While The Bee Gees have never truly faded from the popular consciousness, it’s fair to say the group founded by Barry Gibb and his late brothers Maurice and Robin is currently experiencing a renaissance. Director Frank Marshall’s documentary How Can You Mend a Broken Heart earned acclaim for its candid chronicle of the group’s ups and downs while Barry has reaffirmed his legacy with the new album Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook Vol. 1. On the latter, he’s joined by an array of country artists to reinvent the Bee Gees’ venerable songbook. Indeed, their discography has always been a fertile source of inspiration for artists: first, when as up-and-coming pop stars, they frequently gave songs to their contemporaries and then, in the wake of 1967’s Bee Gees First, when stars young and old were clamoring for their material. Numerous compilations have featured interpretations of Bee Gees songs, and Playback Records’ recent Words: A Bee Gees Songbook is no exception. But the Australian label’s 27-song set is undoubtedly one of the finest of these compilations, concentrating on the group’s early Australian period with many new-to-CD tracks but also dipping into their international stardom with marquee artists such as Lulu, Cilla Black, Johnny Mathis, and Jose Feliciano; all but eight tracks are from the 1960s.
Fittingly, most of the songs here are joint compositions from the three brothers but the set starts off with a pair penned by Maurice Gibb. His “Where Are You” might be familiar from The Bee Gees’ own version on their 1966 sophomore album Spicks and Specks. Here, it’s performed by Mike Furber in a version that calls to mind The Beatles with a stomping Motown beat. Even more urgent is the storming garage rocker “Raining Teardrops” from Barrington Davis. Melbourne fivesome The Brigade offered Maurice’s bouncy “All by Myself” with confidence.
Barry’s early versatility is on display, too. Winsome Noeleen Batley’s “Watching the Hours Go By” is a teenage lament of lost love set to 3/4 time while Johnny Young and Kompany’s “Lady” is a pretty, sleigh bell-flecked pop confection with lush strings and horns as well as a swirling choral arrangement to make The Association proud. The title of Barry’s Greenfields LP comes from “Butterfly.” While it wasn’t released by the Bee Gees at the time, The Marmalade latched onto the melodic pop ballad in 1969 for a beautiful reading.
The Cyrkle’s “Turn of the Century” took its musical cues from the Bee Gees’ own version, but the “Red Rubber Ball” group’s harmonies and Charlie Calello orchestration are nonetheless appealing. One of the most enjoyable oddities here is The Cole Brothers’ “I Can’t See Nobody.” The New Jersey group tackled the tune with an arrangement by Philadelphia’s Richard Rome, attempting to channel Robin’s emotive lead and Barry and Maurice’s harmony vocals to the best of their ability. Far from New Jersey, Belgium-based group Gilbert Green cut the boisterous “Soft Pillow” which was also recorded in the U.K. by the late Gerry Marsden.
As How Can You Mend a Broken Heart affirms, impresario Robert Stigwood played a central role in the Bee Gees’ career. He championed their rapidly-evolving and often whimsical compositions, producing them on a variety of artists. The London group Sands inventively took on the offbeat “Mrs. Gillespie’s Refrigerator” for Stigwood’s Reaction label; for CBS, he oversaw future Apple Records signing Jackie Lomax’s “One Minute Woman” with a big, brassy arrangement from the Bee Gees’ collaborator Bill Shepherd. Lomax brought his typically tough, passionate vocals to the pleading number. Jackie launched his career in Liverpool; that city’s beloved coat check girl-turned-pop superstar Cilla Black gets the plum spot here of interpreting the title track, “Words,” which begins the pure pop portion of this collection. Black’s 1969 recording produced by George Martin features one of her most tenderly restrained vocals. The same year, Lulu – a.k.a. Mrs. Maurice Gibb – revisited the impressionistic “I Started a Joke.” Two years later, in 1971, Johnny Mathis brought his silken pipes to a highly romantic take on “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” Mathis’ sensual recording from his You’ve Got a Friend LP was issued as the Bee Gees’ original was enjoying the first week of a four-week stay at the top of the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Jose Feliciano took an adventurous approach with the southern soul-infused “Marley Purt Drive” (which Lulu had also made her own).
