The Bee Gees were a singing trio of brothers—Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb. Born on the Isle of Man to English parents, they were raised in Brisbane, Australia, where they began their musical careers, achieving worldwide fame after they returned to England and began working with producer Robert Stigwood in 1967.
The multiple award-winning group was successful for most of its 40 years of recording music, but it had two distinct periods of exceptional success: As a harmonic “soft rock” act in the late 1960s and early 70s, and as the foremost stars of the disco era in the late 70s. Their early hits included “Words,” “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” “I Started A Joke,” and “To Love Somebody.” During the disco period, they scored hits with songs like “You Should Be Dancing,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “Night Fever.” Their album, Saturday Night Fever, is the best selling soundtrack album of all time.
The Bee Gees sang tight three-part harmonies that were instantly recognizable. Barry sang lead on many songs. His R&B falsetto, introduced in the disco years, became a trademark. Robin provided the clear vibrato lead that was a hallmark of their pre-disco music, while Maurice sang both high and low harmonies throughout their career. The three brothers co-wrote most of their hits.
The Bee Gees’s name was retired after Maurice died in January 2003. They were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, when they were honored with a citation which stated: “Only Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Paul McCartney have outsold the Bee Gees.”
The elder Gibb brothers were born on the Isle of Man, but the family returned to father Hugh Gibb’s home town of Chorlton cum Hardy, Manchester, England, in the early 1950s, where the boys began to sing in harmony. On one occasion, the boys were going to lip sync to a record in the local Gaumont cinema (as other children had done on previous weeks), but as they were running to get there, Maurice dropped the record and it broke. Having no record, the brothers sang live and received such a positive response from the audience that they decided to pursue a singing career.
In 1958, the Gibb family, including infant brother Andy, emigrated to Redcliffe in Queensland, Australia. They began performing wherever they could to raise pocket change. First called the Rattlesnakes, later Wee Johnny Hayes & the Bluecats, they were introduced to radio DJ Bill Gates, who renamed them the “Bee Gees.”
By 1960, the Bee Gees were featured on television shows, and in the next few years began working regularly at resorts on the Queensland coast. Barry’s songwriting drew the attention of Australian star Col Joye, who helped the boys get a record deal with Festival Records in 1963. The three released two or three singles a year, while Barry supplied additional songs to other Australian artists.
A minor hit in 1965, “Wine and Women,” led to the group’s first LP, The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs. By late 1966, the family decided to return to England and seek their musical fortunes there. While at sea in January 1967, they heard that “Spicks and Specks,” a song they had recorded in 1966, had gone to number one in Australia.
Late 1960s: First international fame
Before their departure from Australia to their native England, Hugh Gibb sent demos to Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles. Epstein had given the demo tapes to Robert Stigwood, leading to a five-year contract with Polydor Records in the UK and ATCO Records as the U.S. distributor. Work quickly began on their first international LP, and Stigwood launched a major promotion to coincide with their first album.
Their first British single, “New York Mining Disaster 1941” (also known by its first line: “In the Event of Something Happening to Me”), was issued to radio DJs with a blank white label containing only the song title. Many DJs immediately assumed this was a new Beatles single and started playing the song in heavy rotation. This helped the song climb into the Top 20 in both the UK and the U.S. Their second single, “To Love Somebody,” was released under the Bee Gees name and again climbed into the Top 20 in the U.S.
Following the success of Bee Gees 1st LP, the band—which now consisted of Barry on rhythm guitar, Maurice on bass, Vince Melouney on lead guitar and Colin Petersen on drums—began work on their second album. Released in late 1967, Horizontal repeated the success of their first album. It contained the number one UK (number 11 U.S.) single “Massachusetts” and the number seven UK single “World.” Horizontal made the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic, peaking at number 12 in the U.S. and number 16 in the UK. To promote the album, the Bee Gees made their first appearances in America, playing live concerts and television shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and Laugh In. The ballad “Words” followed in early 1968. The Bee Gees reached the American Top Ten with the singles “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (number eight U.S., number one UK) and “I Started A Joke” (number six U.S.) which were culled from the band’s third album, Idea. The LP was another Top 20 album in the U.S. (number 17) and the UK (number four).
