While most famous bands can trace their beginnings to collaborations and even breakups with other acts, the Bee Gees stand apart from the rest. The three small-town brothers from England found their place in music history through the process of simply growing up together in the same home. The oldest, Barry Gibb, was born in 1946. His fraternal twin brothers, Robin and Maurice, showed up in 1949.
It’s no doubt that the boys inherited some musical DNA from their parents. Their father was a drummer and a bandleader, and mama Gibb was known to be a singer and went on to become her sons’ manager during their formative years. The boys grew up to be full-grown pop stars, dominating the 70s and 80s music scene.
But with time, and the loss of more than one Gibb brother, the group faced their ups and downs. Barry, the surviving brother, even claims to see his brothers’ ghosts…
This is their story.
One day in the late 50s, Barbara Gibb, the boys’ mother, returned home one day to find her father-in-law watching TV. She asked him if he wanted her to turn down what sounded like the radio playing in the other room. That’s when she realized that the music was actually coming from her nine-year-old son, Barry, and his six-year-old twin brothers. The boys were singing in unison.
That Christmas, Barry received his first guitar – a gift that further fueled his passion and enthusiasm for playing music. It also gave him an outlet for all the songs that were forming in his head. The musically-inclined brothers started playing with other friends in the neighborhood, forming a band called The Rattlesnakes.
The young boy band made their public debut in December 1957 at Manchester’s Gaumont Theatre. They were a skiffle/rock-n-roll group, with Barry on guitar and vocals, Robin and Maurice both on vocals, as well as friends Paul Frost on drums and Kenny Horrocks on tea-chest bass. As the story goes, the boys were planning to lip-sync to a record at the Gaumont cinema (as other kids had done in previous weeks).
In those days, venue owners commonly let children play records and mime performances during intervals of Saturday morning movies. But as the boys were running to the theatre, the shellac 78-RPM record fell and broke. The brothers were then forced to sing live. After receiving such a positive response from the audience, the group decided to pursue a singing career. But in 1958, the Rattlesnakes disbanded.
When Frost and Horrocks left the group, it was the end of the Rattlesnakes. But the Gibb brothers joined forces with Barry as Johnny Hayes to become Wee Johnny Hayes and the Blue Cats. The group made more of a professional debut, with Hugh Gibb managing to sneak them in for his own band’s gig at the Russell Street Club, which came as both a surprise and delight to the audience.
But the Gibb parents were still struggling to make ends meet. Seeking a better life, they gathered the whole family, including their older sister Lesley and the new addition to the family, Andy, and set sail for Redcliffe, Australia, in 1958. It was in Australia that the young brothers started performing for pocket money.
In 1959, Barry was earning cash by selling sodas at the races at Redcliffe Speedway. He slowly reeled Robin and Maurice into his speedway hustle, using his guitar and their combined vocals to draw crowds of would-be customers. The boys’ performances caught the eye (and ear) of promoter and driver Bill Goode.
Goode then introduced the boys to Brisbane DJ Bill Gates (yes, the same name as the multi-billionaire). After being impressed by the young talent, Gates officially hired them to entertain the audience at the same speedway in 1960. The boys would sing during the intervals, usually on the back of a truck that drove around the track. And the crowd would throw money at them. In their deal with Gates, the boys were allowed to keep the money they were given by the crowd.
Gates dubbed them the BGs after both his and Barry Gibb’s initials. The name, however, wasn’t specifically a reference to “Brothers Gibb,” as many believed. Gates took it from there by playing the BGs’ recordings at his radio station, assuming the role of their promoter. After their speedway success, the brothers started performing at other outdoor exhibitions.
They also started appearing on TV shows like ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘Cottie’s Happy Hour.’ They even got to the point that they got their own Friday night showcase, called ‘The BGs Half Hour.’ With their career clearly moving onward and upward, Hugh Gibb finally devoted himself to managing his sons’ group on a full-time basis. Along with helping them with their appearances and stage mannerisms, Hugh often joined them on stage to play the drums.
Then, with the help of a famous Australian pop star named Col Joye, the BGs soared into stardom. By 1962, the brothers were enjoying a residency at the Beachcombers Hotel in a touristic area called Surfers Paradise. It was then and there that they heard Australian pop star Col Joye was passing through. It’s unclear as to who, either Barry or Hugh, convinced Joye to hear the group sing.
But either way, he listened and was floored by their harmonies. Joye then promised to take the boys under his wing if they ever decided to move to Sydney, which was ground zero for the music industry Down Under. The Gibbs then relocated to Sydney, and Joye held up his end of the agreement.
