Several months before Mack Emerman opened Criteria Recording Studio in a North Miami warehouse district tucked off Biscayne Boulevard, a writer ventured in a Miami Herald column dated Feb. 2, 1958 : “I don’t think Emerman is going to get rich. But he deserves praise for offering the young musicians in the area a chance at a wider audience.”
At the time, Emerman operated Criteria Recording Co., a label that gave Miami jazz artists a place to be heard.
“I’ve heard many a musician complain that Miami is one of the toughest towns for a jazz musician. Only way to eat steady is to put ruffles on your sleeves and play the cha-cha-cha on Collins Avenue,” the writer opined.
In 1958, Emerman turned his Criteria Recording Co. into international music gold.
Criteria Studio is the birthplace of Aretha Franklin’s “Spanish Harlem.” The Eagles’ “Hotel California” was built, note by note, in that North Miami studio. The Bee Gees’ ’”Jive Talkin’” found its groove on a drive across the causeway to Criteria.
“That was the place, the top of the line studio,” said Emilio Estefan. “Because of the Bee Gees and Julio Iglesias it became so famous. Everyone was recording at that place. Criteria took it to the next level. Especially for the Latino sound.”
Criteria has built a legacy, Estefan said. He has since built his own studio on Bird Road in Miami-Dade where international artists like Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan record today.
But Criteria still holds a special place for Estefan. “It was like being in a famous hotel,” Estefan, 66, said.
When Gloria and Emilio’s musician-songwriter daughter Emily Estefan wanted to learn her recording studio chops Dad suggested she get her internship at Criteria — not at the family’s fully equipped studio.
Criteria is still alive, however, and booked in its seventh decade if its active Instagram account is an indicator.
Estefan’s Criteria-made hit with wife Gloria in 1987, “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” was added to the Library of Congress in 2018. Estefan thinks studios like Criteria help drive the South Florida economy by luring international talent to town and showcasing the artistic opportunities here.
The producer remembers how he and fellow Miami Sound Machine musicians Jorgé Casas and Clay Ostwald helped turn a simple Gloria Estefan demo for “Anything for You” into a worldwide No. 1 single in 1988 after an inspired 12-hour session inside Criteria.
“They had the right equipment and great energy and it was a great time in Miami,” Estefan said. “There was a diversity of people and of sounds.”
Here are some stories about Criteria from the Miami Herald archives.
Studios in the Sun: Many Pop Classics Recorded in Miami.
Published Sept. 9, 1997
When industry people here for the MIDEM Latin America & Caribbean Music Market talk about pop-music recording in South Florida, many will refer to Criteria Recording Studio, home to hits by the Bee Gees, Allman Brothers and Aretha Franklin.
Check out the list of classic pop records cut at Criteria, sandwiched among office buildings and warehouses in North Miami:
▪ Derek and the Dominos’ watershed “Layla.”
▪ Aretha Franklin’s “Spanish Harlem.”
▪ “461 Ocean Boulevard,” Eric Clapton’s comeback LP after beating a heroin addiction.
▪ The Bee Gees’ “Main Course” (1975), birthplace of their falsetto style.
▪ Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing,” the bestselling pop single of 1978.
▪ ABBA’s “Voulez-Vous” single, featuring backing tracks by Miami disco group Foxy.
▪ The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” cut here, not there.
Before the Estefans built their own Crescent Moon Studios on Bird Road in Miami, Gloria Estefan cut her three most successful albums at Criteria in the ‘80s, including her English-language breakthrough album, 1985’s “Primitive Love.”
Julio Iglesias continues to record English and Spanish albums there, including the recent hit “Tango.”
“I record at Criteria Studios often, and it feels like home there. I love it,” Iglesias says.
Asks Oscar Herrera, of the local Latin rock band El Duende, whose current ‘Canes Records CD, “Transición,” was cut there: “What’s there not to like?. . . The engineers tend to be easygoing because they know what they are doing; they don’t have to show off. Criteria is very supportive of the local scene.”
Criteria is not the only thriving studio here. South Beach Studios, perched atop the Marlin Hotel on Collins Avenue, recently saw activity from U2, Aerosmith, The Artist (“Emancipation”) and Trent Reznor (the “Lost Highway” soundtrack).
Jimmy Buffett docked at Fort Lauderdale’s New River Studios to track “Hot Water” and mix “Fruitcakes.”
