Sunday Express, Sunday 2nd December 2007
The face is strikingly familiar and when Spencer Gibb opens his mouth to sing the voice is utterly unmistakable. Those same haunting, falsetto tones that made his father Robin and the Bee Gees one of music’s iconic acts are about to be unleashed on a new generation.
After years of struggle, Spencer Gibb has finally emerged from his father’s shadow with a record deal.
It would be easy to drift into clichés and say the Bee Gees 1979 hit Tragedy aptly describes Spencer’s years in a pop/rock wilderness in Britain and America but, at 34, he prefers the irony of applying another song title, Stayin’ Alive, to his two decades of anonymity, since quitting St Paul’s School in London as a starry-eyed 14-year old with the unshakeable belief that fame was merely a few footsteps away.
That very track, written by his father Robin and uncles Maurice (Robin’s twin) and Barry for the 1977 blockbuster film Saturday Night Fever, had long since heralded the dawn of the disco era and established the Bee Gees as its global tour de force.
As a rebellious teenager whose head was filled with the music of his own idols, notably Hendrix, Lennon, Joni Mitchell and Eric Clapton, Spencer thought he had it made.
As well as an immediate family more bathed-in than touched by stardust (his other uncle, the late Andy Gibb, was a successful solo artist) he also thought his decision would impress his godfather – legendary impresario Robert Stigwood, the marketing and production genius behind the Bee Gees, Cream and a slew of other Sixties and Seventies bands as well as such theatrical productions as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.
“I told everyone I was going to make it on my own and I didn’t need any help,” says Spencer, who had built his first guitar, a hybrid from otherwise worthless spare parts, at the age of 12.
“I half thought they would all fall over themselves to tell me how wise I was and what a huge star I’d be and I was already mentally taking bows on stage but my father’s reaction was horror. I think his dream was for me to excel at my private school, go to university and become a merchant banker or something.
“Dad and his brothers grew up in a shared bedroom in a Manchester council flat. They really endured hard times before they made it. He wanted what all fathers really want for their sons, an easier path to a respectable job.”
Spencer’s mother Molly, Robin’s first wife and a former personal assistant to The Beatles, was aghast too but promised to support Spencer’s dream with the caveat: “If you’re really hauling your butt out of here, good luck – but you’re not getting a penny out of us!”
Though used to a nomadic family lifestyle as a result of the Bee Gees’ success, a lifestyle Spencer believes ultimately caused his parents to divorce in 1980 after 12 years’ marriage, he began a period of “mostly aimless drifting” between London, New York and Miami – the city in which Robin finally settled and still lives with second wife Dwina. [inaccurate]
“As a kid I travelled the world in style, surrounded by bodyguards and staying in the finest hotels but before I was out of my teens, I was scraping up the cash for cheap flights and crashing on floors.”
Too young and naïve even to secure a modest toe-hold in the cut-throat music business, Spencer embarked on a series of low-paid jobs, most of which he failed to keep for long.
“I had a job as a waiter in Oxford but was fired after serving a guest at a wedding reception a pint of Johnny Walker whisky when he was already drunk. He was a huge, obnoxious guy, like Mr Creosote from the Monty Python sketch. To the horror of the bride and groom he followed the sketch precisely and vomited over an entire table of fellow guests. The head of the catering firm sacked me on the spot but, hey, I had been brought up in a rock and roll circus so had seen much worse.”
At the time, Spencer had been “dosing down” with his uncle Andy, the solo Gibb brother whose melancholy hits had included (Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away. Andy’s death from a heart infection in March 1988 came like a hammer blow to Spencer.
“He had been more like a brother than an uncle to me,” he says. “He was a simple guy with astonishing talent who partied until he died a few days after his 30th birthday. I still love and miss him.”
More dead-end jobs followed his dream seemed to be slipping further away.
“I was writing, playing, trying to get something moving musically,” he says. The first breakthrough came in the mid Nineties when he landed a job as a freelance engineer at a recording studio in Florida.
While his father and stepmother enjoyed the rock high life a stone’s throw away at their Miami Beach mansion, Spencer began his grass-roots education in the music industry.
“I learned, in essence, what my dad and my uncles had been about for years, I took the education to heart and practised, practised and then practised some more.”
Five years ago, Spencer moved to Austin, Texas, a university city which styles itself “America’s Home Of Live Music”, to practise his craft and form a band. Having been there barely a year, he found himself flying back to the east coast following the death of another beloved uncle, Maurice, his father’s twin brother, from a heart attack in January 2003.
Both Robin and Spencer were devastated by the loss. Like Andy, Maurice had for a time been a party animal but had conquered his demons and in his later years tried to follow a spiritual life as well as a strict 12-step recovery programme.
“Maurice was never happier than when he was performing acts of kindness,” says Spencer. “At his funeral, there were as many blue-collar guys there as there were celebrities, most of them ordinary folk who had been touched by some act by Maurice. At the end, one man from Alcoholics Anonymous or Cocaine Anonymous came up and told us he owed Maurice his life.
“It turned out my uncle had donated one of his kidneys [inaccurate] to this guy when he was in hospital facing death unless he got an immediate transplant. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Back in Austin, Spencer, who now had a wealth of songs, put together a new band with a “Psychedelic pop” sound. Last month, the band 54 Seconds, landed a record deal with Warner Brothers and were told one of their album tracks, Postcards From California, is to be released as a single in America and Britain.
Spencer revealed, however, this it is his father’s blessing that matters most as he finally stands on the threshold of his lifelong dream.
“Dad and I have talked music many times over the years,” he says, “but for the first time. I asked his direct professional advice when I sent him the tracks we had recorded and held my breath as I waited for his verdict.
“He said, ‘You’ve got it bang on. You’ve done it exactly the way I would have done it’.”
Robin, who will be 58 just before Christmas, also told his son he was proud of him but more was to come.
“He also said, musician to musician, that he respects my tenacity and relates to the songs that I write. What does that mean to me? Here’s an example of the esteem in which you have to hold my dad.
“He invited me to an awards ceremony in Los Angeles in March because he was receiving a lifetime achievement award. When his name was announced some of the audience barely looked up and one close by me continued playing his hand-held video game but even he stopped when the announcer said it was my father’s 110th professional award. I doubt there were many others that day who could count theirs on more than one hand.
“That’s why my dad’s endorsement means the world to me.”