The Bee Gees’ sound evolved from pop to R&B in what became the disco music era, but it was their falsetto that was their unmistakable trademark… and it came about by accident many years into their career.
In the HBO documentary “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” surviving Bee Gee, Barry Gibb, takes viewers inside the studio, showing archival footage performing with his brothers Maurice and Robin and honing their signature sound.
In 1975, the band took the advice of veteran rocker Eric Clapton and went down to Miami to record their first album since the split at Criteria Studios in 1969. “I thought those guys were really an R&B band that hadn’t really worked that out yet, and I thought, man, this would be so good if they could pick up on what’s going on in America,” Clapton said.
It was in Miami that the Bee Gees began experimenting with new sounds, piggybacking on the influence of R&B and shows like “Soul Train.” While recording “Nights on Broadway,” producer Arif Mardin asked that someone harmonize while screaming in the background, Maurice remembered. That was the first time Barry sang falsetto.
“I was thinking, my god, where is this coming from? I can do this. My whole life I never knew I could do this,” Barry joked.
“Everybody’s giving me credit,” Mardin said in the film. “No, he was singing it. I said, ‘Keep on doing it.'”
The band soon embraced disco and dance music, making use of Barry’s falsetto, which he wields with almost astonishing ease. “We found another sound; we found a new sound. I came up with a lot of new ideas to suit the falsetto,” Barry remembered. “Everybody was saying the same thing: ‘Do that falsetto again, do that falsetto again.’ It was fine for me; I was having a ball.”
With the success of their early dance tunes “Jive Talkin” and “You Should Be Dancing,” the Bee Gees broke into the club scene. “It was a discovery, and we discovered a new audience,” Barry said.
But the Bee Gees acknowledged they weren’t the first to use a falsetto sound to augment a dance track. “Disco started in the gay and the Black community,” Nicky Siano, former Studio 54 DJ, said. “This billion-dollar industry was being built way before the Bee Gees.”
“Arif brought it out of us, you know we weren’t the first to sing in falsetto,” Maurice said. “We loved The Stylistics, The Spinners, The Delfonics. They were all falsetto lead singers,” he said, referencing top Black ensembles at the time.
British singer-songwriter Mykaell Riley added, “The falsetto is very much a Black tradition. But they’ve translated it into this interesting interpretation of soul.”
“The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” can currently be seen on HBO.