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On May 20, 2012, millions of us lost a friend we may not have even known we had.
His name was Robin Gibb, twin to previously deceased brother Maurice, and an integral part of one of the most talented and successful musical families of all time.
Now, you may be asking, "Better than the Partridge Family?", to which I say "Yes. Even better."
Though, their contribution to the Disco era is well-documented, less has been said of their astounding contribution to popular music over the last 5 decades.
The Bee Gees began with eldest brother Barry, and younger twins Maurice and Robin, but by the late 70s, little Andy would emerge, and occasionally join the family on a recording or show. Together, they owned the charts as the 80s rolled around.
Like so many popular artists, their most celebrated work is not necessarily their best. Sure, we all like to boogie down to a high-octane rendition of Stayin' Alive at uncle Mortimer's 3rd wedding to Svetlana, the Bulgarian mail-order bride, but there is so much more where that came from.
The Bee Gees were born on the Isle of Man in the UK, but emigrated to Queensland Australia in 1958. They were quite poor.
That same year, they were introduced to the public by Bill Gates.
Okay, so it wasn't the Bill Gates we've come to know, but a radio DJ of the same name. Gates met the brothers through a promoter named Bill Goode. In case you don't see the pattern, both shared the same initials as Barry Gibb, and since they could be referred to as the "Brothers Gibb", they temporarily picked up the moniker of BGs, which they spelled Bee Gees.
By 1960, a 14 year-old Barry, and his 11 year-old brothers were demonstrating their sweet harmonics at vacation resorts and on local TV shows.
Over the next few years the brothers stock-piled a large repertoire of original songs, several of which were being supplied to other artists, but they met with little success on their own. So, by 1966, their careers seemed to have ended before they begun.
Just as they were moving back to England, their single, Spicks and Specks hit the charts in Australia.
By this time, a group called The Beatles (you may have heard of them) were doing very well, and daddy Gibb decided to send a demo to their manager, Brian Epstein. Epstein handed it off to Robert Stigwood who dubbed the Bee Gees "The Most Significant New Talent Of 1967". Stigwood sent copies of the song, New York Mining Disaster to every radio station with a white label listing only the title. Some DJs thought it was a new Beatles song and the track became a hit in America as well as Britain.
Now, with 2 hits under their belt, they reached into Barry's bag o' tunes, and unleashed a song he had written for Otis Redding called To Love Somebody. Over the next 2 years, they hit consecutive bull's eyes with; Massachussets, Words, Gotta Get a Message To You, I Started A Joke, and more. These songs alone, have been covered by artists like: Eric Clapton, Michael Bolton, Rita Coolidge, Jose Feliciano, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, and many others.
Most people don't know this, but in 1969, the group disbanded, and each brother attempted to go solo. A great band had met it's end.
Then, just before 1971, they shared the Pythagorean realization that the group's sum was greater than its individual parts. They reunited and almost immediately scored their 1st US #1 hit with the now classic, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.
While they were still enjoying marginal success around 1973, their musical style began to sound tired not just to record-buyers, but to the brothers themselves. The 60s were no longer clearly visible in the rear view mirror. It was time to toss in the tuba.
However, in 1975, Disco was the thing, so Barry put on his high falsetto, and the boys jumped in with Jive Talkin' and Nights on Broadway. Their Rock fans weren't "diggin' this new scene", but it sure felt right to everybody else. It was Barry's band now, and the boys committed fully to their new genre. With unbuttoned shirts revealing gold chains, stretch-fit, flared-leg glitter pants and platform shoes, the Gibbs kicked up their production budget and were reborn.
Their next hit, You Should Be Dancing, caught the attention of producers working on a film called Saturday Night Fever, starring some Italian pretty boy from the TV show, Welcome Back Kotter.
The brothers were commissioned, and effectively wrote and recorded the following songs over the course of 1 weekend: Stayin' Alive, Night Fever, How Deep Is Your Love, If I Can't Have You, and More Than a Woman.
That same weekend, I made an ashtray out of Popsicle sticks. Just sayin'.
After that, these guys became just unbearable!
The SNF soundtrack sold approximately a fajillion copies. It was so popular that in 1978, it was not uncommon to open your door to a neighbour asking, "Can I borrow your copy of Saturday Night Fever? I'm having a party, and mine is all scratched up."
Suddenly, it was all we heard. If it wasn't the Bee Gees, it was the theme song Barry wrote for the movie Grease, sung by Frankie Valli, or Andy Gibb singing a song written by Barry or Maurice. Sometimes Andy would join his brothers.
In March of 1978, 5 of the American Top 10 singles were Gibb songs.
For the rest of the decade, the Bee Gees would not leave us alone. Their next album, Spirits Having Flown gave us songs like Tragedy, Too Much Heaven, and Inside and Out, but Disco had past it's expiration date, and "Disco Sucks!" became the catch-phrase du jour. As poster children for the movement, the Bee Gees had become the defacto symbol of un-cool. They were done.
Except in 1980, Barry Gibb appeared on the cover of Barbra Streisand's album, Guilty. Maybe because of the 2 duets they sang together, or maybe because he and his brothers co-produced and wrote all the songs including Woman In Love, which hit #1 in both the US and in the UK. Incidentally, it was Barbra's most successful album...EVER!
The Bee Gees put out another album, but no one wanted to listen to those weird-haired disco freaks. Their careers were over.
That is, aside from that Dionne Warwick song, Heartbreaker. The Bee Gees wrote and sang background, and it went to #1... but they just didn't have what people wanted anymore. They were history.
Oh sure, there was that song they wrote, Islands in the Stream, for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers that went to #1 in 1982, but if you asked any Rock jock in America, they would confirm that the Bee Gees were a stain on the quilt of pop music history.
Some might point to the few scattered hits over the next decade and say, "They had some talent.", but let's not be fooled by a little residual success. Their time had come and gone.
Then in 1988, after baby brother Andy had beaten his drug demons, and was about to join the group, a viral infection triggered his myocarditis, a condition not usually improved by the use of cocaine. His death marked a very dark chapter in an otherwise delightful Gibb family history. The family mourned, then dedicated their next album to Andy, and hit #1 again with the title track, One.
Over the next few years, ignored by America, and struggling with health issues, the band manage to score Top 5 hits in the UK with; Secret Love, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Alone.
On December 31st, 1999, the Bee Gees wrapped up their millenium with a huge live show entitled, BG2K.
They were now global musical icons.
In January of 2003, brother Maurice died just as they were to be given the Grammy Legend Award.
Robin and Barry decided that they could no longer be the Bee Gees without him, and they went their separate ways.
By the end of 2009, public nostalgia forced a resurgence, and they reunited to perform on some TV shows, most notable of which, was Dancing With The Stars in 2010.
It was at this point that the brothers began talking to Steven Spielberg about producing a movie depicting their rise to musical prominence.
But soon afterward, Robin was diagnosed with liver cancer, and after much suffering, succumbed in May, leaving Barry alone with a bittersweet retrospective of what once was.
The brothers are immortalized in both the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, and the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, as well as the hearts and minds of music lovers everywhere.
Barry is in the Guinness Book of Records as the 2nd most successful songwriter in history. The 1st is Paul McCartney.
The rest of us can listen and be inspired.
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