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The Divas and the Bee Gees

In the 1970s, the Bee Gees could do no wrong. Alongside Donna Summer, the band dominated the pop charts with a string of hit single (24 of their singles hit the US top 20 and 26 hit the UK top 20) and multi-platinum albums, most notably the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

With the disco backlash, came an unfair revisionist assessment of the Bee Gees that lumped them with trashy disco artifacts like Disco Duck, Ethel Merman’s disco album, and the Brady Bunch variety show. That’s unfortunate because the Brothers Gibb – Barry, Robin, Maurice – were among the craftiest and most professional songwriters in pop music history. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the pillowy ballad “How Deep Is Your Love” and tell me you didn’t swoon.

But starting in the 1980s, the Bee Gees started to experience a decline in their commercial fortunes. But the Gibbs were ace songwriters so they were never in any danger of fading away. Even though pop radio lost interest in their music, they turned to producing other artists, and enjoyed a healthy second career in the 1980s as go-to songwriters. One of their biggest and most recognizable hits of the 80s was the classic Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream” (which appeared on Rogers’ 1983 Gibbs-written album Eyes That See in the Dark). 

The Brothers Gibb also found themselves working with three pop divas, revitalizing their careers and bringing them back to the top of the pop charts. Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick were the most successful female acts of the 1960s and for a large part of the 1970s. But by 1980, they started to feel a similar dip in their sales as the Bee Gees did. The trio of legends felt a jolt in their careers with their Gibbs-helmed records: Streisand’s Guilty, Ross’ Eaten Alive, and Warwick’s Heartbreaker.

GuiltyStreisand’s Guilty (1980) was the most successful of the three albums and one of the most successful albums in Streisand’s career (it went on to sell over 6 million copies). It went to number on the album charts in the US and the UK, and it spawned a string of hit singles, three of which found their way into the top 10. By 1980, Streisand had cemented herself as a crossover superstar, winning Oscars for her movie work and a bunch of Grammys. During the 1970s, she shifted away from her supperclub pop of the 60s, and became a soft-rock/adult contemporary star. Hooking up with gooey songwriters like Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Marvin Hamlish, and Michel Legrand, Streisand was the proto-Celine Dion, releasing albums of fillers larded with hit singles. Like a lot of mainstream pop singers, Streisand joined the disco craze and found success with some dance songs, including the monster duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Donna Summer.

But by 1980, Streisand, though still massively popular, looked like she was in a rut. Enter Barry Gibb – that hairy-chested Adonis of pop who completed Streisand’s Malibu by way of Brooklyn transformation. Guilty is easily one of the most sublime and listenable pop albums of the last 40 years. Gibbs joined their longtime collaborators Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson to produce a light and frothy record that works as a breezy soundtrack to a casual jaunt down Rodeo Drive.

Guilty sounds like high-quality leftovers from Saturday Night Fever. The Gibb trademarks are all there: the shuffled percussion, the frothy synths, the simple chord transitions, airtight backup harmonies. Streisand does a great job in easing up on her famous histrionics, too. The danger of pairing a powerhouse like Streisand with a seeming lightweight like the Gibbs is that she has the potential to overwhelm the music and production (the audio version of a bull in a china shop). But Streisand’s heavy, gigantic belt is kept in check, as she ably reigns in her near-operatic voice, sounding like a credible fourth Bee Gee.

As a duet partner, Barry Gibb proves to be a capable counterpoint to Streisand. Their voices blend perfectly and seamlessly, as if they were blended in a recording studio Kitchen Aid Blender. Streisand never goes full disco, though “Promises” with its galloping gait comes very close as does the plastic faux funk of “Never Give Up,” that fails to be convincing but is an admirable failure.

No, people listen to Streisand to luxuriate in that brassy voice, and she sounds best on ballads. Good thing the Gibbs are great at building solid slow dance songs. They’re corny, sappy, but impeccably crafted. And Guilty would be one of the few times in her career when Streisand doesn’t sound totally lost jumping on current pop trends.

HeartbreakerEven though the Bee Gees were known for their funky music, let’s be honest, they were squares, which is why it makes sense that they were a match made in heaven for Streisand as well as Dionne Warwick, a singer of uncommon talent and tonality, but one that not necessarily the most soulful on the radio (despite being tangentially linked to soul greats like Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston, and Whitney Houston). Warwick’s early 1980s career was a strange animal. One of the leading hit makers of the 1960s, her 70s output slowed down, but then she hooked up with Clive Davis and Arista, and suddenly, she seemed somewhat relevant to pop radio again.

