The first time the Gibb family went around the world, it was from the Isle of Man to Manchester to Australia. The second time, it was with the unstoppable power of a song catalog that brought the Bee Gees career sales estimated at over 220 million records.
That’s before you even start counting the scores of career-shaping hits they wrote for other artists. The trio have spanned successive pop generations and not only survived major genre shifts, but helped create them, influencing artists and making hits for countless others as well as for themselves.
Quite simply, the brothers Gibb are up there with the greatest groups, and songwriting partnerships, of all time. Decades on from their first international success, this look at the best Bee Gees songs is a jumping-off point to a songbook that could easily stand a second list of 20, and a third, and so on. But this primer, overflowing with classics, sets out just some of the unforgettable music they made during a near-35-year chart heyday.
International Year Zero, 1967
New York Mining Disaster 1941
There was an incubation period of four years from the first single released in Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb’s adopted home in Australia (1963’s “The Battle of the Blue and the Grey”) to their international arrival. They literally performed for their passage back to England, paying for their fares by singing on the deck of the Sitmar Line’s Fairsky steamship and arriving in February 1967. But then things moved incredibly quickly. The brothers auditioned for impresario Robert Stigwood, who in no time was talking about them as the new Beatles, and were in a recording studio by early March.
“New York Mining Disaster 1941,” released in April 1967, remains one of the most arresting debut hits to start any international career. The courageously stark narrative, inspired by the real-life Aberfan mining disaster in Wales only a few months earlier, gave Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb a first Top 20 hit in both the UK and US in early summer that year. “So there is a touch of The Beatles in the early vocal harmonies,” wrote Peter Jones, reviewing the newly-heralded group’s new single for Record Mirror, “but the song is dramatic, poignant, well-written — and features an easily picked-up melody theme. This is positively top-class pop music. Just buy it.”
To Love Somebody
“To Love Somebody,” also from the Bee Gees 1st album, was actually a flop in the UK, peaking just outside the Top 40. But it became their first Top 10 single in some other countries, and laid down a marker for the Gibbs’ sheer coverability. An intense, mature and versatile love song, it was picked up almost immediately by Lulu, whom Maurice Gibb met at Top of the Pops and later married. Nina Simone’s deathless version soon followed, then more than 160 others, by everyone from Tom Jones to Janis Joplin.
The First No.1s
If the Bee Gees were supposedly a new Beatles, they also had harmonies that would have done the Beach Boys or the Mamas and the Papas proud. They proved as much with “Massachusetts,” a single whose glamorous-sounding location appealed to European fans, most of whom still only knew American states from their namechecks in popular culture. In those heady first few months, the song topped the UK chart for a month in October and early November 1967.
I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You
The dramatic story song in which the narrator was facing death was a popular device of the 1960s and early 1970s (“Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Indiana Wants Me,” “I Did What I Did For Maria”). In that spirit, the dead-man-walking narrative of “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You” caught the imagination of singles buyers worldwide, notably in the UK, where the single became the Bee Gees’ second No.1 in September 1968. Some band disharmony and a brief split were to come, but renewed success was around the next corner.
Covered In Glory
By 1968, everyone was listening to the Bee Gees’ songs. “Words” was their next hit, Top 10 in the UK and many other countries, and plenty of artists would hear its potential. Glen Campbell was an early advocate, recording it for his Wichita Lineman album, and soon it was part of the live set by the newly-liberated Elvis Presley. The version he sang in August 1969, with the Sweet Inspirations and the Imperials Quartet, was part of his In Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada album released two months later.
How Can You Mend A Broken Heart
In another endorsement of the innate soulfulness of what were ostensibly pop compositions by the Gibb brothers, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” was turned into a soul gem by Al Green. The Bee Gees’ original, from the Trafalgar album, didn’t chart in the UK, but it was a gold-selling No.1 in America, their second in a row there after “Lonely Days,” which, remarkably, was recorded on the same night.
Nights On Broadway
Jumping ahead to 1975, “Nights On Broadway” was the second single from the Bee Gees’ “comeback” album Main Course. Among its many attributes, and encouraged by producer Arif Mardin, it was the song that proved to Barry Gibb that he could sing falsetto. A Top 10 single in the US but surprisingly not a success in the UK, it featured a funky soul-rock groove that was played up by Candi Staton, when she swooped to secure the British hit with the song in 1977.
The Pre-Fever Years
Don’t Forget To Remember
Mention the Bee Gees in the same breath as country music and many minds will jump to “Islands in the Stream,” their composition that became a lifelong anthem for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. But the brothers themselves dabbled with the genre, notably on this Barry and Maurice song that did indeed inspire country covers by Skeeter Davis and Donna Fargo.
This reflective but hypnotic song was the fruit of the brothers’ reunion, when they got back together to record in the summer of 1970, following Robin’s temporary departure. Essentially written, Barry later revealed, in ten minutes at his London apartment, it featured on the 2 Years On album and climbed to No.3 on the Hot 100.
From a period of the group’s history that’s often somewhat overlooked, 1972 brought two new hits before they entered the barren spell that preceded their incredible return to favor. “My World” featured a trademark singalong chorus and was later described by Robin Gibb as a “rollicking little jaunt.” Ever adaptable, the brothers wrote it backstage at the popular UK television series of the time, The Golden Shot.