Col Joye managed to get the BGs a spot as an opening act for the Chubby Checker tour. Joye also helped the BGs land a recording contract through the subsidiary of Festival Records called Leedon. By 1963, the group now officially known as The Bee Gees had their first single, “The Battle of the Blue and the Grey.”
The song charted modestly, but it marked an important early step for a group that would go to become international stars – a band that would slide through a range of genres and eras, and become known as one of the great survivors of popular music. Then, their minor hit in 1965, “Wine and Women,” led to their first LP, ‘The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs.’
By 1966, Leedon was about to be dropped due to its lack of commercial success. During that time, the brothers met American-born songwriter, producer, and entrepreneur Nat Kipner. Kipner had just become the manager of a new independent label called Spin Records. Kipner, in a brief stint as the group’s manager, successfully negotiated their transfer to Spin.
Through Kipner, the Bee Gees met engineer-producer, Ossie Byrne, who produced many of their earlier Spin recordings. Byrne gave the brothers unlimited access to his studio over a period of several months in mid-1966. The Bee Gees later acknowledged that this period really enabled them to improve their skills as recording artists. During this period, they recorded tons of original material, including what would become their first major hit: “Spicks and Specks.”
Frustrated by not being successful enough in Australia, the Gibbs decided to go back to England in 1967, with Ossie Byrne coming with them. On the way there, the Gibbs learned that “Spicks and Specks” had just been awarded Best Single of the Year by Australia’s most popular and influential music newspaper.
The Bee Gees then signed a five-year contract with Polydor Records, who would release their records in the UK. And then Atco Records would do so in America. In no time, the group’s first international album was in the works. At that point, the band was being called “The most significant new musical talent of 1967.” They were even being compared to the Beatles. The group then expanded to include Colin Petersen and Vince Melouney.
“New York Mining Disaster 1941” was their second British single. The first was “Spicks and Specks,” which became super popular for a good reason. The reason is that the single was issued to radio stations with a blank white label stating only the song title. As a result, some DJs just assumed it was a new single by the Beatles, and they immediately played the song in heavy rotation.
It helped the song climb into the top 20 both in the UK and US. But the Bee Gee’s next single didn’t need any sort of trickery to get a boost. “To Love Somebody” quickly hit the US Top 20. The song was actually written for Otis Redding but has since turned into a pop standard covered by many artists.
The Bee Gees were now an international sensation and started touring the world. In the summer of 1968, after Vince Melouney decided to leave the group, the Bee Gees were about to begin a seven-week tour in America. But before they flew to the US, on July 27, Robin collapsed and fell unconscious. He was taken to a London nursing home as he was suffering from nervous exhaustion. The American tour was postponed.
Later, the Bee Gees started recording their sixth album, where they spent a week recording at Atlantic Studios in New York. Robin, who was still feeling poorly, missed those sessions, but the rest of the band got to work and created instrumental tracks and demos. By 1969, Robin began to feel that their producer, Robert Stigwood, was favoring Barry as the frontman.
That’s when resentment started to build…
Their performances in early 1969 on the show ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘The Tom Jones Show’ were the last live performances of the group with Robin Gibb. Despite the fact that their next album, ‘Odessa,’ was what most rock critics felt was the best Bee Gees album of the 60s, Robin quit the group in the middle of 1969 and launched his own solo career.
While Robin was busy pursuing a solo career, Barry, Maurice, and Petersen continued on and recorded their next album, ‘Cucumber Castle.’ The brothers decided to recruit their sister, Lesley, into the group. Petersen, who played drums on the tracks, was fired from the group. He went on to form the Humpy Bong with Jonathan Kelly.
After their latest album was released in 1970, it seemed like the Bee Gees were done. “Don’t Forget to Remember” only reached No. 73 in the US, and their next two singles, “I.O.I.O.” and “If I Only Had My Mind on Something Else,” hardly made it to the charts. In December 1969, Barry and Maurice parted ways, professionally at least.
Like Robin, Maurice also started to go solo and recorded his first solo album, aptly called The Loner (which wasn’t released). Barry recorded a solo album, too, which also wasn’t officially released. Meanwhile, Robin was becoming successful in Europe with his No. 2 hit “Saved by the Bell” and his album ‘Robin’s Reign.’
