Happy 40th Anniversary to Andy Gibb’s debut album Flowing Rivers, originally released September 9, 1977
Andy Gibb's story is often told with an unfortunate lack of emphasis on his music, except when it fits into a backhanded narrative about 70s kitsch. The fact of the matter is that Andy was exceptionally talented, and his debut album Flowing Rivers brimmed with promise. The majority of the project showcased his original songs, many of which had been written prior to his arrival in the United States where he signed a recording contract in the summer of 1976 with RSO Records. Flowing Rivers was a culmination of about two years' worth of writing and recording, which Andy had begun while living and working in Australia—a training ground strongly suggested by his older brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice as the experience was a critical catalyst in the evolution of the Bee Gees.
At the helm of those early sessions was famed Australian singer, songwriter, and producer Col Joye, who had, intriguingly, also produced his brothers' debut single, "The Battle of the Blue and The Grey,” in 1963. About a dozen or so of Andy's compositions were committed to tape, presumably to be included in a full album release under Joye's direction in 1976. The project, however, was scrapped when plans to bring him stateside to join the RSO stable began to develop. Impressed by the potential he heard in those recordings, RSO Records founder and Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood invited Andy to his home in Bermuda to ink the deal and begin preparations for his first album with eldest brother Barry. He and co-producers Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson, who had been recently added to the control booth for the recording of the Bee Gees' Children Of The World album, would oversee Andy's major-label introduction.
Galuten, who spoke to me via telephone a few weeks ago from Los Angeles, remembers the recording of Flowing Rivers as a joyous occasion. "Andy was just so full of just, I don't know, fire and brimstone, or piss and vinegar. He was just so excited and young and fired up about it. It was absolutely fantastic. Certainly for me it was a buzz because I'd been making records for ten years, but none of them were really successful. It's like I had been practicing for that time period for all those years, collecting my ten dollars an hour, so then when it was time to hire musicians and figure out how to produce things and how to overdub, put things on certain tracks, and arrange music, we had the experience."
Galuten's professional connections from previous session work in Miami resulted in him being charged with assembling session players for the album. Drummer Ron "Tubby" Ziegler, bassist Harold Cowart, guitarists Joey Murcia and George Terry, pedal steel player Don Buzzard, and pianist/keyboardist Paul Harris were soon enlisted, bringing with them an impressive number of credentials. "Harold and Tubby—bass and drums—were originally in a band called Cold Grits," Galuten recounted. "They're from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and they played on records like [Brooke Benton's] ‘Rainy Night in Georgia,’ and they'd been session musicians at Atlantic Records for years. They came back to Miami and were living there and started doing odds and ends sessions. Harold was just a great, solid bass player, and one of his credits was [John Fred & His Playboys'] ‘Judy In Disguise (With Glasses).’ They were a great R&B rhythm section, and, you know, one of my connections with Barry was always that we loved rhythm and blues because of Stax and that sort of stuff. We never thought of that music as disco.”
Galuten continues, “George Terry I'd met when he was in a local band called Game, and he's a great and meticulous guitar player. I brought him in on some Eric Clapton sessions when we were doing 461 Ocean Boulevard. Every note is absolutely on purpose, thought out, always perfectly in tune. There are some nuances to playing guitar very carefully, where you place your fingers really in the proper position on the frets so that it doesn't pull any of the notes sharp. And you can do gymnastics with your fingers so the notes will ring into each other, and when you switch notes you don't lift your finger up. That was George." Recording sessions for Flowing Rivers took place in October 1976 at Criteria Recording Studios in the Gibbs' adopted hometown of Miami—strategically scheduled in between the release of the Bee Gees' Children of the World album and preparations for their North American tour. Barry was present solely for production of the two tracks he'd written ("I Just Want to Be Your Everything" and "(Love Is) Thicker Than Water"), although he'd retain an Executive Producer credit for the project. Otherwise, Galuten and Richardson were left to work closely with Andy and the session players to steer the album's creation.
