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By Howard Cohen
The music industry, and South Florida in particular, lost a hell of a lot when Bee Gee Maurice Gibb died Sunday after emergency surgery for a blocked intestine.
Gibb, 53, will be memorialized for his many contributions to popular music. That’s what he did for a living for more than 40 years as songwriter, bassist, keyboardist and vocalist with the Bee Gees. Songs such as Stayin’ Alive, Tragedy, Words, You Win Again and Lonely Days, all of which Gibb had a hand in writing and performing, are the soundtracks to the lives of countless people.
“I shall miss his music and his wit and laughter,” said fan Barbara Soppett of Treasure Island.
The Bee Gees’ accomplishments during Gibb’s tenure are almost without peer: an unprecedented six consecutive No. 1 singles from 1977’s How Deep Is Your Love through 1979’s Love You Inside Out. More than 110 million records sold worldwide.
With more than 500 cover versions in existence, artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Janis Joplin and Celine Dion to Destiny’s Child have recorded one or more of their songs.
The Bee Gees were banished for most of the ’80s, “blamed” for disco after disco lost its luster in the post-Saturday Night Fever years. The irony is that the Bee Gees were never a disco group despite including several dance classics in the film.
“How Deep Is Your Love was totally R&B and No. 1 a month before the film came out,” Gibb said in an April 2001 interview with The Herald. “But that’s what happens when people hit a certain formula, it hits a saturation point.”
The anti-Bee Gees sentiment abated in the mid-’90s, when the trio was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Barry Gibb was often the center of attention during the Bee Gees’ biggest period — the Fever years in the late ’70s — and Barry and Robin sang lead on most of their hits.
But Maurice “had, by far, the hardest part to sing,” the group’s former recording engineer, Dennis Hetzendorfer, said from his Cooper City home. “People don’t realize, of the three, he had the second harmony, which is the hardest note to find.”
Maurice Gibb was just as important to the Bee Gees’ sound as the other brothers, Hetzendorfer said. “I’ve recorded the three of them individually and together and . . . nothing sounds like the three of them together. It’s a sound that can’t be taught and you can’t duplicate. This was three brothers singing together their whole life.”
But, outside the spotlight and industry accolades, Gibb was also one of the most upbeat, accessible stars South Florida has known — and that might be his greatest legacy. He was a gracious human being in the highest echelons of the music business. These traits are often mutually exclusive.
“Mo was the one who would come out in the street and meet you,” Samii Taylor, the Bee Gees’ former assistant recording engineer said, crying from her California home. “He knew what the risks were. They were getting threats on their lives. But he genuinely loved people. He loved to laugh. Despite his problems — he’s not the first or the last to have had a substance abuse problem — he’d get back on the horse and keep going because he loved life, he wanted to live.”
And live, he did. Gibb loved writing music, but he also cherished the youthful sport of paintball — so much so that in June, he opened Commander Mo’s, a North Miami Beach shop devoted to the game. Watching Gibb on its opening day, grinning and clad in a flame-colored shirt, as he played with the elaborate toy guns, was to know someone who never lost touch with the child inside.
“This had to be about 15 years ago, but Maurice, Robin and I and a bunch of people from the studio went out on his first paintball game,” recalls Hetzendorfer.
“We went out to some sticks in South Florida somewhere and we had a fabulous time. He was a big kid at heart, and we all knew that. He was [also] a kind and gentle man. He was very much a family man. He loved [his wife] Yvonne and his children, and he lived for his music,” Hetzendorfer said.
Despite a life of wealth and fame — writing hundreds of popular songs will tend to make a person very rich — Gibb never seemed to lose touch with his working class roots. One of his favorite hangouts was Jimmy’s East Side Diner, at Northeast 72nd Street and Biscayne Boulevard in Miami.
Now, Jimmy’s Diner is not the sort of spot where one would expect to bump into a star — VIP ropes out front would look ridiculously out of place at this neighborhood eatery. But this is where Gibb came weekly for breakfast — coffee, bacon, eggs, grilled tomatoes and “lots of butter,” a waitress said — a pre-game meal with his paintball pals.
Denis Tetenes and his staff at the diner erected a makeshift memorial to Gibb on Sunday. Tetenes cordoned off the back table Gibb used, placing an arrangement of flowers, an autographed Bee Gees picture, a lit candle and a coffee cup. The table is set for dining as it was the last time the star sat there. Tetenes planned to keep this section of the restaurant closed for three days.
“He deserves more than that, but sometimes you don’t know what to do,” Tetenes said.
Waitress Iris Lynch, who had served Gibb over the years, remembered Gibb’s spirited talks about paintball. “He mentioned his other brothers. He’d say Robin wouldn’t want to get hurt, Barry wouldn’t like this, but Andy would have loved this!” she said, smiling.
(Andy Gibb, the youngest brother but never a member of the Bee Gees, died in 1988 of a heart infection).
When Gibb read a story in The Herald over the recent holidays about a quadriplegic Hialeah man whose wish was for a computer to help in his recovery process, Gibb called the paper with an offer to buy the man a computer.
“It’s Christmas, mate,” Gibb said.
He was “the one who came out from behind the wall and met the people,” as Taylor said.
“We did a small memorial, but it’s nowhere near enough,” Jimmy’s owner Tetenes said.
Maurice Gibb would have been delighted