By summer 1970, as Barry recalled, “Robin rang me in Spain where I was on holiday [saying] ‘let’s do it again.'” By August 1970, after a reunion, Barry announced that the Bee Gees “will never, ever part again.” According to Maurice said, they simply discussed it and re-formed. He did say, though, that they want to apologize publicly to Robin for the things they said.
Around the same time, Barry and Robin published their book On the Other Hand. The band also recruited Geoff Bridgford as their official drummer. Their ninth album, ‘Trafalgar,’ was released in 1971. The single “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” earned the Bee Gees their first Grammy Award nomination. That year, the group’s songs were part of the soundtrack of the film ‘Melody.’
By 1973, the Bee Gees were in a rut. The album ‘Life in a Tin Can’ and its single “Saw a New Morning” were selling poorly, with the song peaking at No. 94. After a US tour in 1974, the group ended up playing small clubs. After some failed attempts at making soul music, the band listened to a suggestion Eric Clapton made, which was to move to Miami.
By 1975, the group was in Miami, recording at Criteria Studios. They started creating more dance-oriented disco songs, leading to their second US No. 1 hit, “Jive Talkin’.” Their next album, ‘Main Course,’ included the first Bee Gees songs with Barry in falsetto – something that would later become the Bee Gees’ trademark.
With the urge from producer Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees agreed to participate in the creation of the soundtrack for the famous film, ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ They didn’t know at the time, but it would prove to be the turning point of their career. Both the cultural impact of the film and its soundtrack were gigantic and felt throughout the world, which only prolonged disco’s mainstream appeal.
John Travolta recalled: “The Bee Gees weren’t even involved in the movie in the beginning. I was dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs.” The brothers wrote the songs in one weekend at Château d’Hérouville studio in France. Barry Gibb recalled Stigwood’s reaction when he and music supervisor Bill Oakes listened to the demos…
“They flipped out and said these will be great. We still had no concept of the movie, except some kind of rough script that they’d brought with them. You’ve got to remember, we were fairly dead in the water at that point, 1975, somewhere in that zone — the Bee Gees’ sound was basically tired. We needed something new,” said Barry Gibb.
According to Bill Oakes, Saturday Night Fever prolonged the disco craze. He said how disco had run its course. “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “Night Fever” charted high in many countries, starting the most popular period of the disco era. The film’s soundtrack broke multiple industry records and became the highest-selling album in recording history (at that point). The Bee Gees won five Grammys for Saturday Night Fever over two years.
The Bee Gees’ success saw a rise and fall with the disco bubble. By the end of 1979, disco was quickly fading, and the new backlash against disco put the Bee Gees’ career in a nosedive, especially in the United States. Radio stations around the country were promoting “Bee Gee-Free Weekends.” People were sick of disco.
In Barry’s eyes, the success of Saturday Night Fever was both a blessing and a curse. “I remember not being able to answer the phone, and I remember people climbing over my walls. I was quite grateful when it stopped. It was too unreal. In the long run, your life is better if it’s not like that on a constant basis. Nice though it was.”
In 1983, the band was sued by songwriter Ronald Selle, who claimed that the Bee Gees stole melodic material from his song “Let It End” to make “How Deep Is Your Love.” The Bee Gees lost the case. One juror explained that a factor in their decision was that the Gibbs’ didn’t provide expert testimony against the testimony that it was “impossible” for both songs to have been written independently.
But in a turn of events, the verdict was overturned a few months later. That same year, Barry was the brother who decided to go solo. He signed a deal with MCA Records and spent much of 1983 and 1984 writing his own songs. Robin and Maurice also went back to their solo efforts.
The Bee Gees were still doing work together as a band, regardless of the brothers’ individual projects. In 1987, their album ‘E.S.P.’ sold over 3 million copies. The single “You Win Again” hit No. 1 in numerous countries, making the Bee Gees the first group to score a No. 1 hit (in the UK) in each of three decades: the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Americans weren’t such fans of the album, though. Sadly, the late 80s was a difficult time for the Gibbs in a much more personal way. On March 10, 1988, their younger brother Andy died, at the age of 30, as a result of myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart muscle.
Following their album, ‘High Civilization’ in 1991, the Bee Gees went on another European tour. After the tour, Barry started to struggle with a serious back problem, which required surgery. Beyond that, he suffered from arthritis. At one point, it was so severe that they even doubted if he could play guitar for much longer. In the early 90s, Maurice finally sought treatment for his alcoholism, which he was dealing with for many years with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The band continued to make albums, but they weren’t hitting the same success in the United States as they had in the past. In 1997, the Bee Gees performed in Las Vegas at a show called One Night Only. The show included a cameo appearance by Las Vegas’ now-resident performer Celine Dion.