South Miami’s Space Cadette caters to locals. El Duende cut its first demos at Kendall’s fully digital Natural Sounds.
Following are some of the albums recorded or partially recorded at South Florida studios.
▪ Derek and the Dominos, “Layla” (1970). Criteria. The Allman Brothers were guests in the studio while guitarists Eric Clapton and Duane Allman recorded this classic double album. “They all came back to the studio and jammed until, like, six o’clock the next night,” producer Tom Dowd recalled in the book “Eric Clapton: The Complete Recording Sessions 1963-1995.” “There was no control, you just kept the machines rolling. It was a wonderful experience.”
▪ Eric Clapton, “461 Ocean Boulevard” (1974). Criteria. Features his cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” Clapton’s first No. 1 hit single. The album is named after the address of a nearby home he rented while cutting the LP (it’s pictured on the cover, complete with a palm tree in the front yard).
▪ Bee Gees, “Main Course” (1975); “Children of the World” (1976); “Spirits Having Flown” (1979). Criteria. The Brothers Gibb revived their career when they moved here to record “Main Course” at the suggestion of Clapton, who thought the bright environment might lift them out of a creative and commercial slump.
The sound of their car’s tires passing over a bridge while en route from their Miami Beach homes to Criteria inspired the propulsive opening riff to 1975’s “Jive Talkin’” and eventually paved the way for the Gibbs to open their own studio, Middle Ear, in Miami Beach.
“We decided it’s good to make an album where it’s sunny,” Robin Gibb said.
Subsequent Bee Gees albums, including the recently certified gold “Still Waters,” were recorded at Middle Ear as were portions of Gibb-written and -produced albums for Barbra Streisand (“Guilty,” 1980), Dionne Warwick (“Heartbreaker,” 1982), Kenny Rogers (“Eyes That See in the Dark,” 1983) and Diana Ross (“Eaten Alive,” 1985).
▪ Eagles, “One of These Nights” (1975); “Hotel California” (1976). Criteria; “The Long Run” (1979) Bayshore Recording Studio. High-flying group retreated to defunct Coconut Grove studio to record “Hotel California‘s” follow-up and reportedly spent close to a million dollars on “The Long Run.” The sessions were so tense the group disbanded soon after. Despite a reunion tour in 1994, “The Long Run” remains the Eagles’ final studio effort.
▪ Fleetwood Mac, “Rumours” (1977). Criteria. Portions of rock’s best-selling studio LP ever were done here. Singer Christine McVie’s memories include “heat.” She recalls almost passing out while on stage at the defunct Hollywood Sportatorium during the band’s August 1980 Tusk Tour performance.
▪ Grace Slick, “Welcome to the Wrecking Ball” (1981). Criteria. The Jefferson Starship singer adopted a hard-rock stance here and seemingly decided she’d rather be Pat Benatar.
▪ David Byrne, “Feelings” (1997). South Beach Studios. Ex-Talking Heads frontman collaborated with studio owner Joe Galdo on the Latin-style pop track “Miss America.”
▪ Aerosmith, “Nine Lives” (1997). South Beach Studios. The Boston rockers began recording this CD here with producer Glen Ballard, but he was sacked and the CD was finished with another producer. Still, Ballard remembers a hot time inside and outside the Marlin Hotel, where the group stayed while in pre-production upstairs.
“I thought the energy of being here was great. Rollerblades in the morning.”
You might have spotted Steven Tyler and Joe Perry whizzing down Ocean Drive if you were sharp-eyed, too.
▪ U2, “Pop” (1987). South Beach Studios. Galdo recalls Bono celebrating his birthday at the studio. U2 producer Flood presented the singer with a kaleidoscope. Perhaps the techno song “Miami,” the only one from those sessions to wind up on “Pop,” says it best: “Weather ‘round here choppin’ and changin’ / Surgery in the air / Print shirts and southern accents / Cigars and big hair / We got the wheels and petrol is cheap / Only went there for a week / Got the sun got the sand / Got the batteries in the handycam . . . Miami My Mammy.”
Criteria Studio Has Been a Hub of the Music World for 40 Years and Those Hits Just Keep on Coming
Published Sept. 6, 1998.
