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The Bee Gees perfected fraternal harmonies way before going disco

By Gwen Ihnat july 7 ,2015
(Photo by Waring Abbott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Bee Gees became worldwide celebrities as the godfathers of disco, the band behind the mega-selling soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. At one point in 1978 they had written five of the songs in Billboard’s Top Ten, a record matched only by The Beatles. But these Aussies by way of England didn’t come out of nowhere; there were a few previous incarnations of the brothers Gibb before they hit this unprecedented big time.

In the late ’60s, the Bee Gees consisted not only of brothers Barry, Maurice, and Robin, but a drummer and a bassist. In the English invasion of pop music, their powerful fraternal harmonies carried them through the decade. Robin was the lead singer, Barry sang backup and played guitar, while Maurice was the most technically adept musically, playing a variety of instruments. Barry and Robin liked to sketch out story songs, like “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You,” in which a condemned man tries to get a note to his wife before he’s executed, or “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” inspired by the brothers’ recording session near a gloomy elevator shaft. The group also had a hit with the now-standard “To Love Somebody”—which they originally wrote for
Otis Reddingwith Barry on lead vocals.

The Bee Gees’ early output deserves another listen; just focusing on their vocals alone, an easy showpiece is “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You.” In the experimental era of Sgt. Pepper’s, and Pet Sounds, even Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Bee Gees kicked off the song with a Gregorian chant backed by a mellotron, with Robin and Barry exploring the regions of their lower registers. The song’s not much substance, only the brothers’ vocal power, with a chorus that repeats the song title over and over, showing that their sibling harmonies blend more sublimely than most. The vocals eventually overlap, resulting in a near-hypnotic spell, backed by some mournful strings and a menacing, bare drum track. The trippy yet undeniable song has a had a number of fans over the years, including the Flaming Lips, who recorded a cover to lead off a compilation of their live recordings.

The Bee Gees were promoted almost from the band’s beginning by enthusiastic promoter Robert Stigwood, who wanted to push the handsome Barry as the group’s front man, even though Robin usually sang lead vocals. So Robin left the group by the end of the ’60s, followed by Maurice. Assuming that it’s harder for bands created by siblings to write each other off completely (give or take a Gallagher brother), the Gibbs soon reunited in 1970. After a slow start, this next iteration eventually produced hits like “Jive Talkin’” and “Nights On Broadway,” which led them to their undeniably most commercially successful creative output. By the mid-’70s, Stigwood had expanded into movie producing; he pushed the Bee Gees onto the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and disco history was made. It’s what the Bee Gees are best known for, but a journey about a decade back proves that it shouldn’t be all that they’re known for.


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Image credit:  Getty Images
“New York Mining Disaster 1941 (Have You Seen My Wife, Mr. Jones)”
Written by Barry and Robin Gibb (1967)
Performed by Bee Gees

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