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His Bee Gees brothers are gone, but Barry Gibb plays on

Barry Gibb wrote a batch of new songs with this two sons, Stephen and Ashley, and co-produced with longtime musical partner John Merchant, a new album, “In the Now” in South Florida.
Barry Gibb wrote a batch of new songs with this two sons, Stephen and Ashley, and co-produced with longtime musical partner John Merchant, a new album, “In the Now” in South Florida. Columbia/Sony

Barry Gibb stands alone. The prospect, he said, is “terrifying, to be absolutely honest.”

On a hot August night, the songwriter who has written and produced more pop hits than any other artist — he’s second only to Paul McCartney — is awaiting his cue to go onstage inside The Hit Factory/Criteria. This North Miami recording studio, not far from his Miami Beach home, is where he and his Bee Gees brothers Robin and Maurice revived their career as a trio in the mid-’70s.

The studio’s walls are still lined with the gold and platinum records, almost like building blocks, that he and his brothers, completed at Criteria: “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” “Love You Inside Out,” a record six No. 1 singles in a row from 1977 to 1979, something even the Beatles hadn’t accomplished.

That’s not counting the No. 1 songs Barry produced and composed with and for brother Andy in this same spot: “I Just Want to Be Your Everything,” “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” and “Shadow Dancing,” along with the title song to “Grease” for Frankie Valli.

But on this late August night, Gibb, 70, is here to perform songs few have heard for a live video streaming rehearsal before an audience of invited guests. The songs are from “In the Now,” out Friday, his second solo album and first in 32 years (after “Now Voyager” in 1984, an LP no one really wanted out at the time, he said).

His brothers are all gone now. Andy Gibb died at 30 in 1988. Maurice in 2003 at 53. Robin in 2012 at 62. The album is dedicated to his mom, who died a week before the rehearsal, and the ballad, “End of the Rainbow,” to his brothers.

Read a story about Barry’s mom, Barbara Gibb

Gibb is in the now — and that may be his greatest achievement.

“Everyone is gone, and there’s that sudden realization that the people who know everything about you, who have all of your memories, they are all gone,” Gibb said last week in a telephone interview. “You have to move forward whether you want to or not.”

The process hasn’t been easy. There had been tensions between the brothers. Gibb has credited his wife of 46-years, Linda, for pushing him to live again and Paul McCartney for urging him to keep writing songs.

“There are all of those emotions,” Gibb said. “You’ve got to be in the moment because there isn’t anything else. All our memories are rolled up to what our opinion is today. I am learning they were not so real. They are abstract. My mother said to me, ‘Celebrate, do not grieve.’ My new mantra,” he laughs, “is: ‘It will be OK!’

Everything Gibb has learned is in the new music, some of his best yet. The lyrics are not insular, but “In the Now” still contains the most personal music Gibb has released. The melodies and arrangements are quintessential Gibb, but they also honor some of his influences, like Carole King and Bobby Vee on the romantic “Star Crossed Lovers” and McCartney on the psychedelic “Amy in Colour.” “‘Cross to Bear,’ the song about religion, that’s Robert Plant influencing me,” he said, sounding surprised. “I don’t know why. You can’t not be influenced.”

John Merchant is a witness to the evolution of Barry Gibb. His first day as an intern at the Gibbs’ Middle Ear, their former studio in Miami Beach, was the day Andy Gibb died — March 10, 1988. Since then, Merchant has been the Bee Gees’ sound engineer, co-producer and studio manager. Merchant co-produced “In the Now.”

“I think Barry has always been a strong songwriter, but now it’s his time to be noticed again, which is great,” Merchant said. “There is an unfiltered honesty in the lyrics and messages on this album, which I hope shines through the production. Every vocal you hear on the album is his, and his distinctive harmonies sound more confident and emotional than ever.”

“In the Now” is a family affair, with songs written by Gibb and his sons Stephen and Ashley. “Pretty much the same, either with the brothers or sons, it all seems to work,” Gibb said. “I seem to work better in a group situation of three heads — three heads being better than one. You collaborate and make something flower.”

There’s nothing on this album I wouldn’t want to have on there.

Barry Gibb on his new album, ‘In the Now.’

As with all of the Bee Gees’ music, ideas are first brought to the studio, not completed songs. The material is then built collaboratively, with hooks, chords and melodies. For “In the Now,” Gibb assembled the finest accompanists he’s had since the classic Bee Gees band of the late-’70s that played on “Spirits Having Flown.”

“They are a homegrown group of musicians,” Gibb said. “All of these guys come out of the University of Miami, and I can’t imagine a better group of musicians. I finally have the band I always wanted to be with.”

Gibb analyzes how it all worked, then and now. “Andy and I were so similar in the sound of our voices. Robin had a unique, beautiful voice. Mo had a unique way of harmonizing and had a gift for instrumentation. Robin’s voice was higher so he gravitated to the third harmony. Mo was on top or underneath. I was the eldest, I sang the melody,” Gibb said.

Read a story on Stephen Gibb’s arts awakening

“Stephen, no question his youth and his inclination toward heavier music, he influences me as well. Stephen is great on stage. By the same token, Ashley’s analysis of lyric form is equally important,” Gibb added. “So it’s still a family. Just when you think it’s shrinking it’s not. I have eight grandkids now so life starts again.”

The goal, however, is always the same: To top what has come before, be it a Gibb standard like “To Love Somebody” or someone else’s work.

“My favorite song of all time is ‘Stardust.’ You have to listen to the Nat King Cole version. If the earth doesn’t move there’s something wrong with you. I want to touch on that,” Gibb said.

Says Merchant: “To survive as an artist requires being vulnerable and tough as an old boot, a paradox that can’t be resolved, and Barry is a survivor.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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