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11 Surprising Things You Might Not Know About the Bee Gees

A new biography on the life and music of the Gibb brothers goes way beyond their role in disco fever

spinner image left the book cover for the story of the bee gees by bob stanley right disco group the bee gees in nineteen seventy nine
The Bee Gees in 1977.
Photo Collage: AARP (Source: Pegasus Books; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

You know 1970s classics like “Stayin’ Alive” and “More Than a Woman” — but how much do you know about the influential trio behind them? That would be Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb, musical siblings who inundated the radio waves, pop charts and American consciousness in 1977 with a soundtrack forever linked to the white-suited dance-floor moves of John Travolta in the hit movie Saturday Night Fever.

The brothers' lives, though, were full of ups and downs. There were the fantastic career triumphs: They remain the only group to have landed singles in Britain’s top 10 in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s — a command of the entire modern pop era. And they wrote many more songs that were made famous by other high-powered singers, such as Al Green (“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”), Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (“Islands in the Stream”) and Barbra Streisand (“Guilty”).

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They also had their share of challenges. Born into poverty and singing for tossed coins as kids, the Gibbs (who also had a fourth, younger brother, singer Andy Gibb) experienced humiliating setbacks, suffered battles with substances, fought with each other, and witnessed their biggest success become, for a while, a cultural joke. But they endured.

It’s all in the pages of The Story of the Bee Gees: Children of the World by British pop music historian Bob Stanley, who offers a passionate homage to this “deeply odd, and quite wonderful” band of brothers. He ​​captures their precocious youth, near-death experiences, family feuds and musical moments throughout their unprecedented careers, as well as the deaths of Maurice in 2003 at age 54 and Robin in 2012 at 62.

Here are 11 surprising things we learned from this definitive new biography of the Bee Gees.

1. The Gibb brothers were originally from a quirky independent little island off the coast of England.

Before moving to Australia, Barry, Robin and Maurice were born and spent their earliest years on Ellan Vannin, also known as the Isle of Man, a British Crown dependency with its own flag and parliament that sits in the Irish Sea. A seaside hotel lured the boys’ bandleader father, Hugh, to move there in the late 1940s, and the brothers, writes Stanley, “would make it their playground, a sandpit they could return to when times were rough, a place entirely other to the pop world. Robin, in particular, went on to write loving laments to the mountainous island, naming his last solo record after one of the houses the infant brothers lived in.”

2. The family lived in poverty.

Hugh’s work never paid well enough to allow the growing family to put down roots. They were always on the run, looking for better opportunities (and avoiding landlords), from the Isle of Man to England, and eventually all the way to Australia. Stanley quotes Barry: “We probably rented twenty houses during the seven years or so that we were in Australia. I think, without over-emphasizing it, my father just didn’t pay the rent. We were that family in the middle of the night with the suitcases.”

3. The boys practiced their distinctive harmonies in public restrooms.

The musically inclined young brothers “would find street corners and empty churches where they could get some echo to flesh out their harmonies, replicating the acoustics of a theatre,” Stanley writes. “Their favourite location was Lewis’s department store in Manchester, [England,] specifically the toilets.”

spinner image the bee gees performing at a unicef concert in nineteen seventy nine
The Bee Gees performing in New York City, 1979. From left, Maurice, Barry and Robin. 
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

4. The name “Bee Gees” didn’t originally stand for “Brothers Gibb.”

The trio got its name through a strange coincidence in Australia. The boys had begun singing for tossed coins (anything to make money!) at a Brisbane motorcar speedway owned by Bill Goode, who thought 12-year-old Barry and his little brothers had talent. Goode brought over a friend, radio DJ Bill Gates, to have a listen. The men spotted gold and suggested they call themselves “the BGs” because young Barry and the two men had the same initials. The name would later get spelled out as “Bee Gees” and retrofitted to stand for “the Brothers Gibb.”  

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5. They wrote their debut American single “New York Mining Disaster 1941” during a power outage.

