Hello there! This week our blog features a great 60s pop ballad, To Love Somebody. We will first discuss the original version by The Bee Gees. Next we review a cover by Nina Simone and we finish with a cover by Janis Joplin.
The Bee Gees and To Love Somebody:
The Bee Gees were an extraordinary pop group. Over their long career, there were arguably three distinctly different manifestations of this trio of brothers.
The Gibb family lived in Manchester, England. They had five children; the oldest was a girl, Lesley, then four brothers including Barry, twins Robin and Maurice, and Andy.
The brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice started a music group called The Rattlesnakes in England. Similar to The Beatles, this was initially a skiffle group that morphed into a rock and roll band. The Gibb family then moved to Queensland, Australia.
Once again, the Gibb boys began to perform as a trio. A Brisbane DJ re-named the boys “The BGs.” Although legend has it that The Bee Gees name stands for “The Brothers Gibb,” the initial name referred to the fact that the DJ Bill Gates, race-car driver Bill Goode (the boys used to perform at the Redcliffe Speedway in Brisbane) and Barry Gibb all had initials “BG.”
Here are the Bee Gees circa 1968. Back row from L: Vince Melouney, Maurice Gibb, Barry Gibb; front row Robin Gibb, Colin Petersen.Embed from Getty Images
The group subsequently changed their name to The Bee Gees, and added lead guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen to the ensemble. Although the band developed a loyal following in Australia, they returned to the U.K. in early 1967 because of their inability to land a major record contract in Australia.
They mailed a demo tape to the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. Epstein’s family owned a major record store, so Epstein passed the tape along to one of the record store employees, Robert Stigwood. Stigwood would become the group’s manager and promoter over the next several decades.
With Stigwood as their promoter, the Bee Gees began to score hits. Starting in 1967 with their first hit New York Mining Disaster, they began a long run in the pop charts.
The song To Love Somebody was the 2nd Bee Gees hit. It was written by Barry and Robin Gibb, but intended for Otis Redding after Otis requested that Barry write a song for him. The tune was a ballad designed to fit Otis’ soulful style.
There’s a light
A certain kind of light
That never shone on me
I want my life to be lived with you
Lived with you
There’s a way everybody says
To do each and every little thing
But what does it bring
If I ain’t got you, ain’t got you? Hey, babe,
You don’t know what it’s like, baby
You don’t know what it’s like
To love somebody
To love somebody
The way I love you
The Bee Gees released To Love Somebody as a single in summer 1967, and the song made it to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. Tragically, Otis Redding died in a plane crash in fall 1967 before he was ever able to record the tune.
Here are the Bee Gees in a live performance of To Love Somebody.
This took place in 1974. The Bee Gees are backed up by a full orchestra, and the tune is highlighted by Barry Gibb’s terrific lead vocals — but I believe the highlight is the superb three-part harmony from the Gibbs brothers.
The Bee Gees remind me of the Everly Brothers – a family group that sang together so frequently that their vocals were invariably perfectly synched. The Bee Gees are capable of producing a superb live show.
The song To Love Somebody has become incredibly popular. There are at least 150 covers of this tune. In addition to the two covers that we feature, there are versions by Roberta Flack, Michael Bolton and Hank Williams, Jr. In 2017, Australian country singer Keith Urban produced a great live version of this tune as a salute to the Bee Gees at the Grammys.
From 1967-1969 The Bee Gees had a very successful run as a pop group. They developed a fan base heavily loaded with teeny-boppers, and their songs and albums generally landed in the Billboard Top 20 playlists.
In the Bee Gees, Barry and Robin were the most prolific songwriters, and took nearly all the lead vocals. However, Maurice was by far the most versatile musician of the group: he played
bass guitar, acoustic guitar, lead guitar, harmonica, piano, organ, mellotron, keyboard, synthesizer and drums.
Later in the group’s career, Maurice became the Bee Gees’ musical director.
But in 1969, tensions surfaced in the group. Initially, the band’s songs generally featured Robin Gibb’s beautiful high tenor voice in the lead. As time went by, Barry became more frequently the lead vocalist, and Robin believed that producer/manager Robert Stigwood favored Barry.
By 1970, the Bee Gees had disbanded, and it looked as though they might never re-form. However, one year later the brothers once again hooked up and released a couple of successful albums.
However, by 1973 the hits again ceased and the group’s fortunes seriously declined. In 1975, Eric Clapton suggested that the band re-locate to Miami, where Clapton was then recording. It was here that the boys had an epiphany.
