In a career that lasted more than four decades, the Bee Gees sold over 200 million records worldwide. Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb experienced commercial dry spells, and critics frequently dismissed them. But their songs have stuck in the public consciousness — especially the phenomenal disco crossover success of their Saturday Night Fever era and modern romantic standards they'd created earlier, like "To Love Somebody," to "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" — and the Bee Gees versatility and knack for creating hits have earned them a belated critical respect.
The three Gibb brothers (Barry and fraternal twins Robin and Maurice), sons of English bandleader Hugh Gibb, started performing in 1955. They moved with their parents to Brisbane in 1958 and worked talent shows and other amateur outlets, singing sets of Everly Brothers songs and an occasional Barry Gibb composition, by this time calling themselves the Bee Gees. They signed with Australia's Festival Records in 1962 and released a dozen singles and two albums in the next five years. The Gibbs wrote their own material, and close high harmonies were their trademark, and.
Though they hosted a weekly Australian TV show, their records went unnoticed until 1967, when "Spicks and Specks" hit Number One after the Bee Gees had relocated to England. There they expanded to a quintet with drummer Colin Peterson and Vince Melouney (both Australians) and found themselves a new manager, Robert Stigwood, then employed by the Beatles' NEMS Enterprises. Their first Northern Hemisphere single, "New York Mining Disaster 1941," was a hit in both the U.K. and the U.S. (Number Four, 1967), and was followed by a string of equally popular ballads: "To Love Somebody" (Number 17, 1967), "Holiday" (Number 16, 1967), "Massachusetts" (Number 11, 1967), "Words" (Number 15, 1968), "I've Got to Get a Message to You" (Number 8, 1968), and "I Started a Joke" (Number 6, 1969). Their clean-cut neo-Edwardian image and English-accented three-part harmonies were a variation on the Beatles' approach, although the Bee Gees leaned toward ornate orchestration and sentimentality as opposed to American-style straight-ahead rock.
Cracks in their facade began to show in 1969, when the nonfamily members left the group and reports of excessive lifestyles and fighting among the brothers surfaced. From mid-1969 to late 1970 Robin tried a solo career and had a Number Two U.K. hit, "Saved by the Bell." Meanwhile, Barry and Maurice (then married to singer Lulu) recorded Cucumber Castle as a duo and cut some singles individually. The trio reunited for two more hit ballads — the gold "Lonely Days" (Number Three, 1970) and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" (Number One, 1971) —before bottoming out with a string of flops between 1971 and 1975. Stigwood effected a turnabout by recruiting producer Arif Mardin, who steered them to the funk-plus-falsetto combination that brought them their third round of hits. Main Course (Number 14, 1976), which included "Jive Talkin'" (Number One, 1975) and "Nights on Broadway" (Number 7, 1975), caught disco on its earliest upswing and gave the Bee Gees their first platinum album.
In 1976 Stigwood's RSO label broke away from its parent company, Atlantic, rendering Mardin unavailable to the Bee Gees. Engineer Karl Richardson and arranger Albhy Galuten took over as producers, and the group continued to record with Miami rhythm sections for hits such as "You Should Be Dancing" (Number One, 1976) and a ballad, "Love So Right" (Number Three, 1976), which suggested a Philly-Motown influence. By this point, the brothers had relocated to Miami. Stigwood, meanwhile, had produced the film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy, and asked the Bee Gees for four or five songs he could use in the soundtrack of a John Travolta vehicle about the mid-1970s Brooklyn disco scene, Saturday Night Fever. The soundtrack album, a virtual disco genre best-of, included Bee Gees chart-toppers "Stayin' Alive," "Night Fever," and "How Deep Is Your Love," hit Number 1, stayed on the album chart for over two years, and eventually sold 30 million copies worldwide. Barry, with Galutan and Richardson, also wrote and produced hits for Yvonne Elliman, Samantha Sang, Tavares, Frankie Valli, and younger brother Andy Gibb [see entry] as well as the title tune for the film version of the Broadway hit Grease.
In 1978, with Saturday Night Fever still high on the charts, the Bee Gees started Music for UNICEF, donating the royalties from a new song and recruiting other hitmakers to do the same. They also appeared in Stigwood's movie fiasco Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and continued to record. After Saturday Night Fever, even the platinum Spirits Having Flown (Number 1, 1979) with three Number 1 hits — "Too Much Heaven," "Tragedy," and "Love You Inside Out" — seemed anticlimactic. As of 1979, the Bee Gees had released five platinum albums and more than 20 hit singles.
Along with such phenomenal commercial success came a backlash. While the intense antidisco sentiment certainly played a role, the fact that one almost literally could not turn on a radio without hearing a Bee Gees track did not help. Their career then entered another dry season. In October 1980 the Bee Gees filed a $200 million suit against Stigwood, claiming mismanagement. Meanwhile, Barry produced and sang duets with Barbra Streisand on Guilty (1980). The lawsuit was settled out of court, with mutual public apologies, in May 1981. Living Eyes (Number 41, 1981) was the Bee Gees' last album for RSO. They composed the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever's dismal sequel, Stayin' Alive; the soundtrack went to Number 6, achieved platinum status, and included "Woman in You" (Number 24, 1983). Barry also wrote and produced an album for Dionne Warwick, Heartbreaker. With his brothers he cowrote Diana Ross' "Chain Reaction" and the chart-topping Kenny Rogers–Dolly Parton hit "Islands in the Stream."
In 1987 the Brothers Gibb again joined forces and refired their singing career with E-S-P, which included "You Win Again" (Number 75, 1987). While these records appeared commercial disappointments in comparison to previous chart showings, in fact this was the case only in the U.S. E-S-P went to Number One in Germany and the Top Five in the U.K. Thus began another phase of the Bee Gees' history, in which their singles and albums would top the charts practically everywhere but the U.S.
In March 1988, their younger brother Andy Gibb died of myocarditis, a heart condition, at age 30. He had a long history of addiction to drugs and alcohol, and his surviving brothers were devastated by the loss. They retired for a time, and Maurice suffered a brief relapse of his own alcoholism. They returned with One (German Top Five, U.K. Top Thirty) featuring the trio's highest-charting single of the Eighties in its title track (Number Seven, 1989), followed by High Civilization (1991), which did not even chart in the U.S. but hit Number 2 in Germany and the U.K. Top 30.
In 1997 the Bee Gees were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They also released Still Waters (Number 11, 1997), which produced the minor hits "Alone" (Number 28, 1997) and "Still Waters (Run Deep)" (Number 57, 1997). The live concert soundtrack One Night Only (Number 72, 1998), Tomorrow the World, and This Is Where I Came In (Number 33, 2001) followed. The group has twice received Britain's Ivor Novello Trust for Outstanding Contribution to British Music (1988, 1997) and the BRIT Award (1997), all in recognition of their outstanding contribution to British music. In 1994 they were inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame.
The Bee Gees continued to tour occasionally until January 2003, when Maurice Gibb died of cardiac arrest while receiving treatment for an intestinal blockage. Barry and Robin have reunited on stage and on TV a few times since, and have discussed possibly touring at some point in the future.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Chuck Eddy contributed to this article.