"We cut live tracks with the band," Galuten recalls of the recording process. "I think this was in a period before multiple multi-tracks. It was done on one multi-track tape recorder. We went in with the band and rehearsed in the studio at that point. I don't remember specifically how long it took to cut each track, but we probably did a couple each day. The rhythm section was all there, and any strings or horn sections were overdubs. It was really made very much the way records were made back then—you sat in with the band, they played, we arranged some things on the floor and worked out guitar parts and recorded it. And then we'd do a vocal, and background parts, and sweetening. I don't think it took us more than a few weeks to do the whole thing." The album's opening track and first single, "I Just Want to Be Your Everything,” was reportedly written by Barry in a matter of a few hours.
To say the eldest Gibb brother is a proficient songwriter is an understatement, and he became notorious for what was almost a mechanical ability to crank out hit records in a matter of minutes. "Barry writing those songs, he was always just...he was amazing," Galuten confirmed. "When you do anything with Barry...at this point in his career [he] was so hot. You'd sit down and write a song with him...I would call it ‘The Barry Gibb Gift Society.’ He'd sit down and he'd play, like, two chords, and the next thing you know the song was done. It had all the melody and the lyrics, and it happened in no time." "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" was stylistically closer to the R&B fusion the Bee Gees had recently laid down on Children of the World than Andy's own compositions, which leaned a bit closer to country-rock. Its mid-tempo bounce is punched up with a distinctively syncopated rhythm guitar lick. "That was Joey Murcia," Galuten insists. "He used to work a lot at TK [Records], so he played on records like [Betty Wright's] ‘Clean Up Woman.’ He definitely had that funky R&B thing. The strings were me playing an ARP 2600 synthesizer." The release of “…Everything” marked the first time the Gibb-Galuten-Richardson production team, which would eventually evolve into one of the most successful collaborative powerhouses in pop music, launched material outside of the Bee Gees' wheelhouse.
Barry was also still experimenting with his falsetto voice and the modern R&B flavors he'd unearthed on the Bee Gees' previous two albums, so it's interesting to theorize how he might have worked with Andy to develop a cohesive vocal blend and match styles. The song has a compelling amount of movement between the verses and choruses, driven by its indelible melody. Even if the song may not be your jam, chances are your brain won't escape it. It's a remarkably effective pop record. While it may be easy to dismiss the song's lyrics as youthfully benevolent ("If I stay here without you, darlin', I will die" is about as emo as ‘70s pop music gets), its vulnerability is precisely what makes it work as a single. The emphasis on the word "just" in the title as an absolute declaration of devotion was critically important to Barry as the song's writer and co-producer.
"I Just Want to Be Your Everything" sent Andy immediately to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in the US, where it spent four weeks at number one in July 1977 and became the most played song of the year. It has enjoyed a rather robust shelf life over the past four decades—in 2013, Billboard produced a 55th anniversary ranking of its all-time top Hot 100 singles, which landed "…Everything" at number 26. "(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” co-penned by Barry and Andy, was issued as Flowing Rivers' second single. "In some ways, '…Thicker Than Water'...I don't know if I'd call it underrated, but it's a really, really unusual song,"
Galuten asserts. Structurally, the track is a significant departure from much of what the Bee Gees or Andy had written to date, instead borrowing its soundscape from classic blues rock that would have been more characteristic of Steve Miller than the Gibbs. The refrain, which is typically used in the brothers' compositions to propel the verses into the melodic stratosphere, contains them instead. Galuten invited the Eagles’ Joe Walsh to the session as the band happened to be at Criteria at the same time to place the finishing touches on their album Hotel California. Walsh’s intriguing, searing guitar solo brings the four-minute song to a dramatic climax just a quarter of the way into its elapsed time. When the intensity subsides, Andy's honey-drizzled voice plays almost at a whisper on top of Tubby Ziegler's hi-hats. At two-and-a-half minutes, the chorus-verse negotiation is finished, and the song slides into a gently rolling coda of nonchalant 'da da da's. As a commercial single, “Thicker Than Water” was a bit of an artistic gamble compared to its explicitly catchy predecessor. Released in September 1977, the song was a bit of a slow burn on the US charts. But the combination of "I Just Want to Be Your Everything"'s longevity and the arrival of new music by the Bee Gees in the form of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack certainly didn't hurt its progress.
