Growing up in England, the brothers Gibb lived in a place called Chorlton-cum-Hardy (not a sexual euphemism), originally a 7th century settlement in the kingdom of Northumbria (later known as greater Manchester). In the 1800s, townsfolk participated in such popular diversions as bull-baiting, badger-baiting and cock-fighting (not sexual euphemisms, either) before trending to wrestling and boxing after the former sports were outlawed. Other than the Bee Gees, CCH is notable for being the place where, in 1999, Quentin Crisp died on the eve of performing his one-man show (he is cremated there). The brothers played in a skiffle band called the Rattlesnakes and legend has it that, while running on their way to a lip-synching performance, their 78 broke and shattered, forcing the group to sing live. They received such a warm response they decided to keep singing.
In 1958, the boys’ parents moved them to Redcliffe, near Brisbane in Queensland, Australia. Redcliffe is on the coast of Moreton Bay, a body of water famous for its glut of bull sharks and record-sized hammerheads, as well as turtles and dugongs. Before settlement, Redcliffe was occupied by the Ningy Ningy people, and, in 1974, its first high-rise apartment building went up. The young brothers attended Humpybong State School (still no euphemism) and found a desire to work. They were booked for their first ever public appearance by promoter Bill Goode to play between dirt track events at the local speedway, standing on a truck flatbed and singing through the dust and heat. They later rose to popularity after signing a deal with Australian pop star Col Joye. Wikipedia tells us that, in 1990, “while pruning a neighbour’s tree with a chainsaw as a favour, Joye slipped and fell six metres onto brick paving below, striking his head and falling into a coma, as well as sustaining serious lower back and shoulder injuries. Initially given a poor prognosis, he recovered to start performing and touring again in 1998, and in 2008 celebrated his 50th Anniversary in show business.”
After struggling through their early releases, the Gibbs met a fellow named Oswald “Ossie” Byrne, who produced a series of 45s for the band. Byrne was an inspired, and inspiring, figure. As a boy, he played cornet and trumpet with a Salvation Army band, and into his teens he fought with the RAAF in World War Two, eventually losing an eye in New Guinea. He kept playing music, but supplemented his income as a finance officer, squirrelling away his savings to build a small recording studio in his home in Sydney, and later moving it into a space at the back of a butcher’s shop. He let the Bee Gees spend as long as they needed to craft their music– in other instances, time and money had limited their recording sessions– and this resulted in some success, including a few Beatles covers. One song, “Spicks and Specks,” received decent radio airplay, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy the band or Byrne, so they left for England with their parents on a ship called the “Fairsky.” While headed to Blighty, they received news that “Spicks and Specks” had been voted Australian Record of the Year.
Before coming to the UK, the Bee Gees sent demos to NEMS Interprises head (and Beatles manager) Brian Epstein, who turned them over to Robert Stigwood, a debonair and ambitious Australian emigre also employed at NEMS. Stigwood played the demo for Paul McCartney, who advised him to sign them immediately. The band’s first 45 for Stigwood was “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” released to radio stations with only a white, nameless label; a stroke of genius since, because of its close harmonies and British lilt, everyone assumed it was a new record by The Beatles. The song had been written in the dark on a metal staircase after a power outage at Polydor Records and features Hawaiian guitar tuning, which Barry Gibb learned when he was nine years old. For the recording, the band was joined by drummer Colin Peterson, a former child star whose mother had forced him to quit acting because of a decline in school grades. Peterson moved, independently, to Britain around the same time as the Gibbs, and joined the band along with guitarist Vince Melouney.
Through a spate of successful albums– and even more successful singles– Robin Gibb left the group after warring with brother Barry amid rumours of a drug problem (at one point his parents considered making the 19 year old a ward of the state). Gibb had a difficult and strange couple of years. In 1967, he and future wife Molly Hullis, a secretary in Stigwood’s company, survived the Hither Green rail crash, which produced 49 fatalities. Owing to a broken rail (fatigue stress), 12 coaches travelling at 70 km/hour derailed on a busy Sunday night (many of the passengers were standing). Later, Gibb married Hullis; was divorced; then married long-time second wife Dwina Murphy, a follower of Druidism and disciple of the neo-Hindu Brahma Kumaris movement, which dissuades its members from alcohol, tobacco and sex. Perhaps as a result of this– but perhaps not– a 62 year old Gibb carried on an 8 year affair with his housekeeper, who produced his fourth child.
In 1975, guitarist Eric Clapton suggested the band relocate to Miami, Florida to record: three swinging fry-skinned Brits under the palms of South Beach. This begat the band’s colossal disco era, beginning with “Jive Talkin'” (originally “Drive Talking,” after the sound their sports cars made) through to “Nights on Broadway,” which featured Barry Gibb’s renewed and multi-tracked falsetto. Their reputation as a disco hit machine landed them a spotlight presence on Robert Stigwood’s monster film, “Saturday Night Fever,” although their music– written in a single weekend in a chateau in France– was recorded after all of the film had been shot (in John Travolta’s famous dance scenes, he was, originally, moving to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs). Six songs written by the Gibbs– including ‘If I Can’t Have You’ by Yvonne Elliman and ‘More Than a Woman’ by Tavares– reached number one on Billboard, and their wealth and influence skyrocketed. But by 1979–a mere two years later– radio stations were already promoting Bee Gees-free weekends, spurned in part by the hubric “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” movie, made by Stigwood and starring the brothers Gibb. UK comedian Frankie Howerd, who also made an appearance in the film, quipped: “It was like Saturday Night Fever, but without the fever.” Guests in the movie’s closing scene include Nona Hendryx, George Benson, Alice Cooper, Andy Paley, Curtis Mayfield, Lee Oskar, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Allen, Elvin Bishop, Peter Noone, Minnie Riperton, Sha Na Na, Al Stewart, Nils Lofgren, Bobby Womack, Connie Stevens, Dr. John, Jim Dandy, Helen Reddy, Rick Derringer, Jack Bruce, Keith Carradine, and Donovan among many others.
In 2003, Maurice Gibb died of a heart attack while awaiting surgery for intestinal strangulation, a condition also suffered by brother Robin before his 2012 passing from liver cancer. Earlier, a younger brother and non-Bee Gee, musician Andy Gibb, died of a heart attack exacerbated by cocaine and alcohol use. After Andy refused his brothers’ help to get clean– he’d had several hit solo records by this point– he moved from Miami and his family to settle on the other side of the US, in Malibu, California. According to the site ‘Spicks and Specks,’ “his record sales were slipping, and the cocaine abuse was affecting his ability to work. After months fighting to keep him sober, Robert Stigwood made the decision to drop him from the label. Later, he married actress Victoria Principal (she was 30, he was 22) but it didn’t last. He ended up a devastated addict, bankrupt and owing millions of dollars in debt. His brothers put him on an allowance but he didn’t make it through the year.”
In 2013, the last of the Bee Gees– Barry Gibb– performed a solo tour to herald the work of his brothers and the achievements of his former band. That same year, he returned to Redcliffe, Queensland to unveil a statue of the Bee Gees as well as a walkway imbued with photos. Remembering their first show, Gibb said: “We sang through the PA system and people threw money onto the track. We met Brisbane’s leading DJ and race car driver Bill Gates, who suggested we call ourselves the BG’s. He even played our songs on his radio show, “Swinging’ Gates’ Platter Chatter.” Redcliffe (was) the birthplace of the Bee Gees”.