The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin'”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The Bee Gees – “Jive Talkin'”

HIT #1: August 9, 1975

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

1975 was a banner year for white British men getting fascinated with black American music, doing everything they could to put their own spin on it: Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” the Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces,” the David Bowie song that will show up in this column soon enough. Those are all great songs. They might be important, too. But in terms of sheer commercial force, none of them holds a candle to what happened when the Bee Gees went disco and, in the process, turned themselves into a fucking tidal wave.

In terms of pop-chart dominance, the Bee Gees were the closest thing that the ’70s had to the Beatles. Before disco, the Bee Gees were a successful group, and they had one #1 single, 1971’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” to their credit. After disco, they became, for a short period, unstoppable juggernauts. Over the latter half of the ’70s, the Bee Gees landed eight songs at #1, holding down the spot for a grand total of 23 weeks. That’s more than anyone else over the entire course of the decade, and that’s not even counting the #1 hits that they wrote and produced for baby brother Andy Gibb and for others. In 1978, the trio’s peak year, Bee Gees-related songs were at #1 more often than not. That period of total takeover ended quickly and suddenly, but it still makes for one hell of a run. And that run begins with “Jive Talkin’.”

Even in their folk-rock years, there had always been an element of soul to the Bee Gees, to the way those three brothers bounced their unearthly-high voices off of each other. But the group’s turn toward R&B — they weren’t quite calling it disco yet — was still a sudden and conscious decision. The Bee Gees had been struggling for a few years when they signed with Atlantic. New label boss Ahmet Ertegün paired them up with producer Arif Mardin, who’d worked similar magic for the Average White Band on “Pick Up The Pieces.” Mardin went about remaking the Bee Gees as a white R&B group. The Bee Gees moved to Miami, a city with a strong club culture. And all of a sudden, they discovered the beat.

The Bee Gees claim that they got the beat from “Jive Talkin'” — the stupendous four-on-the-floor bounce — from the sound that their car made when they drove over Miami’s Julia Tuttle Causeway. That seems a little suspect to me; the Brothers Gibb might not have known what kind of beat the clubs demanded, but Arif Mardin sure did. In any case, it was originally Mardin who suggested that they change the song, originally titled “Drive Talking,” into “Jive Talkin’.” When they finished the first draft of the song, the Bee Gees thought “jive talking” was some kind of dance. Mardin had to explain that it meant bullshitting, and the Bee Gees rewrote the track to fit that idea. They were so utterly unschooled in black American vernacular that they started out writing the wrong damn song.

You could argue, with plenty of justification, that the Bee Gees were culture vultures — struggling folk-rock balladeers who blundered their way into massive success by capitalizing on a new wave of underground music coming out of clubs that were gay and black. The Bee Gees hadn’t come out of the culture that produced disco. They didn’t know anything about it. And within a couple of years, they’d effectively turned themselves into the faces of the genre. That’s an age-old story of music-business fuckery: Rich white rock stars hijacking music that had belonged to the people living on the periphery. Plenty of people hate the Bee Gees for that. They have reason. And yet the Bee Gees were so good at making disco that I just can’t begrudge them. They twisted the sound to suit their own voices, and in the process, they lifted it to the center of pop.

With “Jive Talkin’,” the Bee Gees hadn’t yet fully developed the disco side of their sound. Main Course, the album that produced “Jive Talkin’,” was about half sleepy ballads. Barry Gibb didn’t harness the full power of his ear-shattering falsetto until Mardin heard what he could do on “Nights On Broadway,” another track from Main Course. (“Nights On Broadway” peaked at #7. It’s a 7.) After hearing Barry hit a big ad-libbed wail on that track’s outro, Mardin asked him if he could “scream in tune.” He could, and that’s basically what he did for the rest of his career. Barry sings in a pinched yip on “Jive Talkin’,” but that voice isn’t what it would become. And the track’s rhythm is a rubbery strut, not quite the lithe stomp that the group would later master.

Still, “Jive Talkin'” is an undeniably slick song, a quantum leap for the Bee Gees. It’s a studio record, full of big sounds and smart flourishes like the synth-bass that Maurice Gibb overdubbed. The track builds with a confident grace, its liquid guitar scratches and bright keyboard blips coming through loud and hard. The craftsmanship is impeccable. The handclaps, the timbales, and the yelpy harmonies all arrive at the exact right moments.

In “Jive Talkin’,” you can hear a veteran group finally finding its voice, hitting a vein of gold. The record nearly bursts with confidence; Barry wouldn’t have tried scatting along with the synth riff if he wasn’t feeling himself. And that confidence is earned. The Bee Gees knew what they were doing. They’d figure it out more and more. They’d lock down on that sound, honing it and polishing it. But even from the beginning, they understood the sound, even when they didn’t understand the actual words that they were assigned to sing. They made the sound work for them.

When Atlantic sent “Jive Talkin'” to radio programmers, the label mailed it in a plain white sleeve, with no information. They didn’t want anyone to have any preconceptions about the Bee Gees or what kind of music they made. This ploy had worked for the Bee Gees before; they’d done it with their 1967 breakout “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” That tactic had worked then, and it worked again in 1975. And after “Jive Talkin’,” the Bee Gees would never have to pull that trick again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: The all-star British synthpop project Boogie Box High had a top-10 UK single with a 1987 cover of “Jive Talkin’.” George Michael, the cousin of Boogie Box High mastermind Andros Georgiou, sang the uncredited lead vocal. (George Michael will, of course, show up in this column eventually.) Here’s the video for the Boogie Box High version:

Tags: The Bee Gees