Despite this success, by 1969, cracks began to show within the group, as Robin began to feel that Stigwood had been favoring Barry as the leader of the group. They began to record their next album, which was to be a concept album called Masterpeace, which evolved into the double-album, Odessa. Robin quit the group in mid-1969 and launched a solo career, while Barry and Maurice continued as the Bee Gees, recruiting their sister Leslie to appear with them on stage.
The three brothers reunited in the later part of 1970, with many songs about heartache and loneliness. Although they had lost traction on the British charts, the Bee Gees hit number three in America with “Lonely Days” and had their first U.S. number one with “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” The trio’s talents were included in the soundtrack for the 1971 film, Melody, as they performed several songs for the title.
By 1973, however, the Bee Gees were in a rut. At Eric Clapton’s suggestion, the brothers relocated to Miami, Florida, early in 1975, to record. After starting off with ballads, they eventually crafted more rhythmic disco songs like “Jive Talkin'” and “Nights on Broadway.” The latter featured Barry Gibb’s first attempts at singing falsetto in the backing vocals toward the end. The band liked the resulting new sound, and this time the public agreed, sending the LP Main Course, which became their first R&B album, up the charts. Barry Gibb’s falsetto would become a staple of subsequent recordings.
The next album, Children of the World, was drenched in Barry’s newfound falsetto baked by disco licks on synthesizer. Led off by the single “You Should Be Dancing,” the album pushed the Bee Gees to a level of stardom they had not previously achieved in the U.S.
Late 1970s: Saturday Night Fever
Following a successful live album, Here at Last… The Bee Gees… Live, the Bee Gees agreed to participate in the creation of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It would be the turning point of their career. Producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to create the songs for the film. They reportedly wrote the songs “virtually in a single weekend” at the Chateau D’Heuroville studio, in France.
Three Bee Gees singles (“How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive,” and “Night Fever”) reached number one in the United States and most countries around the world, launching the most popular period of the disco era. They also penned the song “If I Can’t Have You,” which became a number one hit for Yvonne Elliman, while the Bee Gees own version was the B-Side of “Stayin’ Alive.” Such was the popularity of Saturday Night Fever that two different versions of the song “More Than a Woman” received airplay, one by the Bee Gees, and another by Tavares, which was the bigger hit. During an eight-month period beginning in the Christmas season of 1977, the brothers wrote six songs that held the number one position on the U.S. charts for 25 of 32 consecutive weeks—three under their own name, two for brother Andy Gibb, and the Yvonne Elliman single.
Fueled by the movie’s success, the album broke multiple records, becoming the highest-selling album in recording history to that point. Saturday Night Fever has since sold somewhere around 40 million copies worldwide, making it the best selling soundtrack album of all time.
During this era, Barry also wrote the title song to the movie version of the Broadway musical Grease for Frankie Valli, which went to number one. At one time, five songs written by the brothers Gibb were in the U.S. top ten at the same time. It was the first time this kind of chart dominance had been seen since the Beatles had all five of the top five American singles slots.
Around this time, the Bee Gees’ younger brother Andy followed his older siblings into a music career and enjoyed considerable success. Produced by Barry, Andy Gibb’s first three singles all topped the U.S. charts.
In 1978, Barry Gibb became the only songwriter to have four straight number one hits in the U.S., breaking the John Lennon and Paul McCartney 1964 record. These songs were “Stayin’ Alive,” “Love Is Thicker Than Water” (for Andy Gibb), “Night Fever,” and “If I Can’t Have You” (for Yvonne Elliman).
The Bee Gees’ follow-up to Saturday Night Fever was the Spirits Having Flown album. It yielded three more number one hits: “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” and “Love You Inside Out.” This gave the act six consecutive number one singles in America within a year and a half, a record surpassed only by Whitney Houston.
The Bee Gees’ overwhelming success rose and fell with the disco bubble. By the end of 1979, disco was rapidly declining in popularity, and the backlash against disco put the Bee Gees’ American career in a tailspin. Following their remarkable run from 1975–79, the act would have only one more top ten single in the U.S. The group’s international popularity sustained somewhat less damage.
