Barry Gibb, the suave romantic whose soaring falsetto defined the Bee Gees and the Saturday Night Fever era, is padding around his Miami mansion in white tube socks, a pair of rimless glasses perched on his nose. At 70, Gibb is a genial, if slightly eccentric, grandfather of eight, his gray hair and thinning beard wispy where they were once leonine, his walk slightly hobbled. His vast living room is rife with gilded mirrors and cherub statuettes. A glass coffee table is piled high with books on his eclectic interests — the supernatural, alternative archeology, British history, the Third Reich — and a copy of evangelist Joel Osteen’s I Declare. As the sun floats in through a crack in the curtains, Gibb comes on like a serene guru, clad all in black, yoga beads looped around his wrist, likening himself to one especially well-known student of the Maharishi.
“George Harrison seemed to be the happiest of all of them, the most comfy about life,” says Gibb, “and I feel I’m in my comfort zone, where I won’t have negativity. I will not have it. I won’t have issues with you. I’m perfectly happy. There are a lot of people that fight. There’s no time for it. They don’t understand that.”
His dog Boo, a mixed-breed rescue, barks incessantly, interrupting Gibb’s musings. “I don’t allow arguments in my house,” continues Gibb, who then cracks a smile. “I’ll kill the dog, but — I just don’t live that way anymore.”
This is a very different Barry Gibb than the one who sat here two years ago, when his wife of 46 years, Linda — a former Miss Edinburgh whom Gibb met on Britain’s Top of the Pops in 1969 — came in one night to find him in his bathrobe, watching TV in the dark. For 50 years, his life had been defined by the hits he created with the Bee Gees, from the 1968 classic “To Love Somebody” to the indelible “Stayin’ Alive” in 1977. Following the disco backlash of the late ’70s, Gibb retreated from the spotlight, fearing he and his brothers would get “swept away” if they didn’t reinvent themselves as behind-the-scenes tunesmiths. And after the deaths of his twin brothers Maurice (in 2005) and Robin (in 2012), who were three years younger, Gibb felt like a man consigned to the past. “I was ready to quit. I was done. There was no point in going on any further,” he says now. “I’ve done solo work my whole life but never felt like a solo artist.”
By his own admission, Gibb was “moping around, meandering,” until his wife jolted him out of his funk that night. “She came in, and she said, ‘You’ve got to get off your ass,’ ” recalls Gibb. He told her he didn’t feel like making music anymore. “She says, ‘No, no, you still have your own life. You’ve got to live.’ ”
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That wasn’t an easy task. Here in his mansion, time feels frozen in 1981 — a vision of wealth conceived by a newly rich Brit for whom Victoriana, ornate chandeliers and East Asian art signified the apex of luxury. A wall of 80-odd photographs catalogs his glory days: Gibb with Roy Orbison, Gibb with Leslie Nielsen, Gibb with Michael Jackson (“Oh, we’ve both been blind drunk lying on this carpet,” says Gibb of Jackson’s visit to the house in the ’80s). And then there are the ever-present ghosts of his brothers (including solo act Andy, who died suddenly in 1988 due to inflammation of the heart likely exacerbated by years of drug abuse), their toothy grins and half-lidded gazes staring out from photographs on every wall, including the bathrooms.
But Gibb is finally emerging from this time capsule with his first solo album in 32 years, the hopefully titled In the Now. The Bee Gees, committed pop romantics, were never confessional songwriters. But Gibb’s new solo work is a departure: a kind of diary of his private world, with songs about his life “underground” (“Home Truth Song”), his outrage at current affairs (“Blowin’ a Fuse”), his skepticism of religion (“Cross to Bear”) and the abiding heartache of recent years (“End of the Rainbow”). Gibb, who indulged in drugs but was never an addict, calls himself “the one who will not fade away” (“In the Now”) but also paints a portrait of a man carrying the burden of tragedy: “If tears were diamonds, I’d be a rich man now” (“Diamonds”).
“The album is my opinion of life,” says Gibb, “my feelings and my journey with my brothers, and without my brothers, with my parents and without my parents, and with my own family, seeing my kids have their own kids.”
Speaking of whom, he conscripted the nearest available Gibbs in his orbit to collaborate: eldest sons Stephen, 42, and Ashley, 39. (Barry, who was married once before, has five children, including a daughter, all with Linda.) “They give me that youth,” says Gibb. “They give me that fire.”
Growing up in what Stephen calls “the Bee Gees bubble,” Gibb’s sons knew well how far their father had come, and how far he had yet to go. As co-writers on the entire album, they helped him articulate his feelings with lyrics oblique (and sometimes clichéd) enough to pass as pop, but honest enough to convey the saga of Barry Gibb and his family — the long and fractious relationship with his brothers and the evolving relationship with two grown sons who never quite escaped their father’s shadow. For Gibb, living in the now means facing down his past.