Tom Dowd, the renowned record producer who has put his stamp on the work of stars like Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin and Lynyrd Skynyrd, tells this story about South Florida’s similarly legendary Criteria Recording Studios. It was about 20 years ago, and Dowd, already famous himself, couldn’t get even a half-hour slot at Criteria.
“They told me all the studios were taken, 24 hours a day,” recalls Dowd, still a regular at Criteria with acts like the Allman Brothers. “So I just drove there, figuring I could sneak in and do my half-hour edit. And I get into the parking lot, and here’s Bob Seger, the Bee Gees and Crosby, Stills & Nash — the three groups that have the studio locked out 24 hours a day — and they’re shooting baskets in the parking lot.”
Dowd sneaked into the North Miami studio, edited his tapes and left, unnoticed by the rock-and-roll icons in the parking lot.
Today, the lot is fenced, but the basket is still there, and neighbor kids and clients alike are welcome to shoot hoops.
And Criteria, the oldest and most fabled recording studio in South Florida, is still cranking out hits as it marks its 40th year.
This is where James Brown recorded “I Got You (I Feel Good)“ in 1965, where Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos performed “Layla” (1971), where the Eagles laid down “Hotel California” (1976).
In its heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s, performers like Brown, Clapton and Franklin were regulars here. Now, Criteria is enjoying a new heyday, with Latin performers like Julio Iglesias, Juan Luis Guerra and Jose Luis Rodriguez and a new infusion of pop stars, from Aerosmith to Celine Dion.
“There’s no other place like Criteria,” says Ed Roland, lead singer for the rock band Collective Soul, known for the single “Shine,” whose new release, She Said, recorded there, is on the soundtrack to Scream 2.
“The two studio albums we’ve done, were done at Criteria. It’s just the vibe of the place. It’s the coolest place in the world. It’s not like work. You just go there and enjoy yourself.”
This is obviously a place where music is valued. Walk around. The studios are huge and well-equipped. Several have private entrances, so artists can enter day or night with their own key. There are three grand pianos.
Criteria’s vibe stems, in part, from the fact that its driving force was not money-making, but sheer love of music.
That’s what led former owner Mack Emerman to open the studio in 1958. He loved jazz and haunted South Florida bars in hopes of finding good music that he could record live. He needed a studio, so he built his own.
“I had hoped to be a good trumpet player, but I was never good enough,” says Emerman, now 75. “I got very interested in the recording industry. That became a hobby, and the hobby became a business.”
Began as a room
Emerman started with one small room. As demand increased, he expanded, modeling the additions after the great studios of the day: Capitol in California and Atlantic in New York.
He was visiting Atlantic when he met Dowd, who started to bring in that label’s artists, like Franklin and the Allmans.
Dowd was encouraged by Atlantic partner Jerry Wexler, who had a weekend home in Miami.
“He visited Criteria [in the mid-’60s] and said: ‘Why don’t we record here? They have a hell of a studio.’ So he put together a group of rhythm-section musicians from New Orleans and moved them here,” recalls Dowd, who moved to South Florida from the Northeast in the late ‘60s.
By then, Criteria had acquired a reputation as a state-of-the-art studio, with space to fit an orchestra, the finest pianos (the one on which the “Layla” solo was recorded is there), top engineers and a laid-back atmosphere where artists were treated like family.
For a while, it seemed that every other album produced there became a hit. Everybody has a story about the place.
“One night, we were recording the Rolling Stones, and the president of Atlantic Records flew in with a friend of his,” recalls former Criteria engineer and producer Howard Albert, who now owns Vision Records in Miami.
“It was like 2 in the morning, and he said, ‘You know, my friend Sal is a painter. Go get him some paint, and he’ll paint a barnyard scene.’ We’re thinking, a barnyard scene? Nooooooo. So we never got the paint. The next morning, he says: ‘You know who my friend Sal was? Salvador Dali!’ “
There may not have been a Dali mural, but there were plenty of gold and platinum albums — more than 300 so far.
But Emerman always wanted to be “bigger and better, bigger and better,” Dowd says.
He went into debt, and ended up having to sell the studio to Joel Levy in 1988.
Levy was a 30-year-old concert promoter, producer and manager (he brought Air Supply to the Miami Seaquarium for a show) who also worked in his family’s Miami real estate development business. He revamped the operation.
Today, Criteria has five studios, and an occupancy rate of 75 to 90 percent — high for the industry. Revenues are up more than 10 percent since 1994, Levy says, reaching a little over $2 million last year.
