Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Brit and the Bostonian

At first blush, it would appear that the male Brit from Isle of Man and the black female from Boston have nothing in common, apart from being singers.

The Brit moved to Manchester and then to Australia and grew up in a family of singers, songwriters and musicians, and the American girl, one of seven non-musical kids, stayed in Boston, where, as her mother said, "She literally loved to sing. She used to go through the house singing, singing. She sang for breakfast and for lunch and for supper."

The Brit enjoyed the familiarity of being in a pop group with his two brothers---one a twin---while the American girl spent time as a backup singer for the wildly popular Three Dog Night in the late-1960s, early-1970s before making it on her own as a solo artist.

Then the disco rage hit America hard, and suddenly Robin Gibb and Donna Summer had a whole lot in common.

It was in 1977-78 when Gibb of the Bee Gees and Summer of, well, Donna Summer, made their splashes on the disco scene. The Bee Gees revived their careers with the soundtrack to "Saturday Night Fever," and Summer had several hits that made her the de facto Queen of the Discotheque.

Robin Gibb, along with fraternal twin Maurice, teamed with Barry to form the Bee Gees, a group that started in the late-1960s as a ballad-singing trio of harmonizers and would end the 1970s as an uptempo, driving group of pulsating dance musicians.

Summer was a backup singer for Three Dog Night, a mostly commercial but hit-making group who were constantly at or near the top of the Billboard charts from 1969-74.

Gibb, 62, and Summer, 63, both died within three days of each other (May 17 and 20), and both of cancer.

The Bee Gees, under the guidance and direction of mega-producer Robert Stigwood, had early success in the late-1960s but by 1973, they were teetering as the hits dried up.Stigwood reinvented his trio of brothers and by 1975 they were recording disco-type numbers like the hugely popular "Jive Talking." Their record sales went through the roof. Then came the "Fever" soundtrack, and that made the Bee Gees hotter than a firecracker.



Summer, meanwhile, ventured out on her own in 1974 after leaving Three Dog Night and also in 1975 found Billboard love with the disco tune "Love to Love You Baby." Summer's role initially was that of demo recorder, but she got the idea of cooing the lyrics, a la Marilyn Monroe, and even convinced producer Giorgio Moroder to turn out the lights, sit with her on a sofa, and "induce" Summer's moans and groans, which she blended into the song. After hearing the result, Moroder had Summer's version released instead.

So from different sides of the "pond," the Brit Robin Gibb and the Boston girl Donna Summer eventually became contemporaries, their songs no doubt played back-to-back on radio stations across the country in the late-1970s.

Gibb and his brothers, and Summer didn't invent or launch the disco craze, though it might seem like it. Some people probably think that they did. But the truth is that the disco era looked to have a short shelf life before the Bee Gees and Summer revitalized it with their music.

Bill Oakes, who supervised the "Fever" soundtrack, said of the Bee Gees and the monster album, "Disco had run its course. These days, Fever is credited with kicking off the whole disco thing–-it really didn't. Truth is, it breathed new life into a genre that was actually dying."

The very same could be said of Donna Summer and her rat-a-tat-tat slew of hits from 1976-80.


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