The Brothers Gibb — Bee Gees, for short — began as old-fashioned show people, traveling the world with their father, Hugh, a drummer in a big band who played on cruise ships and moved the family from England to Australia in 1958. “He was a typical Gibb in that he never really knew who he was,” reflects Gibb today. “He was always searching for him. I’m pretty much like my father in that respect.” He and his brothers began as The Bee Gees Comedy Trio, performing American hits and novelty songs in rugby clubs and movie theaters. Gibb was the heartthrob, the younger Robin and Maurice the comic relief. Inspired by The Beatles, the Bee Gees managed a regional hit in 1966, “Spicks and Specks,” which launched them to England and into the arms of rock impresario Robert Stigwood, who made them famous.
That fame sparked a brotherly rivalry between Barry and Robin. Though Robin sang on big hits like “I Started a Joke,” dreamy Barry trumped his bucktoothed brother as the main attraction (genial Maurice became the family diplomat). Robin’s failed effort to go solo in 1970 only proved the obvious: The Gibbs were bound by their uncanny harmonies and collaborative songwriting. When Atlantic impresario Arif Mardin discovered Barry’s falsetto while recording “Nights on Broadway” in 1975, he urged the band to re-engineer its sound around Barry’s croon, reimagining the group as an R&B/disco act — and rekindling the tension with Robin. In 1977, Barry didn’t speak for the band’s first Rolling Stone cover story, the mere mention of which still irritates him. Robin presented himself as the frontman. “It became important for Robin to give every interview, to grab every spotlight,” says Barry. “That’s how the battle raged for us.”
The Bee Gees’ output of pop hits was astounding: six consecutive No. 1s on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1977 and 1979 would tie them with The Beatles for most consecutive No. 1s for a group, and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, driven largely by Bee Gees singles like “Stayin’ Alive” and “How Deep Is Your Love,” spent 24 weeks atop the Billboard 200. But the Bee Gees wore their talent too lightly for some critics. British comedian Kenny Everett performed a TV skit called “The Do-It-Yourself Bee Gees Kit” (fake teeth, chest hair, medallions) and suggested the Gibbs were gay. In truth, the brothers had never really stopped being the comedy trio from Australia. Privately, they recorded skits inspired by Monty Python featuring a character named Sunny Jim, with episodes like “Sunny Jim Goes to a Male Gynecologist” and “Sunny Jim Develops a Third Tit.” Playing their comedy tapes for reporters didn’t improve their image, nor did Robin bragging that their Saturday Night Fever hits were conceived in the same French studio where his favorite pornos were filmed.
“We had to break out of being a group of brothers that were entertainers,” says Gibb with a note of resignation. “We never did. Because it wasn’t meant to be that way.” The election of Ronald Reagan marked a reversal for disco, which already suffered from market saturation. Straight white rock fans started burning disco records. “I had to convince my brothers: ‘Stop trying to get on the radio, change course, because we’re walking into a shit storm here,’ ” recalls Gibb. “ ‘If we continue to make these kinds of records, we’re condemned with everyone else. Let’s write for other people.’ ”
Robin couldn’t accept anything less than the top of the charts; Gibb disagreed. “I always felt we were worth it and we should keep going, whether we were in or out of fashion. We were literally Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” he says, referring to the notorious 1978 film flop starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. “You can’t always be in vogue.” While Robin pursued solo stardom, Gibb reinvented himself as a successful producer, working with Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and Kenny Rogers (the Dolly Parton duet “Islands in the Stream”).
Then, in 1988, youngest brother Andy, a star in his own right, died at age 30 — a crushing blow to Gibb, who mentored him. The Bee Gees would reunite periodically through the years to come, but they weren’t on speaking terms when Gibb hired entertainment lawyer John Branca to regain control of the Bee Gees’ master recordings from Universal in 2000. Gibb says he was the only one motivated to fight for the masters, which he eventually won back for the group. (In 2003 The New York Times estimated the value of Gibb’s share of the catalog at $60 million.) “That was disturbing and distressing, and that’s one of the reasons we didn’t get along very well in the end,” he says. “Because I had to do this on my own.” He would go on to work with MGM for eight years on a Bee Gees biopic, but brotherly tensions — especially from Maurice, who didn’t want his private life exploited for the film — thwarted the project. Then, in 2003, Maurice died suddenly at age 53 of complications from a twisted intestine. The family — including Robin’s four kids and, of course, Maurice’s two children — was devastated. “He was the glue that held not just the Bee Gees together,” says Stephen Gibb, “but the entire family together.”
