July 4, 2014 9:00 AM ET
at his side
"Taxes," the former Bee Gee muttered. "I've set aside 40 percent in a tax account since we started. All the money I see is mine." On the floor next to him, an oscillating fan blew back and forth, gently disturbing what was left of his snowy mane. Gibb sighed and changed the channel.
Gibb's wife, Linda, was in the next room, wrapping a mountain of Christmas presents for their five children and seven grandchildren. But Gibb wasn't feeling very festive. In fact, he was depressed. Seven months earlier, his younger brother Robin had died after a long bout with cancer. He was preceded in death by his twin brother, Maurice, as well as their brother Andy and their father, Hugh. "All the men in my family are gone," Gibb said. "The last few months have been pretty intense." Recently, a German TV crew had come to film an interview with him, and the encounter left Gibb shaken. "They were just nasty," he said. "They were holding up pictures of Robin and me, trying to get a reaction. There was no sensitivity about the fact that I'd lost my brothers."
Thirty-five years ago, Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb – better known as the Bee Gees – were the most popular band in the world. Their Saturday Night Fever soundtrack – the ne plus ultra of mainstream disco – knocked Fleetwood Mac's Rumours off the top of the charts and stayed there for six months straight. They've sold more than 200 million records; as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame put it, at the time of their induction in 1997, only Elvis, the Beatles, Garth Brooks, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney had sold more. They're the only group in history to have written, recorded and produced six consecutive Number One hits. "We weren't on the charts," Maurice once boasted, "we were the charts."
And then, just like that, they weren't. America decided that disco sucked, and the Gibb brothers went from icons to punch lines overnight. Andy passed away, then Maurice. Now that Robin was gone, Barry was the only one left.
Robin and Maurice's birthday was in three days, and Gibb was going through photos from their childhood, picking out some of his favorites. "Our group has always gotten criticism without anybody really knowing us," he said. "I'll respond to every question you ask."
We made plans to meet again in two days. But that night, I got back to my hotel and had a message from Gibb.
I called him and asked if everything was OK. "I'm fine," he said. "But I don't want to continue. I'm just really uncomfortable with having my life opened up right now. I'm still grieving. I'm still dealing with the fact that I've lost all my brothers. It's just horrible for me. It's horrible for me inside."
"I like you," Gibb went on, "and I think that you like me. And at some point we can do this. But right now, I'm just too fragile, it's one day at a time." He hesitated, searching for the right words. "I'm just not whole enough," he said. "I pray that you understand." And then he hung up.
What do you think of when you think of the Bee Gees? Saturday Night Fever and "Stayin' Alive" for sure. Bell-bottom suits and falsetto hooks. "Big hair, big teeth, medallions," as Barry once said. Maybe you've seen Jimmy Fallon's Saturday Night Live send-up, "The Barry Gibb Talk Show," or Homer Simpson and Disco Stu dancing by "table five, table five." (The Gibbs to Rolling Stone in 1988 about "Stayin' Alive": "We'd like to dress it up in a white suit and gold chains and set it on fire.") It's possible you have some vague awareness of their vastly underrated early work, like "To Love Somebody," which they wrote for Otis Redding, who died before he could record it, or "Lonely Days," which could be an outtake from Side Two of Abbey Road. Otherwise, they're frozen in 1978, forever pointing to the sky at 120 beats per minute.
Which is a shame, because in reality, the Bee Gees are one of the strangest, most complicated, most brilliant groups ever to achieve pop stardom. They rose from nothing in the backwater of Australia to conquer the music world as teenagers, then lost everything and did it all over again. As songwriters, they're unparalleled: Michael Jackson once called Saturday Night Fever the inspiration for Thriller, and Bono has said their catalog makes him "ill with envy," ranking them "up there with the Beatles."
Ever since their days harmonizing in grade school, the Gibbs wrote almost telepathically, Robin throwing out a lyric, Barry ready with the melody. They once wrote three Number One singles in an afternoon. "We work better as a team," Robin said.
The Gibbs were like legs on a tripod: Take away one, and the others would collapse. This led to a lifetime of love-hate relationships. Often they couldn't stand one another, but they couldn't bear to be apart. Robin and Barry lived in Miami two houses from each other, and Maurice lived just three blocks away. Their success afforded them a fabulous life – mansions, cars, boats, planes – and then, slowly but surely, drove them apart. As Robin once put it, not long before his death, "I sometimes wonder if the tragedies my family has suffered are a karmic price for all the fame and fortune the Bee Gees have had."