Barry Gibb discovered that he could sing falsetto really, really well. So the Bee Gees began recording disco songs, enlisting the services of producers Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson.
The first big Bee Gees disco song was Jive Talkin’. At this point the Bee Gees began the second major phase of their career: as disco superstars. Below is a photo of the Bee Gees in their unforgettable disco outfits (featuring acres of chest hair).
Well, the Bee Gees rode the crest of the disco wave during the 70s. Buoyed by songs such as Stayin’ Alive, and featuring Barry Gibbs’ powerful falsetto, they became the kings of disco. At one point, all of the top 5 songs on the Billboard pop charts were either written or performed by the Bee Gees! It seemed as though their popularity would continue indefinitely; however, the group was headed for a crash.
Their first big mis-step was the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The rock opera, brainchild of Robert Stigwood and featuring covers of dozens of Beatles tunes, starred the Bee Gees as the band and Peter Frampton as Billy Shears. Below is the poster for that movie.
Although Stigwood foresaw the film as a smash hit and the soundtrack album a best-seller, critical reviews for the movie were viciously negative, and the album also sank like a stone.
To make matters worse, when the disco bubble popped around about 1980, so did the Bee Gees’ career. People seemed eager to blame the Bee Gees for the excesses of the disco era. In retrospect this seems terribly unfair, but the Bee Gees did not have another U.S. top 10 single until 1989.
During the interlude between hits, each of the brothers worked as a producer, and they continued to write songs that were best-sellers, but for other artists. Eventually, the Bee Gees once again began releasing hit records.
Once when I was visiting Australia, I got the chance to see the Bee Gees live. They did not disappoint, running through a number of great hits from their catalog.
In January 2003, Maurice Gibb died of a heart attack at age 53, while awaiting emergency surgery for a strangulated intestine. After his death, Robin and Barry continued to perform occasionally. In 2011 it was announced that Robin Gibb was suffering from liver cancer, and he died in May 2012 from liver and kidney failure.
So, Barry Gibb is currently the last surviving Bee Gee. They had a remarkable career – initial fame in the late 60s and early 70s as a folk-pop group; phenomenal commercial success in the disco era, propelled by Barry Gibb’s powerful falsetto; and re-emergent pop recognition in the 1990s.
We salute the Bee Gees – what a memorable group, we remember them with great fondness.
Nina Simone and To Love Somebody:
Nina Simone was a terrific musician and a fierce warrior for human rights. She was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933.
Nina was a musical prodigy and her family and friends raised money to send her to the Julliard School of Music. There, she applied for a music scholarship at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. However, she was rejected and (despite the fact that only 3 of 72 applicants received scholarships) she was convinced that racial discrimination played a role in this decision.
In order to pay for classical piano music lessons, she arranged a gig as a jazz pianist at a bar in Atlantic City. Realizing that her family would be horrified that she had crossed over to “the Devil’s music,” she adopted the stage name Nina Simone (her family never caught on).
When her manager offered to double her salary if she would also sing, Nina added vocals to her repertoire. She used her classical piano training and a great “ear” for music to branch out into jazz, and at first she was completely self-taught as a vocalist. Below is a 1969 photo of Nina Simone.
In 1958, Nina Simone released a recording of George Gershwin’s I Loves You Porgy, basing her style on a Billie Holiday record. The song made it into the top 20 on the pop charts. Nina would have profited handsomely from the royalties from her subsequent debut album, but she had sold the music rights for $3,000.
Here is Nina Simone in a live version of To Love Somebody.
This is typical of Nina Simone’s performing style. She made little effort to “make contact” with her audience, and her facial expression remained relatively unchanged throughout the tune. She simply sang her songs, backing herself on piano. Because of the distance she kept from her audience, I found it difficult to “warm up” to Nina at first.
However, if you pay attention to her vocals, she converts the Bee Gees pop song into a stirring soul ballad, with some clear influences from both jazz and gospel. Nina uses her classical music training to provide an impressive piano backing to the song. Her cover of To Love Somebody reached the top 10 in the UK pop charts in 1969.
Furthermore, Nina Simone had tremendous musical range. She mastered everything from classical to jazz to gospel to pop music – her repertoire even included folk music.
Nina Simone was a civil-rights activist from an early age. At age 12, she gave her first piano recital. When her parents were forced to move to the back of the concert hall to make room for white folks, she refused to perform until they were moved back up to the front.
