The Bee Gees borrowed from the sounds of ’70s Philly soul then helped spread it far and wide as songwriters and producers.
by Marshall Bowden
In reviewing the Bee Gees documentary How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, Natalia Winkelman of the NYT mentions that the part of the documentary after Saturday Night Fever and the disco fad falters because, while it acknowledges the racism and homophobia that was part of the ‘disco sucks’ movement, it does not address the Bee Gees as part of the larger music industry story of cultural theft and whitewashing.
The question that I think arises whenever there is music by a performer whose cultural identity is different from that of the music he or she is representing is that of sincerity. Is there a sincere desire to perform music in this style because it is part of the performer’s being? I think that in the case of the Bee Gees they sought to honor the sounds that inspired them, and give credit where it belonged.
The public’s appetite for danceable music with a warm sound and pop production was such that as disco emerged and then began to wane as a genre of its own, many Black singers, musicians, and producers had an opportunity to make records with the resources generally available to popular white rock bands.
The sounds that emerged from Detroit, Philadelphia, and Muscle Shoals set the standard in many ways for the rock/pop music of the seventies. Of course, artists like Fleetwood Mac or Electric Light Orchestra were initially inspired to use the studio as another instrument by the experiments of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but as the seventies progressed, the palette of sounds that became available was widened considerably by Black music that was being widely heard on records and the radio.
The Bee Gees wrote many songs that cried out for interpretation in soul, gospel, and R&B styles. In addition, they were recognized as simply being good songs, well constructed, and having already been a hit or only needing the right performance to become one. Barry Gibb, in particular, was involved in working with other artists in recording songs he and his brothers had written. Robin, who maintained a solid solo career as well as his work with the Bee Gees, also did some writing and production work that stands out, one of the most striking being Jimmy Ruffin’s Sunrise (1980).
Jimmy Ruffin was called ‘Motown’s underrated soul singer’ in an ABC News obituary at his death in 2014. Already a working singer when he was invited to join The Temptations, he recommended his younger brother David, who became a member of the successful act. Best known for his 1966 hit “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” Ruffin was blessed with a gorgeous voice and a winning personality, but he never really fit in with the clique at Motown, operating as more of a solo act both onstage and off. As the sixties waned so did Ruffin’s hit records, until he began to recede in the public’s memory.
.Enter Robin Gibb with arranger/producer Blue Weaver, who have an album worth of song s to offer Ruffin along with first-class orchestration and production. Four of the tracks are written by the Gibb Brothers (including Andy on “Where Do I Go”), the rest are penned by Robin and Weaver. The band, including Bee Gees stalwarts Allan Kendall and Dennis Byron, offers great support to Ruffin’s warm, smooth voice. The album gave Ruffin another hit record, “Hold On To My Love,” which reached #7 on the UK singles chart and #10 on the US Billboard Hot 100.
It’s a really great album by an important and underrated soul singer that should be reissued, as it doesn’t appear to have been released on CD and even vinyl copies are not that easy to find. The one YouTube playlist that includes the album, recorded from vinyl, in its entirety has some pretty significant surface noise in a couple of spots, but you can still hear what a good record it is. The fact that it’s not available for streaming on Spotify might indicate there are rights issues that are difficult to resolve here, and that’s reinforced by the fact that versions of “Hold on to My Love” available on compilations are all re-recorded versions of the song. Jimmy Ruffin continued to be popular in the U.K. and he lived there for a time, so a British distributor from that time might be a starting place for additional information.
This was the beginning of the Bee Gees powerhouse career as songwriters and producers for other artists. Following the July 1979 Disco Demolition rally at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the Gibb Brothers found themselves less in demand as recording artists, with their records charting less well. They also had to deal with the fallout from the release of the disastrous film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Bee Gees sound had been a proven formula for chart success, but the Bee Gees name on the label was killing off their work. They began working with other artists, producing records that sound like Bee Gees records with the exception of the lead vocals. The brothers would even sing backup vocals, as they did on the 1977 Samantha Sang hit “Emotion” as well as the hits “Shadow Dancing” and “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” they produced for younger brother Andy Gibb.
Post-1980 they simply adapted the same formula to working with other artists, including Barbara Streisand’s Guilty (1980), “Heartbreaker” by Dionne Warwick (1982), “Islands In The Stream” by Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton (1983), and “Chain Reaction” by Diana Ross (1985). They re-emerged as recording artists in the 1990s, releasing several albums that continued to feature the brothers’ songwriting and production skills as well as their soaring vocal harmonies.
Of course, plenty of artists have recorded cover versions of popular Bee Gees songs, and just as with all covers, some are better or more interesting than others. Tavares recorded “More Than a Woman” for the Saturday Night Live soundtrack, but the Bee Gees’ version also ended up being used for a different scene. The fact that the soundtrack album can sustain two versions of the song demonstrates its versatility and strength. “To Love Somebody” has been covered by many artists of different genres, but my favorite is by Nina Simone. Simone’s rendition of the Barry and Robin Gibb-penned title track is magnificent and regal, and it draws attention to the song’s strengths—its lyrics and soulful feeling.
Main Course was the first album on which Barry Gibb used his now-famous falsetto, and “Nights On Broadway,” which leads off the record, was brilliantly covered by Candi Stanton in 1977. Her version is a tight dance club version based around a bass and electric piano figure. Her version conveys some of the sweaty desperation of the original, but it also comes across as celebratory, the song of a survivor.