To get to Barry Gibb's house, you cross the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a three-and-a-quarter-mile concrete span connecting the Florida mainland to the glitz of Miami Beach. The bridge is lined with girders of reinforced steel, which, when traversed at 55 miles per hour, fill a car's interior with a loping backbeat: chuckity-chuck, ch-chuckity-chuck. Drive a little faster than 55, and the backbeat grows into a funky little groove.
One day in January 1975, Gibb was driving over the bridge heading home from the studio. Things were not going great. The Bee Gees had recently had an album rejected by their label, and they'd been reduced to playing England's dinner-theater circuit. In Atlantic City, they were second-billed to a horse. Their friend Eric Clapton suggested they try Miami, where they could rent his old house at 461 Ocean Boulevard and get a tan while they plotted their comeback. Then one night they heard that groove, wrote a song based on it the next day, and by the end of the summer, "Jive Talkin'" was Number One – the first in an epic run of hits that spanned four years and eight top singles, one of the most successful stretches in pop-music history.
Gibb, 67, lives in an exclusive enclave in North Miami Beach called Millionaire's Row, and his neighbors include Alex Rodriguez, Lil Wayne and some Miami Heat players whose names he can never remember. The place is extravagant, even by Miami standards: Two life-size stone lions guard the front steps, and a full-size basketball court sits out back. In the driveway, there's a big fountain, and parked next to it there's an Escalade.
Inside, Gibb is watching Fox News again, where talk has turned to the missing Malaysian plane. He's as handsome as he ever was – blindingly white teeth, rectilinear jaw, flowing locks, movie-star chin. He looks like an older version of the Burger King king. Gibb's beard is thinning a bit, but it's too late for him to get rid of it now. "The beard pulls all your muscles down," he says, "so it's not so pretty if you shave. Every time I see Brad Pitt with that beard, I think, 'Better cut it before it's too late.'"
Gibb says he didn't know it at the time, but when we first met, he was despondent. "I went on as normal," he says. "But that's not how I felt. I was groping around. I didn't know what to do with myself. When suddenly you're on your own after all those years, you start to question life itself. What's the point in any of it?"
That lasted about a year and a half, until two people snapped him out of it. The first was Linda. "She kicked me off the couch," Gibb says. "She said, 'You can't just sit here and die with everybody else. Get on with your life.'" The second was Paul McCartney. They were talking backstage at SNL, "and I said I wasn't sure how much longer I could keep doing this. And Paul said, 'Well, what else are you going to do?' And I just thought, 'Well, OK, then.'"
So this spring, Gibb is hitting the road across North America for six solo shows, his first tour ever without his brothers. The show costs him half a million dollars a night, so he'll be lucky to break even. But that's not the point. "I have to keep this music alive," Gibb says. "Before my brothers died, I wouldn't have thought of it that way. But that's my job now. It's important that people remember these songs."
When Barry Gibb first came into the world, he was the little brother. His sister Lesley was nearly two when Barry was born, on the Isle of Man, off the west coast of England, where his father was a bandleader and his mother took care of the kids. He almost didn't make it out of childhood: At 18 months, he spilled a teapot and scalded himself so badly the doctors gave him 20 minutes to live. He spent three months in the hospital. Over the next few years, he also fell through a roof, shot himself in the eye with a BB gun and was hit by a car on two occasions. "I was," he says, "just one of those kids that was always getting hit by a car."
The Bee Gees were rounded out a few years later when the twins came along. Three-year-old Barry was unimpressed: Their cat had just given birth to six kittens – what was the big deal with two? Once, when Robin started crying, Barry begged his mother to take him back.
When Barry was eight, the family moved to Manchester, which was still rebuilding from the war. They lived across from bombed-out ruins and ate ketchup sandwiches and stolen candy. For Christmas when Barry was nine, his dad bought him a guitar, and Barry and his brothers started writing songs. Soon thereafter the family moved to Australia, where the boys sang at matinees and RSL clubs (short for Returned Services League – like a VFW hall with drunk Aussies). They dropped out of school when Barry was 15 and the twins were 13, and after a few years of local success decided to make a go of it in the U.K.
The Gibbs arrived in 1967, at the peak of Swinging London: Union Jacks waving in Kensington, Minis and miniskirts everywhere. ("And the miniskirts were really mini," Gibb says. "Not like today – you could see everything.") They signed with Brian Epstein's management company and soon had a couple of hits ("New York Mining Disaster 1941" and "To Love Somebody"). Gibb became a regular on Carnaby Street, dropping £1,500 on shirts like it was Tube fare. He bought a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley and a Lamborghini; one time he walked out his door and realized every car on the street was his. (In his defense, said Linda, "It was a small street.")