Run To Me
One of the most notable inclusions on Barry Gibb’s all-star 2021 album Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1 is via one of its lesser-known songs. Brandi Carlile accompanies Gibb on a remake of “Run To Me,” another Bee Gees hit from 1972 and the first release from their underrated album To Whom It May Concern. This was among a number of impressive LPs during what’s seen as the trio’s “twilight” period, when their career seemed to be declining, also including 1974’s Mr. Natural. But then came the rebirth.
It Happened In Miami
Indeed, it was the Mr. Natural album that began the brothers’ relationship with Arif Mardin, the masterful producer who helped guide them back to worldwide recognition. That LP barely grazed the Billboard listings, but it marked a move towards a more R&B-based sound. With Mardin’s encouragement, that would be further explored on 1975’s Main Course, cut in what became their new bolthole in Miami, Florida. The first serving was the energy-restoring “Jive Talkin’,” which combined a chugging beat, breathy vocals, and searing synthesizer runs. The world was ready, and one of the year’s surprise comebacks was secured.
Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)
After “Jive Talkin’” and the pop-funk of the aforementioned “Nights On Broadway,” the third single from this resetting of the Bee Gees’ compass was a song that received a huge and perhaps surprising compliment. In a 35 Years of Music special on the group in Billboard in 2001, Maurice Gibb revealed that years after the Main Course album, he and his wife were on a bus in New Orleans with Quincy Jones and his band.
The storied producer, arranger, and industry giant told Maurice that he was looking for the right person to cover “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” which he said was “one of my favorite R&B songs of all time.” Barry also shared the fact that, when they were staying at 461 Ocean Boulevard, of Eric Clapton fame, in North Miami Beach during the making of Main Course, Fanny was the name of their cleaner.
The Fever Dream And Beyond
You Should Be Dancing
The staging post album in between Main Course and the incredible phenomenon of the Bee Gees of the later 1970s was Children of the World. It was introduced, in the summer of 1976, by the song on which the Gibb brothers embraced disco. They started work on the track in Miami before the album sessions continued in Quebec. “You Should Be Dancing” was a major worldwide hit and a US No.1, before becoming part of the album, and the film, that soundtracked the group’s reinvention. The next chapter, you hardly need reminding, represented success at fever pitch.
How Deep Is Your Love
The history-rewriting success of the Saturday Night Fever era made the Bee Gees world champions in a way that neither they nor anyone could ever have conceived. Yet the song that heralded the soundtrack that married the Bee Gees to the disco movement forever was not a dance number at all, but one of their best-loved ballads. Barry Gibb has called “How Deep Is Your Love” his own favorite song by the group, and in Christmas week 1977, it started three weeks atop the Hot 100 en route to a Grammy. A truly incredible chart sequence had begun.
The song that is synonymous with the images of a white-suited John Travolta strutting his stuff in the force of nature that was Saturday Night Fever. With Barry’s falsetto now in full effect, the group had an unstoppable glide in their stride that took “Stayin’ Alive” into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It also took the song to No.1 for four weeks in America, the second of a spectacular six consecutive US chart-toppers that, at the time, equaled a chart record held by The Beatles.
By 1978, the Bee Gees’ chart domination was so universal that their biggest competitors were themselves. In late February, as “Stayin’ Alive” completed its reign, “How Deep Is Your Love” was still in the US Top 10 and, now, programmers couldn’t wait to start playing “Night Fever.” The unofficial movie theme bounded to No.1 in no time, politely waiting only for little brother Andy Gibb to take his turn at the top with “Love Is Thicker Than Water.” Blue Weaver’s string synths and Fender Rhodes electric piano on “Night Fever” were key to a sound that defined an era, and resistance was futile.
When the Fever broke, the Bee Gees would left holding the baby of a disco movement that had been embraced by most, but violently opposed by some. The backlash was so severe as to cause all of the brothers great emotional turmoil. But before their chart bubble burst, there were No.1 ballads in “Too Much Heaven” and “Love You Inside Out” and, sandwiched in between, the driving ultra-pop of “Tragedy.” Such was their innate songwriting genius that the Gibbs composed it, and “Too Much Heaven,” and brother Andy’s “Shadow Dancing,” all in the same day.
Coming Around Again
You Win Again
1979’s “Love You Inside Out” became the Bee Gees’ sixth No. 1 in 18 months (with a total of 20 weeks at the summit). While their legend continued to grow in the ensuing decades, things were never quite the same again in terms of hit singles. But in the UK, throughout Europe, and beyond, 1987 brought a reunion with Arif Mardin and an emotional return to the top of the charts with the slow-building “You Win Again.” It reached the UK peak 20 years almost to the week since they had first done so with “Massachusetts,” literally fresh off the boat.
This Is Where I Came In
The brothers reached the UK Top 20 as a group for the final time with a song appropriately titled to sum up their incredible durability in the annals of pop. “This Is Where I Came In” was the sole single from what, sadly, became their final album, after which Maurice passed away in 2003 and Robin in 2012. The Bee Gees’ collective name may no longer appear on new compositions, but their songs will be part of the fabric of pop music forever.
Article originally published on uDiscoverMusic.com.