Eventually, Andy would achieve his second Billboard Hot 100 number one single on March 4, 1978 when "Thicker Than Water" displaced his brothers' ubiquitous "Stayin' Alive" from the pole position. "Words and Music" was written by sixteen-year-old Andy on his own in 1974 and was released as his first-ever commercial single in Australia and New Zealand in late 1975, becoming a minor hit in both countries. It was re-recorded with his new band during the Flowing Rivers sessions, maintaining much of its original feel save for a slight change in tempo. A key change and some falsetto ad libs near the end of the revised version gives it a bit of drama that hadn't been present on the first iteration.
Galuten co-wrote two new songs with Andy while they were in the studio at Criteria. "Dance to the Light of the Morning" is a buoyant country stroll, evoking similarities to the Bellamy Brothers' "Let Your Love Flow." The interplay of Don Buzzard's pedal steel and Paul Harris' electric piano underneath Ziegler's playful rim-clicks add to its momentum and authenticity. "Don was a great steel player," explains Galuten. "He played out of Texas swing band kind of stuff. He was really, really good. The stuff he did on that record was not pedal steel kind of stuff at all. He was doubling in parts that sounded more like an electric piano, harmonics and stuff. And Paul—he said something really interesting to me once. I asked what he was working out on the piano. And he said 'I'm focusing on the difference between how you would play the equivalent of a [guitar] up-pick as opposed to a down-pick on the piano.' He was very thoughtful...and played with a lot of heart." "Too Many Looks In Your Eyes" veers back into purer pop territory. As much as Andy's reputation would eventually become folded into overly generalized disco stereotyping, his sincerity and warmth in ballads was one of his greatest strengths. Perhaps one of his most overlooked compositions is "Starlight,” an incredibly pretty track that once again benefits from Paul Harris' competent piano work. Andy’s gentle, reflective vocal has an opportunity to really shine in the mix.
The album's title track is another of Andy's earlier compositions—a presumably autobiographical account of a singer's ethical dilemma in choosing between his love for music (“I've got to go / I've finished what I came for / playing every city, state to state”) and the arms of a woman (“Ah, you're standing there / tears in your eyes / you once called me a man / and loving you was never in my plans”). It's a steady country-rock anthem that had enough lyrical and musical strength to be a single—a possibility RSO had allegedly considered and decided against. Along with the equally engaging "Let It Be Me,” it would instead be used as a B-side for singles from Andy's second album, Shadow Dancing. Another piano ballad, the appropriately titled "In the End,” closes the album—another re-work from his sessions with Col Joye early in 1976. Its melancholy is in palpable contrast to the rest of the record's generally upbeat subject matter, but it shows definitive range in Andy's abilities as a growing songwriter.
Flowing Rivers was an unqualified success, landing in the top twenty of Billboard's Top 200 albums chart and selling over a million copies. "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" and “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” combined with "Shadow Dancing" the following year, would earn Andy the distinction of being the first-ever solo artist in the United States to have their first three consecutive singles reach number one. Within months, Andy would achieve a level of popularity and exposure that would overshadow most of his contemporaries.
The album was finally re-issued solely on compact disc in 1998 by Polydor, the parent company that printed and distributed RSO’s releases when it was still a functioning label. It’s since gone out of print, but remains available for digital download and streaming via iTunes/Apple Music, Amazon, and Spotify. A swath of Flowing Rivers tracks were also included on the Bee Gees’ 2010 retrospective Mythology.
Although the accolades were certainly heartening, Galuten stresses that the music was the most important thing to Andy, especially as he and the players took Flowing Rivers on tour after its release. "One of the great things for Andy was being on the road...and having a band of high-quality musicians so he could just be himself. When you're having your first success and you're young, it's such a great buzz."
Life became increasingly complicated for Andy on a number of levels after 1977, and many of the trials and tribulations that eventually culminated in his untimely death from myocarditis in 1988 are absolutely heartbreaking. But Flowing Rivers is a respite—a portrait of Andy as a blossoming creative spirit who poured himself into the craft with enthusiasm and focus.