Like Streisand, Warwick found that hooking up with the Bee Gees would prove to be a commercial crafty thing to do as 1982’s Heartbreaker sold over 3 million copies. Its title track was one of Warwick’s biggest hit. Like Streisand, Warwick feels more at home in slower numbers, and so Heartbreaker is filled with romantic ballads. Unlike GuiltyHeartbreaker doesn’t feel quite as ambitious or well made. Nothing is wrong with the album per se, and the title song is infectious, but the album as a whole feels like a collection of songs that Streisand rejected for Guilty.

But like Streisand, Warwick’s voice is a perfect compliment for the slightly gauche production of the Brothers Gibb. She has a loud, husky voice that sounds at once affected and distant. Her phrasing is distinct and precise and there’s a chasteness in the way that she sings her love ballads. In the 1960s, she was paired with her musical kindred spirit Burt Bacharach, and he was the only musician who could make her dry delivery sound impassioned and urgent (“Don’t Make Me Over” is a gorgeous plea that Warwick sells beautifully). The Gibbs aren’t as successful and the result is that Warwick’s arch delivery sounds drained and mechanical. The whole affair feels drab and rote and the result is a parody of Adult Contemporary conventions (the songs – including a slick version of “Our Day Will Come) sound like something that would be played during the slow dance at cruise ship.

Eaten Alive (Expanded Edition)

Diana Ross is the only singer of the three had has the chops to do dance music. In fact some of her best solo work as been for the clubs. Like Streisand and Warwick, Ross also saw her audience shift as musical trends moved around. By 1985, when her Gibbs-produced LP Eaten Alive was relieved, Ross was in commercial limbo. She left Motown for RCA and her seemed to become merely an extension of her celebrity. She sold well, initially, but Eaten Alive came at a time when Ross was struggling to keep up with young pop divas like Madonna or Jody Watley. And unlike Streisand and Warwick, Ross always dove headfirst into pop trends, chasing them for pop success (she was rewarded for her foray into post-disco dance with the Chic-produced diana which sold four million copies and spit out a string of top 10 dance hits including the classics “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down”)

Eaten Alive is the least successful of the three albums covered, both artistically and commercially. By 1985, it seems as if the Bee Gees had given their best work to other artists and struggled to find something good for Ross. The title track is interesting because it not only features work by the Bee Gees, but superstar Michael Jackson. His fingerprints are all over the angular dance track; in fact, his tight-fisted, clipped sound crowds  out the Bee Gees pretend-soul  (Jackson’s soulful growl ends up stealing the show at the song’s end, despite Barry Gibb’s caterwauling). The other dance number “Crimes of Passion” works a little better, but that’s because Ross’ impassioned performance makes the slight song seem better than it really is.

The ballads aren’t any better. Often the production overwhelms and buries Ross’ pretty croon, and she can sometimes sound muffled. This is never more true than in “Experience” a by-the-numbers love song with Ross sounding lost in the song’s mix (there’s a crazy echo that acts like a reverb, rending her nearly incomprehensible).

But there is one unequivocal triumph: “Chain Reaction,” a cracking number in which the Bee Gees do a beautiful job aping Holland-Dozier-Holland, and give Ross a stomping Motownesque number that sounds like a top shelf song she would’ve recording with the Supremes. The production is grand and dramatic, and Ross is engaged and fantastic. It’s nostalgia at its best, and its brilliance overshadows the rest of the songs on Eaten Alive (and is easily Ross’ best single post from the mid 1980s) and is the best and most innovative song from the trio of albums reviewed. It also went to number 1 on the UK charts.

As they continued with their own recording career, the Bee Gees continued writing and producing for other artists, but Diana Ross’ Eaten Alive was the last time that the band devoted its combined talents to update an iconic pop diva’s sound and career. Streisand, Warwick, and Ross moved on from their brief Bee Gee sojourns with varying success. Streisand, followed up Guilty was a long list of platinum albums and reunited with Barry Gibb on the sequel Guilty Pleasures (2005). Warwick’s career continued to coast with periodic blips of huge career success, peaking with 1985’s “That’s What Friends Are For” a treacly ballad she recorded with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, which was a gigantic hit (the proceeds went to AIDS research). Ross had arguably the most fitful and frustrating career of the three. After the relative failure of Eaten Alive, she bounced back with the gold-selling Swept Away, which featured her last US top 10 hit “Missing You.” She then failed to ever regain her commercial fortunes in the US (though in the UK and Japan she was still a reliable hit maker scoring top 10 hits all the way into the 200os).

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