Nine years later, Gibb found himself sitting at the bedside of another brother: Robin, who lay in a coma in London following surgery for colon cancer. Barry softly sang the first lyrics of a new song he had been working on called “End of the Rainbow,” a plea for peace — and peace of mind — at the end of the bitter Bee Gees journey. “The idea of ‘End of the Rainbow’ is here: ‘What you were searching for, you’ve found it,’ ” says Gibb, recalling the moment. “Robin was always thrashing around, wanting another hit, wanting another hit. ‘We all want another hit, Rob, but the dream came true. It’s OK.’ ” Gibb is still not sure if Robin heard him; he died days later.
“End of the Rainbow” would become the seed of a new album, and a new realization, for Gibb. “Robin had always been a desperate solo artist,” he says. “And now, I can see that we all were. We all wanted to be solo stars. There is no such thing as a group where no one wants attention.”
To find his own voice, Gibb would need to confront the Bee Gees legacy — at first, an uncomfortable task. Even at the group’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1997, he acknowledged that “we are, in fact, the enigma with the stigma … We’re aware of it, we hear it every day, we live with it, we have suffered.” On Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Fallon had been impersonating Gibb as a talk-show host who wore “crazy-cool -medallions” and went on angry tirades in breathy ululations (Justin Timberlake wore false teeth to impersonate Robin). Gibb didn’t find it amusing — “He couldn’t watch it at first,” says Ashley Gibb — and he was further stung when a young reporter asked him whether his Saturday Night Fever-era chest hair had been fake.
But Robin’s death happened to also coincide with what felt like, finally, a full-circle moment for the Bee Gees. The latest disco-laced pop, from Maroon 5 to Daft Punk, clearly owed a debt to their sound. When Fallon invited Gibb on SNL, Gibb’s daughter Alexandra convinced him it was time to embrace the joke (parody is a form of flattery, after all). “When we walked on the set, I could see these guys are pissing their pants, they are so excited he’s in the room,” recalls Stephen. “He’s oblivious. He doesn’t get it. It’s adorable.” Even Paul McCartney showed up in a white suit for the occasion. “There was a time when it was not cool to have your picture taken with the Bee Gees,” recalls Gibb. “And now people want their picture taken with me.”
Respect, at last, for Gibb feels somewhat inevitable: With or without the Bee Gees, he is arguably one of the greatest pop songwriters in history. He succeeded in two distinct eras with two distinct styles, proving songcraft defied genre, whether British pop or black dance music. At the heart of it were enduring Barry Gibb virtues: romanticism, melody and male vulnerability. “Barry is compelled to do what he intrinsically loves,” says Chic co-founder and writer-producer Nile Rodgers. “Whatever cards are dealt us, whatever the losses and ups and downs, at the end of the day we’re simply composers and musicians. It’s our blessing and our curse.”
“To understand the continued relevance of Barry’s songs,” says Rob Stringer, chairman/CEO of Gibb’s label, Columbia, “you only have to watch him performing ‘Stayin’ Alive’ with Coldplay at this year’s Glastonbury with 80,000 people singing and dancing along.”
As ever, music would bring the remaining Gibb men together. Stephen, a heavy-metal devotee covered in tattoos who for years struggled with addiction, had been an occasional stage guitarist for his father; Ashley, a tennis player who never played an instrument, had written a song for a girlfriend in the late ’90s (his father finished it as “I Cannot Give You My Love” and gave it to Cliff Richards to record). After Maurice died, Stephen got sober, and the sons drew together to help their father, whom Streisand had asked to write and produce on the sequel to her multiplatinum 1980 record Guilty. On Guilty Pleasures, released in 2005, Stephen and Ashley are credited as co-songwriters on plush ballads like “Come Tomorrow” and “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
That collaboration gave the younger Gibbs a place in their father’s renewed creative life. Until two years ago, Gibb was still using cassettes to make demos, but Stephen began recording their living-room jam sessions on his iPhone and Ashley typed up his lyrics on a computer so they could edit freely. A longtime fascination with bluegrass had Gibb at first planning a country album, but his songwriting instead evolved more in the direction of classic pop melodies inspired by Carole King and Bruce Springsteen.
The process was unexpectedly emotional. “We got more verbal with how we felt,” says Ashley. “It was a mutual agreement that you could say whatever it is you’ve got to say and be as honest as you can.” For Gibb, that meant reflecting on his feelings about Stephen’s personal turmoil. “I felt anguished because of his unhappiness, and the fact that he was not able to tell me exactly what was going on,” says Gibb. “I think Ashley felt like that, too. So there was this huge personal thing going on between the three of us for the whole of this album. And I think it’s in the album. I was feeling his pain. Maybe all of the losses in our lives in the past 10, 15 years, maybe we were all feeling something individual.”
