A regular series delving into my musical archives to look back at tracks which are at least 20 years old.
The three Gibb brothers (Barry, Robin and Maurice) from the Isle of Man were prolific recording artists in their own right, racking up five UK number one singles spanning 20 years – from Massachusetts in 1967 to You Win Again in 1987 – among a total of 18 top ten hits, including the definitive soundtrack album of the 1970s, Saturday Night Fever. But they have also written a host of major hits for a wide variety of other artists, ranging from Celine Dion to Tina Turner, and from Conway Twitty to, er, One True Voice. (Remember them? I thought not. They were the boy-band formed opposite Girls Aloud in the one-off Popstars: The Rivals.)
In celebration of one of British music’s most successful global exports, here are five songs which have the Bee Gees’ familiar lyrical and melodic stamp on them, but were made famous by other artists.
1. Grease – Frankie Valli (1978)
The title track from the 1978 film Grease gave Four Seasons front-man Frankie Valli his biggest solo hit in the UK, charting at number three. It was one of several singles spawned from the film – the soundtrack is the sixth best-selling in history, with global sales in excess of 28 million – including You’re the One That I Want (nine weeks at number one), Summer Nights (seven weeks at number one), Hopelessly Devoted to You and Sandy.
The song has a strong personal association for me, as Grease was the first film I ever saw at the cinema. My dad – a real buff of old-style musicals such as South Pacific and Oklahoma – had already indoctrinated me into falling in love with the soundtrack, so I was familiar with all the songs in the film. As a seven-year old, I lapped it all up happily. But it wasn’t just me, I’d wager. To an entire generation the song is instantly recognisable from its opening bars, evoking embedded memories from an era whose own nostalgia centred firmly on the Fifites, with images of Rydell High and a young John Travolta from the film, or the world inhabited by The Fonz and the gang from Happy Days. Over three decades later, it still gives me a warm glow even as I type this on a chilly winter’s night.
2. Woman In Love – Barbra Streisand (1980)
Barry penned an entire album, Guilty, for Barbra Streisand, from which Woman In Love went to number one in the US, UK and several other countries worldwide. It was Streisand’s fifth and last chart-topper in the US, and her only one in the UK, staying at the top for three weeks in both countries.
Starting with an unmistakable Bee Gees-style instrumental intro, the song is famous for a single note that Streisand holds for about ten seconds at the end of the line “I stumble and fall, but I give you it all.” At the time, it was claimed to be the single longest-held note ever by a recording artist, although it has been surpassed since. It was also covered by Atomic Kitten’s Liz McClarnon in 2006, reaching number five in the UK, and produced by Robin Gibb. And if you think I’ve got that version on my iPod, then you’d better be prepared to duck.
3. Heartbreaker – Dionne Warwick (1982)
Eighteen years after Warwick’s first and arguably best-known track, Walk On By, this classic track incredibly failed to top the charts on either side of the Atlantic. It reached only number ten in the US, although in the UK it peaked at two, giving Warwick her only top five single.
It is another song which bears many obvious Bee Gees melodic and instrumental traits – all three brothers share writing credits – and features Barry’s unmistakable vocals in the background on the chorus.
4. Islands in the Stream – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers (1983), and Vanessa Jenkins and Bryn West for Comic Relief (2009)
Both Parton and Rogers had already registered solo number ones in the US when they combined on this track co-written by the three brothers. Predictably it reached number one in the US on both the Billboard main and country charts and peaked at number seven in the UK, to give the Bee Gees the biggest country hit of their songwriting career. It’s also one of the few country songs I can tolerate. (I’m really not a country music fan!)
The brothers themselves did not record a version of their own until 2001 – a vastly superior one to the original, incidentally. UK readers will also know that the track finally reached the top spot when Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon (as their Gavin and Stacey characters Vanessa Jenkins and Bryn West) released a cover in support of Comic Relief entitled (Barry) Islands in the Stream. The video (see below) features both Welsh singing legend Tom Jones and a brief cameo from Robin Gibb himself.
5. Chain Reaction – Diana Ross (1986)
15 years after former Supremes lead singer Diana Ross recorded her first UK number one with I’m Still Waiting, she notched up her second and last chart-topper with this slice of bouncy 80s R&B pop, which held off all challengers for three weeks before being supplanted by the first ever Comic Relief charity single (Cliff Richard and The Young Ones’ version of Living Doll). The brothers co-wrote the track and provided backing vocals.
The promotional video for the song (see below) was shot with long sequences of Ross performing on a Soul Train-style TV show shot in black-and-white, interspersed with colour footage.
Oddly, this single was released more than three years after Ross’ previous top 40 effort (1982’s Muscles), and she would not chart again for another three years (1989’s Workin’ Overtime). The song would go on to be covered by the band Steps in 2001. The less said about that the better.
So there you have it – a personal selection of five tracks written by the Bee Gees but not commonly associated with them. Sadly, the 2002 cover version of Sacred Trust by One True Voice isn’t on my iPod and therefore was not eligible for inclusion in this list. What a shame, eh?
The Nostalgia Jukebox