Nina Simone was a singular artist comfortable with soul, jazz, and beyond; her “To Love Somebody” is raw, immediate, and free of embellishments. Swamp Dogg’s “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” takes a few liberties with the familiar melody of the death row ballad, but also proved just how effective the Gibb brothers’ songs could be in a pure R&B setting. The same goes for folk; Martin Carthy strips down the haunting “New York Mining Disaster 1941” with a marked lack of sentimentality. The Seekers bring their male/female harmony blend to a 2003 cover of “Massachusetts,” sounding as fresh as they did decades earlier.
Among the most unfamiliar artists on this eclectic set (and there are, happily, many!) are Raymond John Michael – a group, not a person, and one consisting of three members of the New Colony Six – credibly covering “Let There Be Love” from The Bee Gees’ Horizontal in baroque style, and British band Nimbo doing “When the Swallows Fly” from Idea. Vocalist Myrna March went from label to label including Warwick, Roulette, Columbia, and Kapp. Her final 45, on Agape Records, is reprised on Words: a 1971 single of “Touch and Understand Love,” co-written by Maurice with Lulu’s brother, Billy Lawrie. March’s wispy, intimate vocal plays up the delicacy of the melody even as it’s swathed in Nashville great Bergen White’s strings. “Touch and Understand Love” was recorded by Maurice during sessions for his still-unreleased 1969 album The Loner; not to be outdone, Words also includes Australian pop great Ronnie Burns’ jaunty “One Bad Thing” originally recorded by Barry for his unreleased solo platter The Kid’s No Good. (Though still all but unknown, the song also was released by the groups Wildwood, The Freshmen, and New Horizon.)
Eschewing the Gibbs’ disco era entirely, Words: A Bee Gees Songbook presents a captivating alternative history of the group’s journey from Australia to the world stage with a pleasing mix of the familiar and the truly obscure. Warren Barnett has mastered for generally strong sound – quality varies depending on sources – and Robert Penney has nicely designed the 24-page booklet with song-by-song liner notes from historian Alec Palao. This loving tribute to the sublime songwriting of Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb makes for an essential addition to any Bee Gees library.
- Where Are You – Mike Furber (Kommotion KK-1602, 1967)
- Raining Teardrops – Barrington Davis (Spin EK-1771, 1967)
- Neither Rich Nor Poor – The Richard Wright Group (HMV EA-4760, 1966)
- Watching the Hours Go By – Noeleen Batley (Festival FK-1443, 1965)
- Lady – Johnny Young and Kompany (Clarion MCK-1857, 1967)
- Upstairs Downstairs – Jon (Leedon LK-1662, 1967)
- Turn of the Century – The Cyrkle (Columbia 4-44366, 1967)
- Gilbert Green – Soft Pillow (Park BP 1009, 1968)
- The Town of Tuxley Toymaker – Shane (Zodiac Z45/1332, 1968)
- I Can’t See Nobody – The Cole Brothers (Jamie 1348, 1967)
- Gillespie’s Refrigerator – Sands (Reaction 591017, 1967)
- All by Myself – The Brigade (Astor A-7017, 1968)
- One Minute Woman – Jackie Lomax (CBS 2554, 1967)
- Butterfly – The Marmalade (CBS 4615, 1969)
- Words – Cilla Black (Parlophone LP 7079, 1969)
- I Started a Joke – Lulu (Columbia LP 6365, 1969)
- How Can You Mend a Broken Heart – Johnny Mathis (Columbia 4-45470, 1971)
- Marley Purt Drive – Jose Feliciano (RCA 47-9327, 1970)
- To Love Somebody – Nina Simone (RCA Victor 47-9447, 1968)
- I Gotta Get a Message to You – Swamp Dogg (Elektra LP EKS-74089, 1971)
- Let There Be Love – Raymond John Michael (Ivanhoe I-501, 1970)
- When the Swallows Fly – Nimbo (Pye 7N 45174, 1971)
- Touch and Understand Love – Myrna March (Agape 45-9001, 1971)
- New York Mining Disaster 1941 – Martin Carthy (Topic TSCD 501, 1998)
- Massachusetts – The Seekers (EMI CD 7243 594491 2 8, 2003)
- One Bad Thing – Ronnie Burns (Festival FK-4337, 1971)
- Spicks and Specks – The Searchers (RCA 2330, 1973)