The studio is attracting new business from the publicity generated by Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind,” Criteria’s first “album of the year” Grammy-winner since the Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever,” in 1978.
“It was scary,” Levy says of his early days, “and there was some skepticism. But, now, we’ve definitely had to turn business away. Business is good.”
A big reason for that is the Criteria sound, says engineer and producer Carlos Alvarez, who, for 17 years, has been bringing clients like Iglesias to the studio. Alvarez recently finished producing “Te Di la Vida Entera (I Gave You My Whole Life),” the album adaptation of Zoe Valdes’ novel of the same name.
The album, which initially will be released in France and later in the United States, is a narration of Valdes’ novel, with musical numbers by the Cafe Nostalgia band, the traditional Cuban orchestra that plays at the cafe of the same name.
“I’m proud to say the sound of Criteria is all over my album,” says Alvarez, referring to what he calls the “reverb” effect that he gets when recording in some of Criteria’s studios.
Emerman’s tradition of bringing in and nurturing young talent like Alvarez has been continued by Levy, sometimes with unexpected results. A few years ago, Criteria’s nighttime receptionist struck up a conversation with Collective Soul’s producer, Matt Serletic.
Serletic mentioned a group he was thinking of producing in Central Florida. When the receptionist mentioned that he was a musician, too, and a writer, the producer asked for a tape of his music. “He was fairly impressed and said he was looking for another guitar player,” says Levy.
And, so, the receptionist, Adam Gaynor, became Adam of Matchbox 20, which hit it big with the single “Push” and debut album “Yourself or Someone Like You.”
Levy regularly goes to local rock clubs like Power Studios in Miami. When he sees an act he likes, he offers to help them make a demo. One condition, though: If they get a record contract, they’ll record the album at Criteria. His local discoveries include the Hush Brothers, an R&B act he’s producing, folk-rocker Diane Ward and pop/alternative songwriter Amanda Green, who’s signed to his own Y&T label.
Levy has remodeled the studio and recently put in a console that produces a surround sound like that experienced in theaters. He’s hoping to get into audio projects for film, including soundtracks. No matter how much technology is pumped into the studio, Criteria will always be a product of its past.
“Anyone can buy equipment,” Levy says, “but not everybody has the mystique of Criteria.”
Benny Goodman tapes
History will do that. Just ask Emerman, who did several recording sessions in 1958 with Benny Goodman. Goodman took the tapes.
“A few months ago,” says Emerman, who now works with Vision Records owner Albert, “I went to a record store, and there they were: Yale University had made a CD out of those tapes after Benny Goodman died.”
They were recorded at Criteria.
Enduring echoes of a life in sound
Published June 9, 2013
“Music is supposed to move you very deeply,” Mack Emerman once said. “It’s best when the sound overwhelms you.”
It was 1989, and he was talking to a reporter about the epidemic of hearing loss among rock musicians, something that also vexed Emerman, 65 at the time. Sometimes, said Emerman, a self-taught sound engineer who founded North Miami’s legendary Criteria Recording Studio in 1958, it got so loud “that your pants flap. Sure, you put yourself at risk. But when the client wants to hear it loud, you crank it up.”
He was an icon by then, having assembled a technological wonderland where superstars like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Bob Marley, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Rod Stewart came to lay down hits.
Among them: The Allman Brothers’ “Eat a Peach,” the Bee Gees’ “Tragedy” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”
For nearly 30 years, Emerman ecstatically and extravagantly put himself at risk, body, soul and fortune, so that bands could make rock history: Derek and the Dominos with Eric Clapton’s “Layla and Other Love Songs;” Crosby Stills & Nash with “Just A Song Before I Go;” Fleetwood Mac with “Rumours.”
No microphone or mixing console was too pricey or exotic, and if he couldn’t find it, Emerman challenged the engineers flocking to Criteria to invent it. “His biggest contribution to the industry had to do with his relationship with technical tinkerers,” said Trevor Fletcher, who hung out at Criteria as a kid when his mom worked there.
“Criteria was a hotbed for innovation.” Fletcher now vice president and general manager of Hit Factory Criteria, created when New York’s Hit Factory bought Criteria in 1999.