In 2001, the Bee Gees released what turned out to be their last album comprised of new material: This Is Where I Came In. The group’s last concert with the three brothers was at the Love and Hope Ball in 2002. Speaking of lasts, 2003 was the last year of Maurice Gibb’s life. He died unexpectedly on January 12 at the age of 53.
He suffered a heart attack while he was waiting for emergency surgery to repair a crushed intestine. At first, Barry and Robin announced that they intended to keep on carrying the name “Bee Gees” in their brother’s memory. But with time, they decided to retire the group’s name as they believed that it represented the three brothers together.
That year, the Bee Gees received the Grammy Legend Award and became the first recipients of the award in the 21st century. For anyone who remembers watching that award show, they might remember seeing Barry, Robin, and Maurice’s son, Adam, accept the award in a tearful ceremony. Robin and Barry carried on with their own solo work, sometimes collaborating for benefit concerts.
In 2006, the two remaining brothers reunited on stage for a Miami charity concert for Diabetes Research Institute. It was their first performance together since Maurice’s death. But within a matter of five years, yet another Gibb brother would, unfortunately, pass away, leaving one Gibb brother to hold the torch…
On November 20, 2011, it was announced that Robin Gibb, 61 at the time, was diagnosed with liver cancer. It was a condition that Robin was aware of several months earlier. He was becoming noticeably thinner in the months leading up to the announcement and had to cancel several appearances due to his severe abdominal pain.
Robin joined British military trio The Soldiers for a charity concert in February 2012. It was his first public appearance in five months and, as it turned out, was also his last one. In April 2012, Robin contracted pneumonia in a Chelsea hospital and fell into a coma. While he did come out of it, his condition deteriorated rapidly. On May 20, he died of liver and kidney failure. He was 62 years old.
In 2013, Barry performed his first solo tour “in honor of his brothers and a lifetime of music.” Understandably, after his last brother’s death, Barry took a hiatus from performing. But then again, the music artist couldn’t stay away from his musical outlet for too long. Barry returned to do both solo and guest singing performances. Barry sometimes appears with his son, Stephen Gibb.
In 2016, in a candid interview with The Mail, Barry spoke of losing his brothers. The last surviving Gibb brother, who is now in his 70s, believes his brothers may be “stayin’ alive” after admitting to experiencing life-after-death visions of them. He claims that he and his wife, Linda, have seen Robin and Andy… and the manifestations are disturbing.
The father-of-five said: “It’s not fun because you’re not quite sure what it was about. If it was real. I saw Robin and my wife saw Andy. Maybe it’s a memory producing itself outside your conscious mind, or maybe it’s real.” He continued to say that “the biggest question of all is: is there life after death? I’d like to know.” Good question, Barry, good question.
Barry described how the loss of his brothers had a devastating effect on him and those they left behind, like his mother, who died after this interview, in 2016 at the age of 95. Barry admitted that after Robin’s death, he considered turning his back on music altogether.
The singer revealed that the pain of no longer being able to sing with his brothers had been relieved by the fact that he now shares the stage with his son, Stephen, who is in his mid-40s. “It’s not hard if your eldest son is standing next to you. He’s not a Bee Gee. He wouldn’t like that. He’s Stephen. He’s covered in tattoos. He’s a metal head with a heart of gold.”
The man who wrote some of the greatest pop songs of all time said he never had self-esteem. But that’s no biggie, at least according to Barry. “Every person that I’ve met and admire has the same lack of self-esteem. I’ve seen it with Michael Jackson, I’ve seen it with Barbra Streisand.”
Barry revealed that his dear friend Paul McCartney helped him through the grieving process. “He always got me through everything.” Barry had met Paul for the first time at the Saville Theatre back in 1967. Barry recalled how Paul brought Jane Asher to see one of his shows and said to Barry: “You guys have got something, you should keep going.”
Barry always found Paul’s words “very encouraging.” The last time Barry saw Paul was at Saturday Night Live in 2013 when they were both playing for the show. They had adjoining dressing rooms. “We started talking about the time before we had any success. We talked about being naive. Not understanding what was happening. About being a great band and being happy and not competitive.”
So, how intense was the sibling rivalry in the Bee Gee family? Well, according to Barry, it wasn’t any different from any other siblings. There was definitely a mix of competition and closeness. “All of those things, and you have enormous arguments. Then you become incredibly close, and you have really angry moments with each other.”
