“Andy wanted to see Peta (his daughter), but her family wouldn’t let him write to her or send a Christmas present. It hurt!” (Barbara does see her grand daughter Peta now: during her Australian trip August / September 2004).
“I have always talked about buying a place in Sydney, so I could live there part time. Recently, Yvonne said: – If you see something over there you like I’ll buy it for you. Maurice would have wanted it – But I’m not sure. I am 83”
“I do want Robin and Barry to start working again. To go into the studio and write and produce. That’s where I know they will find peace.”
On the eve of a visit to Australia to represent her famous sons, Barbara Gibb, mother of the Bee Gees, shares her pride in their huge worldwide success and speaks frankly about the pain of losing two of her beloved children.
he year is 1966. The Bee Gees have just learned that their song Spicks And Specks has gone to number one in the charts. It’s the first time that anything this momentous has happened to the brothers from Brisbane by way of Manchester, brothers whose magical ability to harmonise would soon set the world on fire. So how do Barry and twin brothers Robin and Maurice celebrate this milestone? First, they buy their mother Barbara a silver fox fur coat.
“I was asleep when they came home with it. They threw the coat on top of me and, when I woke up, I was covered in this beautiful fur.” Barbara remembers. “Oh, they are such generous boys.”
Yet the coat would prove more than a simple gesture of love for their mother. It was a sign, a map of where the boys believed their lives were heading. Then, they saw nothing but blue skies, hit singles and many more family celebrations ahead.
Fast forward nearly 40 years. The Bee Gees have now sold 175 million records worldwide. Famous beyond imagining, they have wealth, peer acclaim, even the honour of a CBE from the Queen. And yet, like a Greek tragedy, their story has been marred by sadness and loss. Two of the four Gibb brothers are gone; the remaining two have gone silent for now, declining to talk even as their hit musical, Saturday Night Fever, runs in Australia. Yet in the middle of the maelstrom, Barbara Gibb is still standing, witness to both the glory and the wreckage. “It’s been a horrible 15 years for us,” she says softly. “First Andy, now Maurice.”
They say that the worst thing for a parent is to bury their child, and Barbara has buried two. Yet when you meet her, you are awed by her resilience, her ability to laugh and her hospitality.
“I do my crying at night,” she says, eyes downcast.
“During the day you have to carry on. You have to be strong for the family.”
Noeleen Batley, Australian ’60s singing star and a friend of the Gibb family, says, “Barbara is the rock in that family. She has this spirit that is very inspiring.”
Now 83, the Manchester-born Gibb matriarch has lived in the US since 1978. She spends five months a year in Miami (where her two surviving sons live), the rest in Las Vegas, a city that keeps her feeling close to her youngest boy, Andy, because he performed there often.
“I love Las Vegas. I love the life there,” Barbara says, sounding like someone half her age. “It’s a 24-hour town, you can get up at 3am and go out to get a coffee and there are people all around you. You never feel lonely.”
Though she lived in Australia for only nine years, from 1958 to 1967, she still talks about the country and raising the family there with deep emotion. “I think my memories of Australia are so powerful because that was the time the Bee Gees were being born. It was such a happy time.” (The name Bee Gees was for Barbara Gibb and Brothers Gibb.)
“I have always talked about buying a place in Sydney, so I could live there part time. Recently Yvonne (Maurice’s wife) said, ‘If you see something over there you like, I’ll buy it for you. Maurice would have wanted it.’ But I’m not sure. I am 83.”
Yes, but what a spry octogenarian she is, with her thick Mancunian accent intact, a mind quick as a flash and a refreshing candour to go with it. “No airs and graces about Barbara,” says Noeleen.
In fact, Barbara recalls everything the boys have done, from the first time they sang in perfect harmony in their bedroom to the days they became superstars clad in white disco suits and gold chains.
“They hated those white suits!” Barbara confesses. “They were forced to wear them at a photo shoot. And they hate the word disco. Barry always says, ‘We weren’t disco, we wrote the music long before Saturday Night Fever came out’.”
Barbara is the kind of mother lion who attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings with son Andy and Alcoholic Anonymous with Maurice, when both were battling substance abuse.
“I had to do everything I could for them. I don’t think it’s anything more than any mother would do,” she says modestly.
We are sitting in the combined living/dining room of Robin’s Miami mansion, where she lives when she is in town. The backyard is the ocean and J-Lo lives next door. Barbara’s life now is one of comfort and modest celebrity in her own right (she is often asked for autographs), one she couldn’t have imagined growing up in the north of England and working as a singer. It was music that led her to marry Hugh Gibb, a drummer and the bandleader of the Hughie Gibb Orchestra.
Barbara at Robin's Miami mansion.
The meditation room at her Miami home, where photos of Hugh, Andy and Maurice adorn a table.
“I got one of the other lads to do the drumming, stepped off the stage, asked her to dance and afterwards brought her home.” Hugh once said of how he met his wife at one of his concerts. They married three years later and, when daughter Lesley arrived in 1945, Barbara hung up her microphone. Son Barry was born in 1946, twins Robin and Maurice in 1949 and Andy in 1958.