By then, Emerman was long gone. ”It had the best acoustics anywhere,” said Ron Albert, a teenage “gofer” in the 1960s who learned engineering from Emerman and recorded some of Criteria’s mythical albums. He now runs his own Miami studio with his brother, Howard, and other Criteria alums.
“We’ve been all over the world, and the sound and ambiance there was second to none,” Albert said. “Mack built most of it himself: this giant playground with all these toys.”
When Emerman died on May 17 at 89, his legacy included some 280 gold and platinum records, a South Florida industry that might never have developed without him, pioneering studio equipment and imaginative ways of capturing notes that produced Criteria’s unique sound.
Emerman, whose heart belonged to jazz, also helped bring the University of Miami’s Concert Jazz Band international acclaim by recording its albums at no charge.
Whitney Sidener, a onetime studio musician who chairs the UM Frost School of Music’s jazz and studio music programs, said Emerman “liked to have the band come so he could experiment” with equipment.
“It really upped our profile and helped us recruit and got us on the Today show,” Sidener said. “We were having a blast.”
Emerman “didn’t hesitate to spend money, [and] Criteria generated millions for local musicians,” he added. Emerman “loved to talk about music,” said Sidener. “He’d be excited about big bands and what kind of recording techniques these guys were doing.”
Almost as much as he loved music, Emerman loved sailing. He bought impressive boats and wired them with sound systems. Aboard, he entertained artists who had come to record at Criteria and industry heavyweights like Atlantic Records producer Tom Dowd, label co-chairman Jerry Wexler and president Ahmet Ertegün.
Wexler and Dowd had vacation homes in Miami, but after meeting Emerman, they brought in a parade of Atlantic R&B artists and made the studio Atlantic South.
“At Criteria, you got the same feeling as [New York’s] Hit Factory and the Record Plant,” said Artie Kornfeld, the Woodstock producer and songwriter who became a record-company executive.
“What Mack did he was ... give the East Coast a place in the southern part with a studio comparable to any in the world. It was equal to Abbey Road.”
Emerman mentored engineers who went on to become industry giants, including the Albert brothers, Karl Richardson, Chuck Kirkpatrick and Albhy Galuten. He also nurtured electronics geniuses like the late Jeep Harned, who later sold his recording-equipment company MCI to Sony.
A Society of Professional Audio Recording Services co-founder, Emerman had ridden the rock-music roller coaster to celestial heights — with perks like an architecturally significant Coconut Grove home and a red Maserati — then survived a fall so harrowing it nearly killed him.
Overextended just as the recording industry began to disintegrate and his hearing failed, he sold his cherished studio in 1991 and plunged into near-catatonic depression.
But a decade later, his spirits and hearing restored, Emerman stood before members of The Recording Academy’s Florida chapter and lofted a shining trophy. The group that bestows Grammy Awards had named him a “Hero.”
“Those were still the good times,” said daughter Julie Goldman of Miami, who manages The Falls shopping center. “He was thrilled to death.”
Hours before an 80th birthday bash nine years ago, an aggressive virus struck Maxwell Louis Emerman, born in Erie, Pa., on Oct. 14, 1923, destroying his balance and his confidence.
Daughter Bebe Emerman, of Pasadena, Calif., said age-related dementia and diabetes followed. He ended his days at the Miami Jewish Health Systems Douglas Gardens Hospital, where he succumbed to pneumonia.
Music was Emerman’s lifelong passion. Daughter Julie said that as a youngster, he’d take the train from Erie to New York City lugging heavy recording devices to the “top of the Astor Hotel and make his crazy recordings.”
At Duke University, he played horn with the Ambassadors swing band. That’s where he met his first wife, the late ceramic artist and weaver Ann “Chili” Clark, mother of Emerman’s daughters.
Brush with death
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Emerman enlisted in the U.S. Navy, which taught him to spot and identify fighter aircraft. Stationed aboard the battleship USS New Mexico in the Pacific, he nearly died in a kamikaze attack that killed more than 100 sailors.
In 1953, the family came to South Florida, where his father, Harvey Emerman, ran a candy business. He worked for his dad, but took his gear into nightclubs every chance he got to record local acts. The family settled into a small house on Plunkett Street in Hollywood, where Emerman set up his gear in the garage.
Goldman recalls thick cables snaking from the garage into the living room, where he recorded radio-station jingles and commercials. Among the talent: Steve Alaimo, a teen idol in the late ‘50s.
