." While the Gibb brothers were lifelong R&B fans and soul artists from Al Green to Percy Sledge performed soulful covers of Gibb compositions, none of the Bee Gees hits were themselves particularly soulful; they were clearly pop/rock performances that did not attract a Soul Music fan base.
It wasn't until a creative drought hit the group in the mid-70s that the brothers made a conscious decision to alter their style of music to a more soulful, groove-filled sound. They teamed with noted producer Arif Mardin, relocated to Miami, and surprised the music world by releasing Main Course in 1975. Its first single, "Jive Talkin'," was a head-turning funky cut that hit #1 pop and became the group's first hit on the nascent Disco charts. It also created a new openness on popular radio to the Bee Gees and brought the group a younger, more urban set of fans. 1976's Children of the World was even bigger and became the trio's first clear statement as a dance music group. It also became their first black chart hit, with the album and three singles hitting the Soul charts and the title cut topping the Disco charts. Barry Gibb's clear (if somewhat tiresome) falsetto became the vocal focus of the act, giving a more soulful feel to the music, though often at the expense of the Gibbs' always-wonderful harmonies.
As popular as Children of the World was, it could not have prepared anyone for the monumental impact of the next Bee Gees' project. Their five compositions and four recordings on 1977's soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever made them the biggest group in the world and propelled the album to sales levels never previously achieved in the history of popular music. While the cuts "Stayin Alive" and "Night Fever" became comical 70s references later on (especially when accompanied by pictures of John Travolta in his white suit), in 1977 those songs were groundbreaking and extremely hot. And the ballad "How Deep Is Your Love" (later remade by Luther Vandross and the group Portrait) and the Gibbs' composition for Yvonne Elliman, "If I Can't Have You," have over time become recognized as songwriting masterpieces.
The group's follow up album, 1979's Spirits Having Flown, pulled back a bit from the dance focus of Fever and was a solid pop/soul album (despite the annoying single "Tragedy"). It was another smash, but only slightly pre-dated a huge, swift backlash against disco -- one that would be particularly aimed at the brothers Gibb, who were unfairly targeted as the ambassadors of the homogenous sound and mindless lyrical excesses that had developed from disco's adventurous roots. Consequently, the group's 1981 album Living Eyes bombed, and they spent the next half decade basically biding their time waiting for forgiveness (though it should be noted that during the early 80s Barry Gibb established himself as a hitmaker for others, with successful production/songwriting gigs for Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand, among others).
A rebirth of sorts for the Gibbs began in 1987 with the single "You Win Again" and continued two years later with the album and single One. Over the course of the decade, the Bee Gees released a number of fine albums that mixed their soulful leanings with a more acoustic sound and their usual fine songwriting. Moderate but impressive hits such as "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Paying the Price of Love," and "Alone" led them through the 90s and reminded the musical world of the group's significant talents. Best of all was their 1997 album, Still Waters, a fine disc that mixed their historical elements of rock, doo-wop, soul and dance into a terrific final product that seemed to indicate that the Gibbs had grown up and found the amalgamated sound they'd been looking for throughout their careers.
The again-respected Bee Gees then released the successful live album One Night Only in 1999 and followed it with This is Where I Came In in 2001. Tragedy then struck in 2003, as Maurice Gibb died suddenly and surprisingly in a Miami hospital. Brothers Barry and Robin, shaken by the loss of the brother considered by many to be the "glue" of the trio, chose to retire the Bee Gees name. Both remaining brothers remained active over the next several years.
In early 2012, Robin Gibb and his son RJ released The Titanic Requiem, and album commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It was a mostly classical album that featured one song that Robin sang, the beautiful "Don't Cry Alone." However, Robin had been battling colon and liver cancer for awhile by that point, and continued to deteriorate. By Spring of 2012 he was gravely ill and he died on May 20, 2012.
While to the uneducated the mention of the Bee Gees may provoke snickers, true fans of pop and soul music recognize that the Brothers Gibb are among the greatest songwriters, producers and singing acts of the past half century and have left an indelible mark on popular music.
By Chris Rizik