It was the three older boys who were natural performers like their parents. At the tender ages of six and nine, they would sing in their bedroom, copying the Everly and Mills Brothers from the radio. Once, when their grandfather was visiting, Barbara asked him if he wanted the radio turned down so that he could watch the cricket in peace. “And he said, ‘That’s not the radio, that’s the boys!’ I couldn’t believe it, so I went into their room, and there they were, three little kids on the bed singing Lollipop Lollipop in perfect harmony!” They began singing at a local cinema. Then, when the family emigrated to Australia in 1958, the boys had the chance to hone their act on the ship.
“The children hat to be in bed by 9pm,” Barbara recalls. “We would come out of the nightclub at 1am and there would be my three little ones in their pyjamas, singing on the top deck with a crowd around them.”
Given this, it was no surprise to the Gibbs when, once the family settled in Brisbane, the boys embarked on building their singing careers.
From singing on local Brisbane TV and radio to playing in RSL and leagues clubs, buzz about the Gibb brothers, who not only sang like a dream, but wrote their own material, spread. She never worried about her sons, as young as they were when they first hit the stage (Barry was 13, the twins 10). “They were so confident, the three of them,” Barbara says. “They had each other, that was the key.”
In 1963, the Bee Gees signed their first record deal with Festival Records. Three years later, Spicks And Specks went to number one and the brothers moved back to the UK to further their careers. Hugh and Barbara followed. With hits such as Massachusetts and New York Mining Disaster 1941, the Bee Gees became a force on the pop landscape, and their parents were proud enough “to burst”.
Yet success has its dark side and, for Maurice, it would eventually come in the shape of a bottle. Before his death last year, he was admirably open about his early battle with alcohol and his subsequent commitment to sobriety.
“When he was drinking,” Barbara says, “I was heartbroken, as were his brothers. They begged him to get healthy.”
Maurice did seek treatment and was sober for the last 12 years of his life. “I would go with him to his AA meetings,” she says. She would, of course, try to rescue Andy the same way, but her youngest son, who found his own fame with hits such as I Just Want To Be Your Everything and Shadow Dancing, was too far in the grip of drugs to find his way back.
When I tell her I had a crush on Andy as a young girl, she throws me a smile as wide as Texas. “A lot of women had a crush on my Andy, because he was so sweet. He was a lovely boy, but his own worst enemy. I knew it would happen (his death). I was quite prepared for it. He was only 30. He would have been 45 this year. I often wonder what he would have been like.”
On the surface, Andy Gibb had it all -looks, talent, fame and charm. So why wasn’t it enough? “Andy had an inferiority complex. He didn’t think he was as good as his brothers. He felt that he couldn’t measure up and I think drugs filled that ache. I also think Andy was unhappy that he had nobody. He hadn’t got a girl and a family like his brothers.”
Andy had married and divorced his Australian sweetheart Kim Reeder in 1978, the same year their daughter, Peta, was born. “Andy wanted to see Peta, but her family wouldn’t let him write to her or send a Christmas present. It hurt.” (Barbara does see her grand-daughter now). She says she knew her son’s affair with Dallas star Victoria Principal in the early ’80s would end in heartache. “He was obsessed with her, but she didn’t treat him well.” No later relationship gave him the love he craved,
Andy eventually went into rehab twice. His mother went with him to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and family therapy at the Betty Ford Center – and he was, ironically, clean of drugs for a year before he died in 1988 of heart failure. “But the damage had been done. The doctors told me that was drugs,” Barbara says.
The family was rocked by Andy’s death, she says. When Hugh Gibb died three years later, many believed it was from a broken heart over his son. The next album the Bee Gees recorded was in memory of Andy, but Barbara says it took years for the family to find its equilibrium again.
By the early ’90s, things were looking up. Maurice was sober, the boys were all happily married and raising families, they were writing songs for artists such as Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, and performing to sold-out venues around the world. Barbara says that she had, on some level, made her peace with Andy’s death when Maurice was hospitalised in Miami with stomach pains in January 2003. He suffered a heart attack before surgery to remove an intestinal blockage and died three days later, aged 53.
“As upset as I was, I was more upset for Barry and Robin,” Barbara remembers. “Those three boys were inseparable, they never needed anyone else.”
Both Barry and Robin withdrew from performing and, according to Barbara, the entire family is still raw with grief. “It’s been a sad and hard year, but you have to keep going, I know that is what Maurice would have wanted,” she says.
At a recent fundraiser for Diabetes Research in Miami (Barry and his wife, Linda, are patrons), Barry sang Send In The Clown as a tribute to Maurice, and Barbara tried to leave the room. “She said, ‘I have to go. I don’t think I can handle this’,” says Noeleen Batley, who was there. “And I said, ‘No, stay and listen. Maurice is up there watching.’ She stayed, but she was really overcome.”
One way that Barbara is taking care of herself since Maurice’s death is by going on a cruise to the Caribbean, another is spending time with her 18 grandchildren, whom she clearly worships.
I ask Barbara if the extraordinary joy she has garnered from her sons’ success has been offset by the personal losses that have devastated her. She shakes her head and grabs hold of my hands.
“No, I enjoy their success just the same and, in spite of everything, I believe myself to be incredibly lucky. But I do want Robin and Barry to start working again. I doubt they will be the Bee Gees again, but I want them to work, to go into the studio and write and produce. That’s where I know they will find peace of mind.”