And yet for all its success, the group always had trouble earning respect. There's one night Gibb remembers vividly. He was at a nightclub called Speakeasy, surrounded by a who's who of Sixties London: Pete Townshend. Jimi Hendrix. The Beatles and Stones huddled together, John Lennon still wearing his outfit from the Sgt. Pepper photo shoot earlier in the day. After a couple of Scotch-and-Cokes, Townshend turned to Gibb and said, "Do you want to meet John?" He led him across the room to where Lennon was holding court "John," said Townshend. "This is Barry Gibb, from the group the Bee Gees."
"Howyadoin'," said Lennon, not bothering to turn around. He reached back over his shoulder and offered Gibb a halfhearted shake.
"So I met John Lennon's back," Gibb says with a laugh. "I didn't meet his front."
At the time, the group's biggest songs were the ones where Robin sang lead, his crystalline vibrato powering moody dirges like "Massachusetts" and "Holiday." But his overbite and goofy smile were no match for Barry's matinee-idol looks. " 'Resentment' may be a strong word," says Gibb, "but not inappropriate." As Barry got more of the attention, their squabbles grew more intense. Finally, in 1969, with the bitterness at a high point, Robin quit the band.
The next few months were a dark time for the Gibbs. Robin put out a solo album that didn't do as well as he'd hoped. Maurice started boozing it up with Richard Burton and Ringo Starr. Barry became a near-recluse, retreating to his flat in London, where he shot BB guns at his chandelier and read TV Guide alone in the dark. Finally, after a year and a half, the brothers declared a detente and decided to reunite. As Robin put it, somewhat presciently, "It's no fun if you're on your own."
By then the Bee Gees had fallen out of the spotlight, where they remained for the next half-decade. "Those five years were hell," Barry once said. "There is nothing worse on Earth than being in the pop wilderness." Then came the chuckity-chuck, and their comeback with "Jive Talkin'." Playing around at a recording session that same year, Barry discovered his million-dollar falsetto, and soon the group was embracing the growing movement called disco. "I think it was probably the Vietnam War that triggered the whole thing," says Barry. "People wanted to dance."
In the spring of 1977, the Bee Gees spent a cold, miserable month in France's Château d'Hérouville – a.k.a. Elton John's Honky Château – working on their next album, when they got a call from their manager. He was producing a disco movie, and he needed some songs for the soundtrack. The brothers gave him what they had, and the result changed pop-music history.
The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack went on to sell 15 million copies and win a Grammy for Album of the Year. The songs were inescapable: Five of them went to Number One. When their manager needed a song for another movie he was producing, also starring John Travolta, Barry wrote "Grease," which went to Number One as well. Of the 10 biggest songs of 1978, the Gibbs were responsible for fully half.
"Looking back, it was an incredible experience," Barry says. "But it made us all a bit crazy. It got to a point where we couldn't breathe. I remember death threats. Crazy fans driving past the house, playing 'Stayin' Alive' at 120 decibels. I really like privacy. I'm just not that good with whatever fame is."
For their next album, the Bee Gees mounted a 41-date tour. "We did three nights at Madison Square Garden, and one of those nights we never went to bed," Gibb says. "To this day, I can't figure out how we did it. Youth, I guess." (And possibly drugs. The Gibbs had always been fond of substances: Barry smoked grass, Robin liked pills and Maurice drank. For the most part, they stayed away from harder stuff. "I did a week of cocaine in 1980-something," says Gibb. "But the trouble with cocaine . . ." – he laughs – "is cocaine! You've got to do it every half hour. It's too much work. Amphetamines last four to six hours. And in those days," he says with a grin, "there were some great amphetamines.")
At that point Barry was the undisputed star of the group. He'd always been the leader: As Beatles producer George Martin once put it, "Everybody knows that Barry is the idea man of the three, and when he is too overt about that, they tend to rebel." Now, thanks to Barry's falsetto, he was singing everything too, and old jealousies started to rear up. Barry didn't want a repeat of 1969, so he decided to step back and sing fewer leads. His falsetto fell by the wayside. The thing that made them massive, the thing everyone wanted to hear, he gave up for the sake of the family.
"The best time in our lives was the time right before fame," says Gibb. "We could not have been tighter. We were glued together. The following year is where excesses started coming in. Drink, pills. The scene, egos." That's when the competition began – and with it came the separation.
"It was 45 years, so there were times we had the times of our lives," he says. "But it was never as sweet and innocent as it was in 1966."