By Eleni P. Austin
If you think the Bee Gees’ music was only ever about Disco, then you’ve missed the point. Sure, their songs became the ne plus ultra of that era, But the Brothers Gibb, Barry, Maurice and Robin, first made their mark more than a decade before, during the British Invasion.
Originally formed in 1958, Barry and his younger twin brothers first made their bones in a Skiffle/Rock group called The Rattlesnakes. The British-born musicians were living in Australia when they first hit the charts in 1966 with the song “Spicks And Specks.” The band, which at that point included drummer Colin Petersen and lead guitarist Vince Melouney, sent some demos to Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, who passed them on to his associate, Robert Stigwood.
Stigwood signed them and got them a record deal. Their debut, Bee Gees 1st, arrived in 1967. The first single, “New York Mining Disaster, 1941,” received massive radio airplay, as DJ’s initially mistook it for a new Beatles song. Their next single, “To Love Somebody” reached the Top 20 in the U.K. and the U.S., while the album peaked at #7.
Over the next few years, they continued to top the charts on both sides of the pond with singles like “Massachusetts,” “Words” and “I Started A Joke.” Colin and Vince peeled away from the group and the Bee Gees remained a trio for the rest of the career. The brothers broke up briefly but reunited in 1970, recording 2 Years On which featured the hit single, “Lonely Days.” A year later their Trafalgar album included their #1 smash, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.”
The next three albums somehow missed the mark, but the Bee Gees were back on track when they connected with producer Arif Mardin and took their sound in a more R&B direction. They relocated to Miami to make their next two albums, Main Course and Children Of The World. Jettisoning their ballad-heavy sound, they wrapped their trademark falsetto harmonies around a pulsating four-on-the-floor beat. They scored three massive hits, “Jive Talkin,” “Nights On Broadway” and “You Should Be Dancing.” A live album followed and soon after, Robert Stigwood signed them up to write the music for a film called Saturday Night Fever.
Filming had already finished on John Travolta’s cinematic debut, and the brothers were only armed with a rough draft of the script. They basically wrote the songs during a weekend in France. When the movie and soundtrack were released in late 1977, both became smash hits. Songs like “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Night Fever” and “More Than A Woman” propelled the record to the top of the charts, where it remained for 24 weeks. It also won five Grammy awards. The music became as ubiquitous as white three-piece suits. The Bee Gees didn’t invent Disco, but they definitely prolonged its popularity.
For a while, the brothers could do no wrong. They wrote the theme song for John Travolta’s next cinematic magnum opus, Grease, which was performed by Frankie Valli. They jump-started younger brother Andy’s solo career by co-writing songs on his first three albums. They wrote hit songs for Yvonne Elliman and Samantha Sang. But then they partnered with Peter Frampton for the ill-fated movie musical, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, loosely inspired by the Beatles’ iconic album. Reviews were scathing, but their next album, Spirits Have Flown was another #1 album. In fact, it spawned three #1 singles. This gave the group an unbroken run of six U.S. chart-toppers in a one year period, a feat they shared only with Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby.
The inevitable backlash hit in the 1980s, and the brothers’ popularity foundered. Although they continued to make music they never achieved that same measure of success. By this time, eldest brother Barry had found another outlet for his prodigious talents, writing and producing music for Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, as well as Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.
For the next two decades he toggled between production work, a sporadic solo career and recording and touring with his brothers. Sadly, Andy died in 1988, a few days after his 30th birthday, following an unsuccessful battle with drug addiction and depression. In 2001 they recorded This Is Where I Came In, their last album as a trio. Two years later Maurice Gibb died from a heart attack at age 53.
The surviving Gibb brothers retired the Bee Gees name but within a few years they were still playing and collaborating. Diagnosed with Liver Cancer, Robin Gibb passed away in 2012 at age 62. In 2013, Barry embarked on his first solo tour, paying tribute to his brothers and the Bee Gees’ legacy. Three years later, he released his second solo album, In The Now. He originally intended that album have a more Country feel.
A longtime aficionado of Country and Bluegrass, Barry counted the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison as his earliest influences. Hoping to make a record inspired by those influences, he enlisted producer, Dave Cobb. Like T-Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, Dave has become the go-to producer for a new generation. He cut his teeth producing albums for Shooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson before connecting with the Rival Sons. He has been behind the boards for all six of the Long Beach band’s records. An integral component to their sound, much as producer George Martin was considered a fifth Beatle, Dave Cobb holds the same distinction with the Sons.
Of course, he is best known in Country circles for guiding chart-topping albums from Lori McKenna, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, John Prine and Brandi Carlile. The nine-time Grammy winner corralled a who’s-who of Nashville Pickers and players, and he and Barry hunkered down in Nashville’s legendary RCA recording studio. The result is Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol.1 The album opens with a couple of deep cuts, both released as singles in 1968. “I’ve Got To Get A Message To You” reached #1 in the U.K., in retrospect, it seems like a classic Country weeper along the lines of “Green, Green, Grass Of Home.” Honky-Tonk piano and flickering guitars are bookended by a swoony string section. Barry trades verses with Keith Urban, his feathery falsetto matches Keith’s boyish tenor on the chorus. Remarkably grim lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a death row inmate pleading with a preacher to get word to his wife, on the eve of his execution; “I told him ‘I’m in no hurry,’ but if I broke her heart, won’t you tell her I’m sorry, and for once in my life I’m alone, and I’ve got to let her know, just once before I go.”