Barry explained how there was always competition in the group. Although people may have seen them as competing with The Beatles, that’s not how Barry saw it. “We were just another pop group.” McCartney had actually given him singing tips, as well as style inspiration. McCartney said to Barry once: “Always look down [when you’re singing] on your highest note.”
McCartney can also be thanked for the famous Bee Gee beard. Barry said how he grew his beard in 1968 because Paul grew his own beard for The Long and Winding Road. “He’s always been that big of an influence on me,” Barry said. “Even when The Beatles broke up! I thought, “That’s it, we should break up.”’
When asked if he felt that he was always the leader of the band, considering that he was the eldest brother, Barry admitted that he did. In his opinion, the oldest brother is always put in that position. “And often, they didn’t want to be watched over. Maurice and Robin were twins, so they were always secretly chatting,” he explained. “I was the one that had to make sure we got paid.”
The Bee Gees in their heyday (of the 60s and 70s) were known as Medallion Men. Today, though, Barry wears beaded bracelets under his black shirt and wears a discreet silver necklace with a mystic symbol on it. “I’ve outgrown all that gold and diamonds and chains that I used to wear. But I do love jewelry.”
Despite their distinct style, they were never style icons. They were mocked during the time when the “cool kids” were into Bowie and Roxy.
When asked if he has any vices now, Barry revealed that he never drinks alcohol, expect for Sake. The man loves Sake. According to him, you don’t get a hangover when you drink the Japanese alcoholic beverage. Good to know, Barry, good to know.
The last time he got drunk was when he was a teenager. “I got so drunk mixing different drinks at a convention, I woke up in the bridal suite. I was so violently ill they put me in the room and left me, but when I woke up, I did wonder if there was a bride. Fortunately, there wasn’t.”
Speaking of brides, his song “Star Crossed Lovers” was written for his wife, Linda. The two met at a taping of Top of the Pops in London when she was Miss Edinburgh. When they first met, their manager didn’t want Barry to have a girlfriend, so she always had to stay at home. Barry described how he “always had to seem available. Everyone was against it, but that made her stronger, and we’re still together 49 years later.”
When Barry did his famous duet with Barbra Streisand, named Guilty, it was a huge hit in 1980. He was an individual and not a Bee Gee. “But I was never allowed to go on about it. We won best duet at the Grammys, and my brothers never mentioned it. It’s that kind of brothers and sisters thing.”
Barry co-produced and wrote (or co-wrote) all nine of the album’s songs. Four of them were written with Robin, and the title track was with both Robin and Maurice. The album reached No. 1 in the US and the UK. “Woman in Love” became Streisand’s most successful single and album, to date.
When asked if he sees the Bee Gees’ influence in current music-makers, Barry said that he does notice some things. He always felt that he heard it with Prince and Michael Jackson. “The multi harmonies, the grooves. A lot of people have told me that I made a difference to them, and I’d like to keep doing it for as long as I possibly can.”
What does Barry feel about the afterlife? Well, he does think that he’s had a few incarnations. “I try not to question it. There’s been so much loss in my family. For me, it’s a standing mystery.” As for social media, he’s not into it. He has a Twitter account that goes through his second-eldest son.
Bradley Cooper is supposed to Barry Gibb in an upcoming film about the band. The film is almost meant to be produced by Bohemian Rhapsody’s Graham King. According to the reports, writer Anthony McCarten (who also did Bohemian Rhapsody and The Theory of Everything) is attached to the project. The film is going to follow the three brothers from their arrival to 1960s London (from Australia).
It will take us through their ups and downs in the music industry, just as I did here, including how they became infamous disco kings thanks to Saturday Night Fever. Cooper, who was nominated eight times for an Oscar, and performed the Oscar-winning song ‘Shallow,’ is actually not a bad choice for the role.
As it turns out, the Gibb family talent certainly doesn’t end with Barry, Maurice, and Robin. As we know, Stephen Gibb performs with his father sometimes. But there’s also Maurice’s daughter, Samantha, who in 2016, recorded a cover of “New York Mining Disaster 1941” with her writing partner Lazaro.
Considering how much she loved how the cover turned out, Samantha contacted her music industry cousins to put together a tribute for her late father and uncles. The Gibb Collective was thus formed in 2016, including children of brothers Barry, Maurice, Robin, and Andy. Their album, ‘Please Don’t Turn Out The Lights,’ was released in 2017, and includes ten covers of the Bee Gees.