On May 27th 1944, a dapper, slightly balding Hugh Gibb, married petite, bright-eyed Barbara May Pass in their hometown of Manchester. Hugh was a drummer and leader of the Hugh Gibb Orchestra which played the Mecca Ballroom circuit of northern England and Scotland, Barbara was a sometime dance band vocalist, and the pair struggled to make a living in post-war Britain. Hugh delivered bread and Barbara did cleaning jobs to generate extra income, as the family rapidly began to grow – daughter Lesley (1945), son Barry (1946), fraternal twins Robin and Maurice (1949) and youngest son Andy (1958) all duly arrived.
Hugh was a loving, if somewhat passive, undemonstrative father, who encouraged his sons to sing English music hall standards, skiffle hits, and to imitate the smiling, obsequious stagecraft of the Mills Brothers. When they began performing on Australian television in the early 1960’s, wearing suits or tuxedos and rigidly executing their limited stagecraft, they looked and sounded like forty-year-old cabaret performers trapped in the bodies of adolescents.
The Gibb family had joined the other one million British immigrants who became “Ten Pound Poms”, the government-subsidized cost of the boat fare to Australia; to start a new life in Australia after WW2, along with others who would make a lasting contribution to our musical heritage – the Youngs (George, Malcolm, Angus, John Paul), Scotts (Bon), Thorpes (Billy), Farnhams (John), Shorrocks (Glenn), Keays (Jim), Randalls (Lyn), Barnes (Jimmy), Hutchence (Michael), Bradys (Mike) and many others.
En route the three boys entertained their fellow passengers by giving impromptu performances in the stern of the boat, their audience were mesmerized by the Gibbs performances, and included one Redmond “Red” Symons, future lead guitarist with the Skyhooks, and Welsh girl Carol Jones, who would settle in Melbourne, marry Ron Minogue, and have two daughters – Kylie and Danii.
Throughout the1960’s Barry and ultimately Robin emerged as successful songwriters, penning hits for Jimmy Little – One Road 1964, Bryan Davies –I Just Don’t Like To Be Alone 1964, Col Joye – (Underneath the) Starlight of Love 1963, Ronnie Burns –Coalman and Exit Stage Right in 1966/67, and Johnny Young – Craise Finton Kirk (Royal Academy of Arts) in 1967, but despite these hits, the Bee Gees first five single releases flopped, however it was to be their sixth release that would provide the breakthrough hit, even though they almost gave it away!
Given the group’s lack of chart success thus far in Australia they seriously considered giving Spicks and Specks to Dinah Lee to record, but fortunately they were dissuaded from doing so by Sydney songwriter/producers Nat Kipner and Ossie Byrne, who believed the song would be a hit. Bill Shepherd worked with the brothers to produce a unique sound, Spicks and Specks was a hit as the brothers departed Australia. Festival had not renewed their contract, the brothers were miffed and convinced that their future was in the UK, where they would meet expat-Australian Robert Stigwood (below) of Brian Epstein’s NEMS Enterprises and sign a five -year recording contract with Polydor.
Bill Shepherd (below) would continue to collaborate with the Gibbs throughout the 60’s arranging/producing the gorgeous pocket symphonies that would feature on the Bee Gees First album, To Love Somebody, New York Mining Disaster 1941, I Can’t See Nobody and Holiday were amongst the fourteen tracks on their truly remarkable debut album, Barry was 20, the twins were 17, even the Beatles said they sounded like them, but they were more than that, because they were genuinely, and surprisingly, original.
It must also be said that the Bee Gees were very quick to reclaim their British heritage once they returned to the UK, denying any significant Australian connections and aiming to be a sound-a-like Beatles, as the supergroup had conveniently tired of touring and were cloistered in their Abbey Road recording studios, by the time the Bee Gees returned “home”. Robin’s north country accent on New York Mining Disaster 1941 was disingenuous, as was Stigwood’s tactic of not naming the group on the copies of this record sent to radio stations, so inviting DJ’s to think it was a Beatles record, by concealing its actual provenance.
But the period spent in this country by the Bee Gees, 1958-1966, were formative years for the brothers, they made their first professional appearances on television, wrote and recorded songs for themselves and others, matured from a group known privately as Barry and the “two dribblers” to an increasingly professional outfit; and they included two Australians in their international line up of their band, guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen. Their musical arranger Bill Shepherd, a Brit who had migrated Down Under to work, and employer/manager Robert Stigwood who was born and raised in Adelaide, before relocating to London in 1956, played significant roles in the careers of the Gibbs. Stigwood became the true parental figure in the lives of the brothers, where their father Hugh was inert, undemonstrative, and passive, Robert Stigwood was connected, decisive, ambitious, ruthless, and grasping – he was both liked and loathed by the Gibbs over the journey, but only Barry could stand up to him.
The template for their success was founded on the song-writing skills of Barry (melodies) and Robin (lyrics) and the multi-instrumental talents of Maurice, the brothers never learned to read or write music, but they knew the sounds that they wanted to create, and in collaboration with other musicians, arrangers, producers, and engineers, the hit songs emerged, and kept on coming. Their vocal harmonies were exquisite, Robin’s tremulous vibrato, Barry’s resonant tenor and ultimately his sustained falsetto, would deliver multiple hit songs and albums over the decades, they were famously compared to the Everly Brothers, who they greatly admired.
Over forty years and twenty-two studio albums the Bee Gees would segue from the baroque pop of their early hits to ultimately embrace a funkier disco sound that would take them into the hyperspace of pop stardom, they dominated the 1970’s with albums like Saturday Night Fever which sold over 40 million copies, Spirits Having Flown and Main Course; but they suffered a backlash when disco ebbed and their chart presence diminished.