“Words Of A Fool” is a Gospel-flavored elegy powered by churchy organ, burnished keys, strummy acoustic guitar and searing pedal steel. Paired with Jason Isbell, Barry momentarily sidesteps his trademark falsetto, leaning in with a growly masculinity. Lyrics, suffused with regret, portray a couple merely going through the motions; “I gaze in your eyes now, but you’re not in sight, just a picture of someone I lie with each night/Long may love live here, you fill up my home, and though you’re not with me now, I won’t be alone.”
On several tracks, he holds his own with some powerful female vocalists. Sheryl Crow turns in a surprisingly nuanced performance on “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.” Lone piano notes lattice over honeyed guitar and a laid-back shuffle rhythm. Rather than shade Barry’s tremulous vocals, Sheryl adds a dissonant kick to this lachrymose lament. Surging strings and plangent piano magnify the melancholy of lyrics like “I can still feel the breeze, that rustles through the trees, and misty memories of days gone by, we could never see tomorrow, no one said a word about the sorrow…”
Twinkling piano and sunshiny guitar are tethered to a clip-clop gait on “Too Much Heaven.” Bluegrass goddess Allison Krauss locks into an ethereal vocal blend with Barry on the chorus before splitting the call-and-response verses, much like a latter-day George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Despite the buttery string section, Allison’s homegrown grit keeps the track from wandering into MOR territory.
Meanwhile, on “Run To Me,” Barry’s quavery tenor is brilliantly juxtaposed by Brandi Carlile’s powerhouse contralto. Over chunky piano chords, a wash of Hammond B3, braided guitars and shimmering strings, the song builds to a stunning crescendo. As their vocals intertwine, the arrangement slows for a quiet instrumental coda of plucked strings and brushed percussion.
Barry enlists a couple of old pals on “Words” and “Rest Your Love On Me.” The former opens tentatively with sturdy piano notes and celestial keys before Dolly Parton steps up with her unmistakably breathless, Smoky Mountain croon. As swooping strings, jangly guitars, lonesome pedal steel and a tumbling backbeat kick in, Barry’s whispery harmonies envelope Dolly’s trademark twang and the pair find their language of love; “Talk in everlasting words and dedicate them all to me, and I will give you all my life, I’m here if you should call to me.”
The latter, originally a B-side to 1979’s “Too Much Heaven,” is a duet with fellow Australian émigré, Olivia Newton John. Although she is best remembered as “Sandy” the good girl gone (slightly) bad in the smash movie, Grease, her first hit records from the early ‘70s straddled the line between Pop and Country. Rippling piano notes connect with stinging guitar, spidery bass, weepy pedal steel and a tick-tock beat. The relatively stripped-down arrangement puts the focus on their seamless vocal blend. It’s nice to hear a little Country ache from Olivia, who’s health issues have kept her away from the recording studio.
Barry partners with the band Little Big Town on a couple of tracks. The ‘60s hit “Lonely Days” is a Beatlesque sing-a-long initially propelled by wistful piano, hushed harmonies and some lovelorn violin. But rather quickly, time-signatures shift, the arrangement expands to include a peppery horn section, prickly guitars and a foot-stompy beat. They also tackle the Bee Gees’ penultimate ballad, “How Deep Is Your Love.” Filigreed acoustic guitars sketch out the song’s timeless melody before Barry leaps in. He handles the verses as the band shadow him on the chorus. Courtly Spanish guitar and glassy piano notes never overwhelm, giving his creamy falsetto free-range. Little Big Town basically stay out of his way. The best tracks here are “Jive Talking,” “To Love Somebody” and “Butterfly.” The first two employ the talents of Rival Sons vocalist, Jay Buchanan. “Jive..,” which also spotlights the sultry charms of Miranda Lambert, ditches the frenetic four-on-the-floor beat of the original, locking into a more sanctified groove. Jay’s molasses-thick drawl leads the way, but Miranda and Barry quickly chime-in. On the break a swirly string-section is abetted by busy keys, barbed guitars, holy-roller Hammond, insistent handclaps and a conga-fied beat, adding to the song’s sense of urgency.
The Brothers Gibb originally wrote “To Love Somebody” with Otis Redding in mind, so it feels wholly apropos that Jay Buchanan is on hand to inject some California Soul into the proceedings. Percolating electric piano notes brush up against tart electric guitar riffs. Jay is out in front on the first couple verses before Barry steps up, offering his most heartfelt performance on the record. Leaning closer to a swampy, Muscle Shoals sound, it’s the most muscular cut on the record.
Finally, the album closes with “Butterfly,” one of the oldest songs in the Bee Gees’ canon. Accompanied by alt-country stalwarts Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, it’s something of a back-porch charmer. All three strap on acoustic guitars, additional instrumentation includes 12-string guitar, bass, drums and mellotron. Naturally, there’s a string-section, but it never overpowers the song’s low-key spirituality. Equal parts campfire sing-a-long and restless farewell, the song leaves the listener wanting more.
Greenfields confirms that the Bee Gees’ music easily adapts to any genre. The album debuted at #1 on the U.K. charts and hit #15 in the U.S. Since this is Vol. 1, hopefully other volumes will add even more twang. Barry continues to honor his brothers’ legacy, getting by with a little help from his friends.