“I kept reminding Mack that I recorded the first song in that living room,” said Alaimo, who learned engineering at Criteria and now runs Audio Vision Studios with the Alberts. The song was “I Want You to Love Me,” a regional hit. The producer: Henry Stone, 92, the subject of an upcoming documentary about Miami’s seminal place in the disco era.
Stone used Emerman’s equipment to tape Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ “The Twist” at the North Miami Armory in 1960, launching the dance that Chubby Checker turned into a craze. Miami’s music scene “would have been halfway without Mack,” Stone said. “He had the studio; I had the distribution. A lot of people don’t realize the relationship I had with Mack from the beginning. We didn’t know we were making history.’‘
With a loan from his dad, Emerman bought property at 1755 NE 149th St. and built a one-room studio. As word spread, artists came, and he added more space. In a 2002 PBS documentary called “The Music Man,” Emerman said he heard a knock one day, opened the door, and found himself face to face with Benny Goodman, the fabled clarinetist and bandleader.
In 1965, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, recorded “I Got You (I Feel Good),” Criteria’s first big hit.
By the mid-1970s, Emerman was at the top of his profession. The family lived in a Coconut Grove house with 54 sets of French doors, according to Julie Goldman. He belonged to the Coconut Grove Sailing Club and bought a vacation cabin in Little Switzerland, N.C. —where he installed a cutting-edge sound system.
“He could sit on the deck and listen to his music,” Goldman said.
Living his dream
Janet Oseroff met Emerman in the ‘60s when she did promotion for Atlantic and spent so much time at Criteria that he gave her work space. Small and shy, he was “unassuming in his demeanor, but so strong and powerful in what he wanted to do with the studio,’‘ Oseroff said. “He had people from all corners of the world, every kind of music you can imagine. He was a sweetheart and a gentleman. His whole heart and soul and intellect was wrapped up in having as many people as possible come there. It was so obvious that was his dream.’‘
After a 1974 divorce, Emerman married Dannie Jo Cagle, and lived with her and her two children for two years aboard a 52-foot yacht. “He was the most interesting man I’d ever known,” said Dannie, who now lives in Okeechobee.
Emerman kept the boat after moving into a Grove townhouse. Dannie recalls sailing with Greg Allman “and his whole entourage. Kenny Loggins. Phil Ramone.” But Emerman’s insistence on the newest and the best racked up expenses he couldn’t cover once the record business began to slide in the 1980s.
In 1985, he made a deal with Broward developer Hap Levy, whose son, Joel Levy, was looking for a business to run, and for a while, it seemed to work. Then, say his daughters, he was forced out, and had a breakdown. “The best you can say is that it was poorly handled,” said daughter Bebe Emerman. “It sent us both into mental illness,” said Dannie. “I was suicidal, and Mack just stepped out of life.”
Joel Levy said that at first, he and Emerman had “a similar vision of the future,” but gradually the relationship fell apart. He denies forcing Emerman out. “I was the young buck and he was the old man, and maybe he wasn’t feeling as involved as he wanted to be. ... All of a sudden, he didn’t just come back. ... Mack would be the first to admit he wasn’t a businessman.”
With Emerman’s death, said Levy, “Miami loses a pioneer and a visionary.” He knew that about himself, said daughter Bebe, who was with him and her sister when Mack got the 2001 Hero award. “He knew what his contributions were and he was very proud that they were being recognized in the wider arena,” Bebe said. Emerman’s family plans to spread his ashes in Biscayne Bay, where he spent so many happy days sailing.
Bee Gees Back? The Longtime Miami Beach Residents are Bucking Rock Trends With Their Longevity, Inventiveness and Success. Just Don’t Call This a Comeback.
Published April 27, 1997
It was such a strange day, Barry Gibb would say later. The Bee Gees — Barry, 49, and twins Maurice and Robin Gibb, 47, — had been on Washington Avenue in South Beach earlier in the month, shooting the video for their new ballad, “I Could Not Love You More.”
In the late afternoon, someone was stabbed in an adjacent alley, halting production for a moment. Then a hapless driver in an orange VW broke through police, onlookers and clearly marked barricades to land on a direct path toward the Bee Gees, who shot puzzled glances at one another as they stood in the middle of the cleared street. (The driver found his way back out.)