But it was Simone’s 1964 protest song Mississippi Goddam that made the most dramatic impact. She wrote the tune in 1963, shortly after the assassination of civil rights activist Medger Evers in Jackson, Mississippi (taken to the hospital with a bullet through his heart, Evers was initially refused admission because of his race), and the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young children.
Mississippi Goddam had an angry, biting message and received major circulation. It was a big hit with civil-rights activists (Simone performed it before 10,000 people at the end of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights march). However, the song was also banned in several Southern states, led to death threats for Nina, and probably harmed her career.
Although Nina Simone participated in several civil-rights marches, her personal sympathies were closer to Malcolm X than to Martin Luther King. She favored the idea of a separate black state, and would have supported an armed revolt to accomplish this.
Following the ruckus with Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone moved to Barbados for a while. When she returned to the States, she found that there was a warrant for her arrest as she had withheld some of her taxes as a protest against the Vietnam War.
Simone then relocated to Liberia for a few years, and after that spent most of the remainder of her life in Europe. She performed frequently in London, and eventually moved to southern France. For several years she was treated for breast cancer before she passed away in April 2003.
Nina Simone was a great talent and a spirited civil-rights activist. In the last few days of her life, the Curtis Institute of Music, which had turned her down for admission in 1950, awarded Nina an honorary degree.
I like Maya Angelou’s assessment of Nina Simone. In 1970 Ms. Angelou wrote, “She [Nina] is loved or feared, adored or disliked, but few who have met her music or glimpsed her soul react with moderation.” Here’s to you, Nina, a pioneer in both music and activism.
Janis Joplin and To Love Somebody:
Janis Joplin was one of the greatest rock and blues singers. Born in Port Arthur, Texas, Janis was a loner in high school. She suffered from serious acne and hung out with a small group of misfits. She could not wait to leave town after high school.
After a short stint at the University of Texas, Joplin dropped out and headed for San Francisco. There she tried without much success to break into the music scene. Eventually, her over-the-top blues style caught the attention of psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, who signed her on as their lead singer.
Janis and Big Brother garnered much local fame in the Bay Area. However, their breakout performance took place at the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ Monterey Pop Festival.
Here is a photo of Janis Joplin standing next to her psychedelically painted Porsche roadster in 1969.Embed from Getty Images
One secret to Janis’ appeal was that she held absolutely nothing back. Her songs often addressed feelings of loneliness, abandonment and despair, expressed in a rough and brutal vocal style. She wailed, screamed and pleaded until her voice gave out.
Unfortunately, Janis had serious issues with both alcohol and drugs, in particular with Southern Comfort and heroin. She struggled with addictions throughout her career, and these issues had surfaced even before she became famous. However, being stoned apparently released Janis’ inhibitions and allowed her to reveal those naked emotions in her performances.
Here is Janis Joplin in a live version of To Love Somebody on the Dick Cavett Show.
This took place in July 1969. Here Janis is backed by the Kozmic Blues Band. This ensemble included Sam Andrew, her guitarist from Big Brother. However, it also included a horn section, as the group aimed for a sound similar to the soul offerings of Otis Redding and The Bar-Kays.
It is fascinating to see Janis’ take on the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody. She transforms the sophisticated pop sounds of the Gibb Brothers into her own unique brand of blues. This was one of the cuts on Joplin’s 1969 release I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! The album achieved gold status.
Joplin’s version is a raw, searing blues lament. As always, she bares her soul and shreds her vocal cords for the listener. It’s a treat to experience three radically different treatments of To Love Somebody from the Bee Gees, Nina Simone and Janis.
In September 1970, Janis and her band Full Tilt Boogie were laying down tracks in LA for the album Pearl. Janis was staying at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood during the tapings. Unfortunately, Joplin’s associates, who were making a concerted effort to keep her off drugs, seem not to have realized that the Landmark was a major hangout for heroin dealers.
On Oct. 4, 1970, Janis Joplin was found dead in her hotel room at the Landmark. The cause of death was a heroin overdose, compounded by alcohol.
Janis Joplin’s career was like a shooting star – a sudden brilliant appearance, a blazing trajectory, followed by an equally sudden extinction. Her untimely death was a tremendous shock to rock and roll fans, particularly since Jimi Hendrix had died just three weeks earlier and at the same age (27).
We had anticipated watching her career unfold over several years. Could Janis maintain her intensity? Would she transition to other musical genres, or would she stay focused on the blues? Unfortunately, we will never know the answers to these questions.