As the Bee Gees icon releases his new album, longtime producer and friend John Merchant takes us behind the scenes of his set at Later with Jools Holland.
Barry Gibb has written, arranged, produced and performed on dozens of pop classics, as part of the Bee Gees and as a solo artist. In September 2016 he entered London’s BBC2 studios for an appearance on Jools Holland’s popular music show – where he was facing a rare dilemma. John Merchant, his producer and close friend for 28 years, was there: read his personal reflections.
September 27, 2016, 3:15 pm
It’s the afternoon sound check on the set of Jools Holland’s Later, and we have a problem: the show’s producers and Barry1 can’t agree on what the final song of the night should be. For most artists, this wouldn’t be an issue: they’ve already played their new song “In the Now,”2 and now they have to play their hit, end of discussion. That’s not the case here.
Right now, they have to choose among his pop hits from the late 60s,3 his era-defining smashes from the 70s,4 more than twenty number ones from the 80s and 90s,5 or something from the last sixteen years, including songs from his new album.6
The discussion leads to three possibilities: “To Love Somebody,”7 “Nights on Broadway,”8 or “You Should Be Dancin’.”9 Barry favors the soulful and slower-paced 60s song, the band10 votes for the funky mid-70s groove of “Broadway,” and the producers want the fireworks of the disco classic.11
After 28 years of working with Barry and his brothers, I’ve seen this scene play out before, and it always ends with one of the Fever-era hits.12 They’re undeniably great, and his signature falsetto slays every time, including this summer at Glastonbury with Coldplay.13
But today is different: as a solo artist later in his career, Barry is ready for a new approach to music, something more subdued and subtle, less flashy and more thoughtful.14
Of course, the producers are not the first to consider Barry’s considerable collection of songs:
“In terms of bands, there are five extraordinary catalogs that make me feel ill with envy. It doesn't have to be said the Bee Gees are up there with the Beatles.” (U2’s Bono)
"You can easily speak about the Bee Gees in the same breath as Lennon and McCartney and Elton John and Bernie Taupin. In a way, unusually for most pop singers, they actually got better as they went on.” (Sir Tim Rice)
“I think there's an affinity between the Bee Gees and the Beatles, particularly with their earlier material, in the linking of very good hooks, very good melodies which stick in the mind. That within itself is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do." (Sir George Martin)
As I write this backstage, I have no idea which song they’re going to choose tonight. But if I had to guess, I’d bet it’s going to be great.
September 27, 2016, Later
And it was!
In the end, the second song after “In the Now” was “Jive Talkin’.” So, win-win really. The show’s producers said they had never had an audience reaction like that before. But don’t trust me on this one either:
On the occasion of his 70th birthday, please take a moment to consider Barry Gibb: performer, producer and songwriter with the gift of crafting memorable melodies and simple, powerful lyrics.15 His 50-year career in music is a testament to his talent, generosity,16 and ability to absorb new styles and sounds and make them his own.
Above all, Barry is a survivor, and I am honored to be his friend.
How deep is your love for Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees? Read how they influenced Grammy-winning producer/DJ Dave Audé.
1 Barry Gibb, born September 1, 1946 on the Isle of Man. (Yes, as I write this in 2016 he just turned 70, and I salute your quick math skills!)
2 “In The Now,” Gibbs’ latest single and his new album’s title track, opened both shows: the taped one at 8:30 pm and the live show at 10 pm. I co-produced the album, which was mixed by Mick Guzauski and mastered by Bob Ludwig.
3 With his brothers Robin and Maurice, Barry crafted 55 Top 40 and another 35 Top 100 songs for himself, his band the Bee Gees, and for many others, including Elvis, Al Green, Ronan Keating, Nina Simone and Janis Joplin. Any one of these songs would be the crown jewel of someone else’s catalog.
4 The Bee Gees are the only group in history to have written, recorded and produced six consecutive Number One hits. For those too young to remember, disco was a cultural phenomenon: it brought urban, groove-infused music to a wider audience. The Bee Gees may not have been the coolest band, but they were influential. For EDM producers, consider that these were the first dance tracks to include drum loops: in this case, a physical loop of 16-track tape that substituted for their drummer, who was never able to replicate the metronomic groove of the loop.
5 During this era, Barry produced tightly constructed, beautifully written songs for himself (“You Win Again”), his brother Andy (“Shadow Dancing”, “Don’t Throw It All Away”) as well as career-bestselling albums for Barbra Streisand, Yvonne Elliman, Kenny Rogers, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross.
6 Shameless promotion: In The Now is available now on Columbia records (yes, vinyl!) and CDs (yes, aluminum!) at Amazon, iTunes, and anywhere fine music is sold.
7 Originally written for Otis Redding, this was considered the foundation of blue-eyed soul. It features ringing harmonies that only vocal cords built from the same DNA can produce.
8 From the album Main Course, produced by Arif Mardin. While recording this song, Arif helped Barry discover his trademark falsetto during the ad-libs in the last chorus.
9 TV producers love any opportunity to use their expensive moving lights and smoke machines. They also know what works visually and viscerally.
10 Barry tours with same Miami-based musicians who played on his new album as well as on Streisand’s Guilty Pleasures: Lee Levin (drums), Richie Bravo (percussion), Julio Hernandez (bass), Dan Warner (guitar), Tim Cansfield (guitar), Ben Stivers (keys), Doug Emery (keys, MD) and Steve Gibb (guitar, vocals), along with backing vocalists Charlotte McKinnen, Beth Cohen and Leesa Richards.
11 I think your dislike of disco is directly proportional to your inability to dance.
12 From the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. If you’ve forgotten: “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep is Your Love,” “Night Fever,” “More Than a Woman,” “If I Can’t Have You,” “Jive Talkin’” and “You Should Be Dancin’.” Michael Jackson called Fever his primary inspiration for Thriller.
13 Don’t believe me — watch it for yourself:
14 Quick: name another artist who explored dance, pop, soul, R&B, rock, country, and psychedelic music with equal aplomb. There can’t be many.
15 If you’re still not convinced, here are the numbers: Barry is responsible for more than 220 million sales and counting. He’s a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has 16 Grammy nominations with 9 wins, won a Lifetime Achievement Brit Award, and was appointed a Commander of the British Empire at Buckingham freaking Palace, dude.
16 In 1979, the Gibbs donated the proceeds of “Too Much Heaven” to UNICEF, which has raised more than $7 million for the charity to date.