Later, once night had fallen, the Bee Gees stood in a dank alleyway; leaky overhead pipes dripped on camera crew and hangers-on, neighbors peered curiously from apartment windows and the stench of urine hung in the air like a shroud as the trio sang the classy ballad repeatedly.
Through it all, the Bee Gees remained unfazed.
Miami Beach may have changed immeasurably since the Brothers Gibb first moved here 21 years ago from England, but they sound and look basically the same (some hair loss notwithstanding): easygoing, straightforward, amiable. And they’re busier than ever.
The current craze for 1970s disco is winning them new young fans. Their new CD, “Still Waters,” is due out in this country May 6. That same day they’ll be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. They’re the musical guests on “Saturday Night Live” and the subject of an Oprah special, both to air in early May.
They collected a Legend award at the World Music Awards in Monaco two weeks ago, which they added to the Lifetime Achievement Awards they recently garnered at both the British and American Music Awards. In March, VH1 devoted a segment of its Storytellers series to them.
Finally, their world tour tentatively kicks off Sept. 5 at the Miami Arena.
Quiet in America
Despite all the activity, despite “Still Waters” sprinting to the top of the charts throughout Europe and Japan after its release abroad last month, the Bee Gees haven’t made much of a ripple on the American public’s consciousness.
The group’s career has suffered a similar fate: Though they’ve been working continuously for more than 30 years, selling more than 100 million records, the Bee Gees haven’t been burning up U.S. music charts or played much on radio stations. Because of their low profile, in fact, each new endeavor has been pegged as a “comeback.”
“It seems to go with our territory,” says Barry. “Other people put an album out and it’s not called a comeback.”
Blame it partially on overexposure: Audiences enthralled with “Saturday Night Fever” in the late ‘70s tired of the Bee Gees’ sound soon afterward (one critic referred to them as “three bland mice”), and the group bore the brunt of the disco backlash.
Blame it, too, on the fickleness of radio programming. The Bee Gees did have one Top 10 single in 1989 (“One”) , but they have remained largely ignored on the airwaves, as U.S. radio’s reliance on demographic studies dictate what audiences hear —and don’t hear.
“The music business is different in America,” Robin says. “It is more black-oriented at the moment. It’s very hard for white male artists to break through on the radio. In the U.K. it’s not dominated by one or the other, it’s down to the record.”
“They became pigeonholed in the disco era,” says Ken Payne, program director of West Palm Beach/Boca Raton contemporary pop station WRMF (97.9 FM). “The Bee Gees also had ties to the ‘60s, so that hurt their chances on contemporary radio for the same reason radio stays away from Neil Diamond —even though these artists have huge followings. If you didn’t want to fit into that stereotype, you didn’t play them.”
A return to R&B
Nevertheless, the Bee Gees’ recent work is drawing critical praise.
“Still Waters” is a return to the smooth R&B/pop craft of their first “comeback” album, 1975’s “Main Course” (the disc that first brought them to record and then reside in South Florida).
Music historian and Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White calls them “one of the three Great Killer B’s: the Bee Gees, the Beatles and the Beach Boys. These are the artists who knew how to make maximum use of the studio as an instrument. ‘Still Waters’ is emblematic of that incredible skill. Journalists don’t have any idea on how well respected these guys are by other producers, musicians and artists.”
Locally, WRMF and Fort Lauderdale’s Y-100 (100.7 FM) are playing the new Bee Gees single “Alone.”
“It’s a phenomenal record,” says WRMF’s Payne. “We’re getting a great response. It reaches all the way from the people who remember the first Bee Gees’ songs and on to the kids — that’s tremendous reach as far as demographics go.”
Awards and kudos are sweet, but they’re not what drives the Bee Gees.
“I think we’re still trying to be famous,” Maurice says as the three relax in their private Middle Ear Recording Studios in Miami Beach, shortly before setting off to shoot the video.
“We’re artists first, and it’s a fulfillment to us. There’s always a void we have to fill and it’s not just fame or success . . . or girls,” Robin adds, setting off a series of chuckles and good-natured teasing from his brothers.
The brotherly chemistry, honed 42 years ago when their late musician father Hugh started coaching their first live performances, remains intact.