80s and 90s
In 1981, the Bee Gees released the album Living Eyes, but with the disco backlash still running strong, the album failed to make the U.S. top 40. In 1983, the Bee Gees had greater success with the soundtrack to Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever. The soundtrack was certified platinum in the U.S., and included their Top 30 hit “Woman In You.”
Robin and Barry Gibb released various solo albums in the 1980s, but only with sporadic and moderate chart success. However, the brothers had continuing success behind the scenes, writing and producing for artists such as Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, and Kenny Rogers, including Rogers’ multi-million seller and U.S. number one hit with Dolly Parton, “Islands in the Stream.”
The 1987 album E.S.P. in 1987, sold over 3 million copies. The single “You Win Again” went to number one in numerous countries, including the UK, but was a disappointment in the U.S., charting at number 75.
On March 10, 1988, younger brother Andy died at the age 30 as a result of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle due to a recent viral infection. Just before Andy’s death, it was decided by the group that Andy would join them, which would have made the group a foursome. The album, One (1989), featured a song dedicated to Andy, “Wish You Were Here.” The single of the same name produced the group’s first U.S. Top-Ten hit (number 7) in more than a decade.
In late 1997, the Bee Gees performed a live concert in Las Vegas called One Night Only. The CD of the performance sold over 5 million copies. This led to a world tour of “One Night Only” concerts. The tour included playing to 56,000 people at London’s Wembley Stadium on September 5, 1998, and concluded in the newly built Olympic Stadium in Sydney, Australia in March 1999.
The Bee Gees closed the decade with what turned out to be their last full-sized concert, known as BG2K, on December 31, 1999.
Maurice’s death and afterward
In 2001, the Bee Gees released what turned out to be their final album of new material, This Is Where I Came In. The album gave each member a chance to write in his own way, as well as composing songs together. Maurice, who had been the musical director of the Bee Gees during their final years as a group, died suddenly on January 12, 2003, from a strangulated intestine. Initially, his surviving brothers announced that they intended to carry on the name “Bee Gees” in his memory. However, as time passed they decided to retire the group name, leaving it to represent the three brothers together.
In late 2004, Robin embarked on a solo tour of Germany, Russia, and Asia. During January 2005, Barry, Robin, and several legendary rock artists recorded “Grief Never Grows Old,” the official tsunami relief record for the Disasters Emergency Committee. Later that year, Barry reunited with Barbra Streisand for her top-selling album, Guilty Pleasures, released as Guilty Too in the UK as a sequel album to the previous Guilty. Robin continued touring in Europe.
In February 2006, Barry and Robin reunited on stage for a Miami charity concert to benefit the Diabetes Research Institute. It was their first public performance together since the death of brother Maurice. Barry and Robin also played at the 30th annual Prince’s Trust Concert in the UK on May 20, 2006.
The Bee Gees have been incredibly successful, selling in excess of 220 million records and singles worldwide. “How Deep Is Your Love” is their most popular composition, with over 400 versions by other artists in existence. It has been estimated that the Bee Gees’ record sales easily make them one of the best-selling music artists of all-time. Their 1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame citation says “Only Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Paul McCartney have outsold the Bee Gees.”
Songs written by the Bee Gees, but better known through versions by other artists include the following titles: “Immortality” by Celine Dion, “If I Can’t Have You” by Yvonne Elliman, “Chain Reaction” by Diana Ross, “Spicks and Specks” by Status Quo, “Emotion” by Samantha Sang and by Destiny’s Child, “Come On Over” by Olivia Newton-John, “Warm Ride” by Graham Bonnet and by Rare Earth, “Guilty” and “Woman in Love” by Barbra Streisand, “Heartbreaker” by Dionne Warwick, “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “Grease” by Frankie Valli, and “Only One Woman” by The Marbles.
The group’s most famous association, of course was with the disco era. Their album Saturday Night Fever in selling more than 40 million copies worldwide became the best soundtrack album of all time, a record that may never be surpassed.