After several years of pop flops in Australia, the boys returned to England in 1967 and auditioned for producer Robert Stigwood, who signed them. They were working on demos — including a moody, folk-inspired tune without a lyric — in Polydor’s London studio one day when the power went out. “They sat on stone steps, next to an old goods lift with metal concertina doors. They liked the echo of the lift shaft and, using their powers of improv, came up with a lyric for the minor-key song about being buried underground, giving it the eye-catching title ‘New York Mining Disaster 1941.’” The single would peak at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

6. Barry and Robin once wrote jingles for Coca-Cola.

In 1968, the brothers were asked to write jingles for the soda company. Barry came up with “a chirpy woodwind-led tune (‘Sitting in the meadow, frolic in the grass’),” but Robin’s was a bit darker. Stanley writes, “It opened with the line ‘Another cold and windy day’ before the drink’s obliterating powers were extolled: ‘I open up some Coke and smile. And then my mind’s free, for a while.’” Take a listen to Robin’s tune here.  

7. Barry wrote two U.S. No. 1 hits for his little brother Andy in 40 minutes.

Andy Gibb, considerably younger than his pop star brothers, had launched his own music career, and in 1976 at age 18 was offered a deal by Stigwood, then at the helm of RSO Records. Stigwood also offered Andy and his new bride, Kim Reeder, the use of his Bermuda home for their honeymoon that year, but when the couple arrived, there was Stigwood — and Barry. The brothers went into a bedroom to work on some songs for Andy. As Andy recalled, “’When Barry writes, it’s very hard to collaborate because he’s so quick. And before I knew it he was starting to do the chorus and I thought, Wow, what a hook. Within twenty minutes he’d written a number-one record [“I Want to Be Your Everything”]. And then we went right into another one.’” That was the hit “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water.” Andy died in 1988 at age 30.

spinner image portrait of disco band the bee gees
Barry, left, Maurice and Robin in 1980.
Photo by Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images

8. When the Bee Gees could have been out capitalizing on — and further promoting — their massive Saturday Night Fever success in 1977, Stigwood had them working on a failed Sergeant Pepper movie starring Peter Frampton.

It was their producer’s “screwy idea” to turn the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band into a musical starring RSO’s hot act Peter Frampton. “The Gibbs had to record a bunch of Beatles songs for the soundtrack, handling impossible jobs like ‘A Day in the Life.’” And then, to add insult to injury, the band appeared in the film as the fictional Lonely Hearts Club Band.

9. Robin Gibb recorded a song called “Trash” for the album Sesame Street Fever so his kids could meet Cookie Monster.

The deal was a great one in two ways. For one, Robin’s stipulation that he’d participate if his kids could meet Cookie Monster was honored, and the family traveled to New York from England to visit the Sesame Street set. Second, the album went gold in 1978, “like everything else the Bee Gees touched," Stanley writes.

10. Barbra Streisand wanted to work with the Bee Gees in a big way.

Anti-disco fever was already percolating while the Bee Gees were touring in the summer of 1979, but that didn’t deter Streisand, who’d caught their show at Dodger Stadium and wanted them on her next album. “The initial idea was for the Gibb brothers to write and produce half of the album — but she got on so well with Barry they ended up doing the whole thing, without the need for either Robin or Maurice to be in the studio.” Not only does Barry duet with Streisand on the album’s title track, “Guilty,” he’s got her wrapped up in his arms on the album cover. The album’s single, “Woman in Love,” spent three weeks at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was one of the most successful songs of Streisand’s long career.

11. They went home, musically, to the Isle of Man.

The brothers Gibb spent many of their adult years in Miami but returned to their roots briefly in 1997 to record a Christmas radio special called “The Bee Gees Come Home to Ellan Vannin.” A DJ interviewed the three brothers, who recorded the island’s unofficial national anthem and pressed a thousand CDs of it to raise money for children in need there. “The song was based on an 1854 poem by Eliza Craven Green, and given a full, windswept hilltop rendition from Robin on vocals and Maurice on synthesized pipes," notes Stanley, who quotes Maurice: "‘It was such a proud moment for us.... It was wonderful to do something for home.’”

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