“I think we can all be very good at what we do at different times,” Barry, the unofficial leader of the trio and guitarist, says about their songwriting process. “It’s a game. Maurice will play something on the piano without knowing he’s come up with a melody that’s really good and Robin and I will go, ‘What did you just do?’ and [Maurice] will go, ‘I don’t know.’ “
“Don’t pressure me!” Maurice cries, feigning an attack of nerves.
“If the writer or artist is doing what they do well, then the emotion carries across to the listener,” Barry says. “That’s the argument we’ve always had about demographics. We don’t understand why certain music has to be aimed at certain ages. When the Beatles made a record it was for everybody or for whoever liked it.”
Defined the ‘70s
After cracking the American market in 1967 with the Beatles-inspired “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” the Bee Gees practically defined the ‘70s with their contributions to the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack and follow-up LP, “Spirits Having Flown.” The two albums spawned six consecutive No. 1 singles (tying the Beatles’ record).
In the ‘80s, the Gibbs produced career-boosting albums for Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross. (Streisand and Ross have both requested new Gibb songs for sequel albums; Celine Dion wants a song too, Barry said.)
Royalties from their songwriting have made the Gibbs very comfortable. Middle Ear Recording Studios, the house “Saturday Night Fever” helped build, is the group’s refuge.
Criteria and Middle Ear studios
In the mid-’70s, the Bee Gees recorded a number of albums at North Miami’s legendary Criteria Recording Studios, where the Eagles, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Julio Iglesias and others also cut classics.
The carpeted walls of Criteria’s lobby are still lined with their numerous gold and platinum records.
But the commute from their Miami Beach homes eventually proved tiresome and in 1980 the Gibbs secured an old warehouse on Bay Road off the Venetian Causeway.
Middle Ear’s wood-paneled walls and plush offices contain plaques honoring the brothers’ achievements, a concert shot of youngest brother Andy Gibb, who had a string of solo hits in the later ‘70s, and of course, the Bee Gees in those infamous white Fever disco suits.
Ironically, the Bee Gees have never been a disco group. “’How Deep Is Your Love’ was a ballad,” Robin points out. “We were doing our album at the time. If those songs hadn’t come out in the film they would have come out on our album anyway. It wouldn’t have been called disco.”
The “Fever” white suits are history. So, too, are the casual jeans and tropical tops they favored until recently. The Bee Gees wear designer black now.
“Their look is more stylized,” explains their Los Angeles manager, Carol Peters. “Their image is smooth pop — they should look the part. They are not John Mellencamp.”
“It’s very complex now,” Barry says. “We still have a good feeling about what we do. [But] we believe that on New Year’s Eve 2000 people will still be dancing to “Saturday Night Fever.” The nostalgia factor never goes away. We’re sort of alternative retro is what we are.”
“Hard-core twilight rock,” Maurice suggests.
Also gone are the chemicals that chased the Gibbs in the ‘70s.
South Beach may now be party central, but the Gibbs say those temptations are a thing of the past.
“We had ours in the ‘60s,” says Maurice, a recovering alcoholic.
Robin jumps in: “Our drug period was early on in Australia, when we were in our late teens, and in London. We never really went through that when we came to America. We’d take things so we could stay awake late in the studio so we could work, not really for recreational purposes.”
But cocaine caught Andy’s attention when he lived too fast in Los Angeles. A heart condition eventually killed him in 1988 at the age of 30, as he attempted a career comeback.
The remaining Gibb brothers — all married parents of children ranging in age from 5 to 23 — say Miami, contrary to its image, makes them feel settled.
“Part of it reminds us of Australia,” Barry says, speaking for his brothers. “When we first came here I fell in love with the sky . . . it seemed to go on forever and it was a really beautiful blue and [had] these little white clouds you don’t see anywhere else.”
“Especially not the Isle of Man,” Maurice jokes.
The brothers were born on that small island, which lies off the coast of England.
“I think you have to have a sense of humor,” Barry says softly, returning to their success over time. “You can’t take everything you read about yourself seriously. Real life is children and families and grandparents and in-laws. [We’re] really just like anybody else.”
Of course, most average guys don’t spend the day standing in the middle of a wild ‘n’ wacky SoBe street or in a grungy alley filming music videos.
Capping the strange day, Barry’s Range Rover feels sluggish on the drive home. Not only does he have it in the wrong gear, he absentmindedly flicks his lights off for most of the trip.
“I’m going to read about this, aren’t I?” he laughs.