The family melodrama, and Gibb’s endeavor to move beyond it, is best captured in “Home Truth Song,” a jangly rocker in which Gibb formulates what might as well be the family motto: “We stand together in a one-man show.” The song (inspired by Springsteen, his favorite modern artist) alludes to both private struggles and resolution to survive: “I am the man who does it all or nothing/I am the one who will not fade away/I will be standing with my hand in the fire/Feeling forever young/Back where I belong/Singing a home truth song.”
Throughout the album, Gibb made the conscious decision to only use his famed falsetto — the source of so much success and stigma — sparingly. “I’m keeping that guy in the background,” he said. “He appears now and then.” And so do his brothers, in a way. On some songs, Gibb and his longtime producer John Merchant multitracked his vocal parts to create a very Bee Gees blended harmony. On “Star-Crossed Lovers,” a chiming ballad that evokes the classic “Too Much Heaven,” Gibb’s triple-tracked harmonies float in the background like ghostly pictures on the wall.
On a Saturday night in Miami, Barry Gibb emerges from a stage door, nerves rattling. He’s about to premiere his new songs before an intimate audience of 25 — plus 20,000 more watching online. Gibb and an 11-piece band are set up at the storied Hit Factory/Criterion Studios, where Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours and the Eagles made Hotel California, to live-stream a concert, an event orchestrated by Columbia. Once again in Zen uniform (all black, yoga beads), Gibb walks slowly to the mic, straps on his acoustic guitar, takes a deep breath — and chokes on the first couple of notes of “In the Now.”
But he quickly recovers, finding his silky tenor’s sweet spot, flashing that high-beam Barry Gibb grin. The old star power is back as he eases into the album’s title track:
“All I think about is yesterday / I need you here in the now…”
He works through four new songs, then pivots to the Bee Gees catalog for “How Deep Is Your Love.” “This one’s for mum,” he says (the week before, Barbara Gibb died at 95). As he sings, Gibb seems energized by the familiar melody, a group of female backup singers cooing the Maurice and Robin parts. To his side, Stephen strums a guitar; Ashley, the spitting image of his dad, smiles from the control booth. The entire studio feels like a comfort zone and, as ever, a reminder of Gibb’s past: Indeed, he stood in this precise spot when the Bee Gees recorded their first disco album, Main Course, in 1975.
Earlier, Gibb explained that he is working on a memoir, crafted as a series of semifictional comedy sketches, with Ashley’s help. “He types, and I spout,” says Gibb. “Just like in the songwriting.” In one episode, Gibb is walking his dog Barnaby at night when he runs into Kenny Everett, the British comedian who mocked the Bee Gees in the late ’70s. The late Everett, who was gay, invites Gibb back to his apartment for a nightcap, and a flustered Gibb politely begs off, blaming Barnaby — whose thoughts Gibb injects into the dialogue. It’s very British.
“I’m up to the Hollywood years and Sgt. Pepper and meeting Shirley MacLaine at a party,” says Gibb with a smile, “and it just gets sillier and sillier.” Certainly Robin and Maurice would have loved it — a return to Sunny Jim and the private jokes of the Bee Gees Comedy Trio, which Stephen and Ashley, as kids, absorbed with ears against the door. As Gibb sings in “Meaning of the Word,” co-written with his sons, “the key to life is remembering.” “And it really is,” he says. “There’s nothing else. There’s only your path. And you use that to be in the present.”
The many incarnations of Barry Gibb — with and without his brothers — during a more than five-decade career.
Gibb (left) with brothers Robin (center) and Maurice in their early songwriting days with the Bee Gees, shortly after the family moved to Sydney. “We knew as kids we had something going on,” says Gibb.
The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, buoyed by six Bee Gees songs, begins its staggering 24-week-run atop the Billboard 200.
Barbra Streisand and Gibb join forces for her album Guilty. It yields three more Grammys for him, including record and song of the year for “Woman in Love.”
Gibb finally joins Robin and Barry impersonators Justin Timberlake (left) and Jimmy Fallon for their Saturday Night Live skit “The Barry Gibb Talk Show.”
At the Glastonbury music festival, Coldplay’s Chris Martin invites Gibb onstage for duets on “To Love Somebody” and “Stayin’ Alive.”
Bands of Brothers (and Sisters)
Other top sibling acts through the ages, and their highest-charting albums.
The Beach Boys
Members: Brothers Dennis, Brian and Carl Wilson (plus cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine)
Biggest Album: Beach Boys in Concert (1964)
The Jackson 5
Members: Brothers Tito, Jackie, Michael, Jermaine and Marlon Jackson
Biggest Album: Third Album (1970)
Members: Siblings Richard and Karen Carpenter
Biggest Album: The Singles 1969-1973 (1974)
Members: Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson
Biggest Album: Heart (1985)
Kings of Leon
Members: Brothers Jared, Caleb and Nathan Followill (and cousin Matthew Followill)
Biggest Album: Come Around Sundown (2010)
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 15 issue of Billboard.