Yet they remained a musical powerhouse, churning out big hits for brother Andy, Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Samantha Sang, Frankie Valli, Yvonne Elliman, The Marbles, Graham Bonnet and the biggest-selling C&W single of all-time, Islands In The Stream for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, and returning to more success later in their careers with the albums Size Isn’t Everything(’93) and Still Waters (’97).
Admittedly there were some dud albums along the way as well, 2 Years On (1970) was barely redeemed by the great single Lonely Days, A Kick In the Head (Is Worth Eight In The Pants,1973) was rejected by their record company and never released, and Life In A Tin Can (1973) was very brief at eight songs and generally uninspired, but this was the fifth album the brothers had recorded in three years (1970-73)! They were working at a frenetic pace, increasingly relying on artificial stimulants to keep pace, and the quality of their work suffered, their albums were criticised for delivering a couple of hit songs, two or three others of fair quality, and the rest fillers, the pressure on and between the brothers was building, and it would tear the Bee Gees apart on March 19th 1969, when Robin left the group.
Robin was estranged from his brothers for eighteen months between 1969-71, he was allegedly addicted to amphetamines, his parents Hugh and Barbara sought to have him made a ward of the Court, bur failed. The brothers’ older sister Lesley (above) flew from her home in Sydney to join Barry and Maurice as Robin’s replacement and performed with her siblings on a BBC Talk of the Town Special. She was a Gibb so she could sing, but her family back in western Sydney beckoned and she returned to Australia, where she slipped back into a relatively anonymous life of quiet domesticity with her ever-increasing family.
Throughout their musical journey there was sibling rivalry between Barry and Robin over the relative merits of their own compositions and which songs should become singles. The decision to release First of May, a solo vocal composition by Barry over Robin’s Lamplight as the lead single from the Odessa album, triggered the split between the brothers in 1969. Robert Stigwood generally supported Barry in these matters, and appeared to want to promote the older brother with the matinee idol looks over his younger, less-genetically gifted siblings. In 1981 there would be an acrimonious parting of the ways between the Bee Gees and Robert Stigwood over disputed returns from record sales, Stigwood had always claimed producer status on their recordings even though his skills in this area were dwarfed by the brothers, whose musical and technical recording talents far surpassed Stiggy’s.
The Gibbs certainly appeared to have addictive personalities, Barry, Robin and Maurice were known respectively as “potty, pillie and pissy”, in recognition of their stimulants of choice, younger brother Andy died of heart failure attributable to drug abuse and their father Hugh battled alcohol abuse throughout his life.
In 1997 the Bee Gees were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio by Brian Wilson, in a ceremony that also inducted Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, the Jackson 5 and the Young Rascals, on that night the Bee Gees were the star turn.
In the same year the band remarkably returned to the charts again after an absence of nearly two decades, with a successful new album, Still Waters charted #2 in the UK, #10 in Australia and #11 in the US and sold four million copies, buoyed by this late- career success the brothers agreed to a one-off Las Vegas show at the MGM Grand Garden in November 1997.
The live album that resulted, One Night Only, predictably stormed the charts and was an international platinum-selling hit, #1 in the UK, USA and Australia and sold five million copies, Australia fare-welled the brothers at a massive live concert at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium at Homebush in March 1999, in front of 72,000 fans.
The Bee Gees were once described by Barry as “the enigma with the stigma” in a reference to the critics who had often unfairly dubbed them Beatles clones, or disco dance dissemblers. Barry was particularly sensitive to such criticism, as witnessed in a famous interview in 1996 on British television during an interview with Clive Anderson on All Talk, when a clearly irritated Barry led the brothers in a walk-off during the show after Anderson persisted with bitchy, sniping comments and questions about their past.
In 2020 as an ageing 74-year-old Sir Barry Alan Crompton Gibb CBE, reflected on his life and times, he would no doubt recall the incredible success of the brothers Gibb – Barry, Robin and Maurice – from their humble beginnings as the Rattlesnakes skiffle group singing at Manchester’s Gaumont cinema in 1957 and then playing for pennies at Brisbane’s Redcliffe Speedway, after the family emigrated to Australia in 1958. With over 200 million sales to their credit, and chart success that would rival the Beatles, they were literally the most successful band of brothers ever, in a cutthroat global music industry that destabilised their lives, fractured the fraternal bonds between them, and contributed to the premature demise of three of Barry’s siblings – Andy (30yrs), and the fraternal twins Maurice (53 years) and Robin (62 years). Recently Barry has admitted to experiencing survivor’s guilt, as the eldest of the brothers who outlived all of his male siblings, and he has regretted the fact that the three brothers were not close friends at the end. Sadly Maurice, affectionately known as Mo, his twin brother Robin, known as Bodding, and their youngest brother Andy, could not share the autumn years of retirement with their brother Barry after so much hard work, and international success.
But with a stellar career of more than forty years in show business, the brothers Gibb were truly amazing, they were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in recognition of their three decades of incredible music in 1997, along with Paul Kelly and Graham Bell. A Bee Gees biopic starring Bradley Cooper as Barry is slated for production, and in 2021 Barry released Greenfields, a solo album of duets with such performers as Olivia Newton-John, Alison Kraus, Keith Urban, Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlisle, Dolly Parton, and Jay Buchanan, predictably the album was #1 in Australia and the UK and #2 in the USA, making Barry the oldest person to ever top the ARIA charts. Barry below with Dolly Parton.