Surviving Bee Gee on his own

TOM CARDY
Last updated 05:00 22/02/2013
Barry Gibb
MR NATURAL: ‘‘I have never had any trouble with [writing] songs. I never quite got my brain fried enough to have that stop. I’m still writing,’’ says Barry Gibb.

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Today the Bee Gees' Barry Gibb is in a position neither he nor anyone else would wish for. He's the survivor.

Younger brother Robin Gibb died from cancer last year. Robin's twin, fellow Bee Gee Maurice, died of a heart attack 10 years ago. The three, who grew up Brisbane in the late 50s after the Gibb family emigrated from Britain, had already experienced grief. Andy, the youngest Gibb, who had a hit solo career, died when he was just 30 in 1988. Andy's death was from health problems exacerbated by drug use.

Tomorrow Barry, 66, performs a solo show at Mission Estate in Hawke's Bay, sharing a bill with another of music's songwriting greats, American Carole King. For Barry this will be a show that's solo by default, rather than necessarily by choice. But it will still include some of the Bee Gees' best known songs.

His brothers will be there in spirit, he says.

"In my heart they are and I don't think I'll be able to look left or right without seeing my brothers. They will be there and they're with me now. We've been so close to each other for 45 or 50 years - not like brothers who all go to work and do different jobs. We were sort of glued together.

"[It's] tough. But it's also spiritual and I've been able to draw on the spiritual side of that. They will always be with me. And I know it sounds really stupid, but I talk to them. I imagine through the years what their opinions would be. ‘What would Robin think about this, or what would Maurice think about that? What would Andy think?' I have their opinions in my heart."

When Barry performs tomorrow it will be after 12 months of fine tuning. In February last year, three months before Robin died, Barry performed a solo show in the United States at the Hard Rock Cafe in Florida. (Barry has lived in Miami, he says, after being smitten with the state - "it was very much like Australia" - when the Bee Gees went there in 1975 to record the album Main Course.) The Hard Rock Cafe show was still a Gibb family affair. Maurice's daughter Samantha Gibb sang with Barry on How Can You Mend a Broken Heart? Barry's son Steve played lead guitar and sang Maurice's song On Time.

There's no shortage of great songs to choose from. While Barry is best known for being a Bee Gee, he's also one of the most successful songwriters in pop music of the past 50 years with No 1 songs for five decades in a row. There are the Bee Gees' hits, but there are also his songs covered or penned for other artists, including Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (Islands in the Stream), Andy Gibb (I Just Want to be Your Everything) and Dionne Warwick (Heartbreaker).

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In fact, early in The Bee Gees' career Barry's almost eclipsed the group itself due to his songwriting. Their first album was called The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs. Barry and Robin originally wrote To Love Somebody for soul star Otis Redding, only to have Redding die before he could record it.

"It's just taken time to pick and choose. One thing I made up my mind about was that I was only going to sing songs that I actually love singing. I won't sing the songs that for me are difficult to sing."

But it will cover his whole career. It's an embarrassment of riches not only with the songs, but also the memories. Barry was writing and recording numerous songs while still a teenager. He had his first hit with the Bee Gees' Spicks and Specks in 1966 - the same month he turned 20.

"Looking back that far they weren't that fantastic [songs]," he says. "When I hear the really early songs I can hear the learning process going on and the absorbing of how a good song should be and how you have to reach someone's heart with a song. It's all the different elements that make a great song and the X factor of course."

The Gibbs were clearly aware of this after a fallow period after late 60s hits including To Love Somebody and Words. The Bee Gees even recorded a psychedelic-influenced double album, Odessa.

"We had a four-year stretch where we weren't really getting anything on the radio. We were trying to shed the psychedelic shroud that was around everything," he says.

Eric Clapton suggested they record in Miami in 1975. Producer Arif Mardin encouraged them to write and record disco-style songs. A significant change - that became a Bee Gees' trademark - was Mardin's suggestion one of the Bee Gees sing in falsetto on Nights on Broadway. "I was the happy volunteer who went out there and started screaming in falsetto, not realising that in fact, if I worked at it hard enough, I could sing actual songs like Frankie Valli and the other people we admire. That's how it came about."

Main Course was a big hit. But Saturday Night Fever was a phenomenon. The Bee Gees became one of the biggest selling pop acts on the planet.

Unexpected consequences included starring in the critically panned movie Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band with Peter Frampton. "The making of the film was hysterical. [But] we don't do well in musicals and we didn't want to do that one."

Still, it wasn't as a bad a choice as their rarely seen trippy television comedy Cucumber Castle, which aired in 1970. Barry says he's in no hurry to ever see it appear on DVD. "Unless you're interested in seeing a great pair of balls in a pair of tights," he jokes.

Then there was the disco backlash. He says this was a reason why the Bee Gees concentrated more on writing for others. "We looked at each other and said, ‘why don't we just write and get great artists to sing the songs and establish the fact that we're songwriters before anything else?'."

Barry says playing solo is not the only way he will pay tribute to his fellow Bee Gees or his own work. He has another plan for a giant tribute show that will involve other big names. "It's going to be monstrous, but it's also going to take a couple of years to put together."

Meanwhile there's performing and more songwriting.

"I have never had any trouble with [writing] songs. I never quite got my brain fried enough to have that stop. I'm still writing. I just got a new song on the new Ricky Skaggs album. I got to work at the Grand Old Opry. I got to play with him and his band. I'm hooked on bluegrass. If your heart and your mind falls in love with a certain kind of music you want to play that music."

THE DETAILS

Barry Gibb and Carole King play Mission Estate, Napier, tomorrow.

- Wellington

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