Contrary to popular belief, the band’s name was coined by Australian radio DJ Bill Gates (not to be confused with DJ Bill Gates) and does not refer to the Brothers Gibb, as they were later dubbed. When the brothers were hired to perform on the back of a truck at the Redcliffe Speedway in 1960, DJ Bill Gates of Brisbane noticed a number of people with the same initials – Barry Gibb, Barbara Gibb, Bill Goode, Bill Gates – and dubbed the trio the BG’s.
The Bee Gees gained popularity in their native Australia before sending a demo to Brian Epstein, promoter for the Beatles, who passed the demo on to Robert Stigwood. Stigwood proclaimed that the BeeGees were the “Most Significant New Talent of 1967,” which began the inevitable endless comparisons to the Fab Four.
Barry once recalled a strange interaction with Jimi Hendrix in the first few years of their career. “When we first came out, Jimi Hendrix said we were two-year-old Beatles. He was just giving an opinion at the time,” he said of Hendrix. “He was a great mate of mine…I never knew about drugs then. I thought he was acting a bit weird and saying kind of remote things, but I was too naïve to even consider that it might be drugs, I never caught on with Jimi and the drugs.”
The early days were not without their bumps in the road. Robin began to feel overshadowed by Barry and left the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career. Barry, Andy, Maurice, and Colin Petersen continued to tour and perform as the Bee Gees, but by the summer of 1970, Robin rang Barry in Spain while he was on holiday, saying, “Let’s do it again.” Once the group was reunited, Barry proclaimed that the Bee Gees “will never, ever part again.”
It was during these golden years that the group began to experiment with drugs. In the VH1 documentary Legends: Bee Gees, Barry described this period:
“It was the flower-power period. There wasn’t anybody you knew that wasn’t on some form of drugs.”
Maurice added, “Actually, what it was at one time was Barry would be smoking pot, Robin was on pills, and I’d be drinking.”
The three brothers jokingly nicknamed one another “Pot, Pills, and Piss” for their respective substances of choice.
The Bee Gees took advantage of the popularity of the Beatles, performing “Hey Jude” with Wilson Pickett, and covering several Beatles songs for their little known musical documentary, All This and World War II.
By 1975, the Bee Gees had relocated to Miami on the advice of Eric Clapton, and their sound began to take on a more disco-oriented vibe, including their second U.S. #1 hit, “Jive Talkin’,” which was one of the first times Barry Gibb began to sing in falsetto, a move that would later become his trademark.
The soundtrack that would cement their status as disco kingpins came that same year, when the Bee Gees agreed to participate in the creation of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. John Travolta reminisced that the Bee Gees weren’t a part of the movie until the film was in post-production. “The Bee Gees weren’t even involved in the movie in the beginning,” said Travolta. “I was dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs.”
Once they had signed on, however, the movie took on a whole new tone, and one that was much needed for the Bee Gees. “We were fairly dead in the water at that point,” noted Barry. “The Bee Gees sound was basically tired. We needed something new.”
The group wrote five songs for the film’s soundtrack within almost a single weekend at the Château d’Hérouville studio in France. Although the Bee Gees are credited for inspiring the disco craze, soundtrack supervisor Bill Oakes insists that wasn’t the case. “Disco had run its course. These days, Fever is credited with kicking off the whole disco thing – it really didn’t. Truth is, it breathed new life into a genre that was actually dying.”
The songs of Saturday Night Fever were breakout hits, remaining at the top of the charts from Christmas 1977 through the next eight months. In March of 1978, the Bee Gees held the top two positions on the U.S. charts with “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive,” the first time this had happened since the Beatles. Barry Gibb became the only songwriter to have four consecutive number one hits in the U.S., breaking a record previously held in 1964 by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Fever’s success inspired two different versions of “More Than a Woman,” one by the Bee Gees that was featured on the soundtrack and another by Tavares, both of which received airplay during this period.
The band took the Beatles-Bee Gees connection a step further when they starred with Peter Frampton in the film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, loosely based on the classic 1967 Beatles album. Unfortunately, the film was panned by critics and generally ignored by the public.
Saturday Night Fever‘s success ultimately proved to be both a blessing and a curse for the group. “Fever was number one every week. It wasn’t just like a hit album. It was number one every single week for 25 weeks. It was just an amazing, crazy, extraordinary time. I remember not being able to answer the phone, and I remember people climbing over my walls. I was quite grateful when it stopped,” Barry recalled later. “It was too unreal. In the long run, your life is better if it’s not like that on a constant basis.”
Upon their success, the group took time to work on outside projects and collaborate with other well-known artists. Barry Gibb branched out to work with Barbara Streisand, and the group collaborated with such artists as Dionne Warwick, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, and Diana Ross.
Michael Jackson had never tried marijuana, but according to Frank Cascio’s biography My Friend Michael, a curious tale of cannabis and creativity from the archives of rock and roll history comes to light. Barry Gibb informed Michael of the incredible creative juices that cannabis awakens. So much so, in fact, that Barry insisted that he’d written the vast majority of his greatest hits while under the influence of the herb. Michael and Barry sparked a joint right there in the recording studio, and it’s rumored that the two would drive through the mountains surrounding Neverland Ranch to get high together.
These days, Barry Gibb doesn’t touch the stuff, nor any other drugs, due to painful arthritis that threatened to end his career entirely. “I think I’m alright now,” he said. “I’ve changed my lifestyle and diet. I don’t eat red meat and I’ve cut out dairy products.”
A little older and wiser, Barry has talked about the difficulties of being a parent in the modern age:
“We live in a crowded society. Today, it’s tough because of things such as ecstasy. Even the kind of marijuana that exists now is unlike that which was around in the 60’s – it’s potent and crossbred.”
He offered the life advice he passed on to his family after years of learning the hard way:
“I tell my children, ‘Whatever you are doing, if I can’t stop you doing it, do it at home. Don’t tell me, but don’t go somewhere dark and nasty to do things like that!’ I’m totally opposed to it, but I know I can’t stop it. They can always point at me and say, ‘Well, you did it!’ I’d say, ‘Yes, but you’ve got your whole lives in front of you.’ I’m saying things like my father said.”
Barry never got into hard drugs, but watched his brother Andy’s painful decline into cocaine abuse, which eventually led to a fatal heart attack just five days after his 30th birthday in 1988.
The years wore on, and although the band has remained quite successful, the loss of each brother has taken its toll. Maurice died suddenly in 2003 of a heart attack while awaiting emergency surgery. The same week, the Bee Gees were honored with the Grammy Legend Award to recognize their achievements over decades of music.
Robin was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2011 and his condition deteriorated rapidly. He died in May of 2012, leaving Barry as the last remaining Gibb brother.
With that, the musical group known as the Bee Gees dissolved into memory to decorate the halls of rock and roll history. Still, the Bee Gees live on thanks to their musical legacy and inimitable, unmistakable style (although that’s not to say that people won’t try to copy it, often with hilarious results).