This is another of those catalogues of covers that is so long it could turn into a 600-word list, so what follows is a very selective look at what’s around.
As for who wrote what, the Bee Gees’ songs were often credited to all three brothers, and although we know it was mainly Barry and Robin, actually picking one apart from the other is almost impossible at times. In general it is probably safe to say no more than that if the vocal sounds slightly reedy and Robiny, he probably came up with the germ of the idea, and if it’s smoother and Barryish, then it was his.
Starting a little ahead of the beginning we have Al Green’s version of How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. It was slow the way the Bee Gees recorded it in 1970/71, but Green and his producer Willie Mitchell slowed it down even further and relied on their masterly arrangement and sparse but settled instrumentation, on top of that unsurpassable voice, to create something too slow to dance to, too slow to make love to, but something to savour, like Kahlua drizzled over chocolate ice cream and served without a spoon.
That early Bee Gees stunner, New York Mining Disaster 1941, has been attempted by a few people, with a notable effort by folk legend Martin Carthy that should suit it but, to me, doesn’t. It has some of the hallmarks of a folk song, after all, but folk is all about stripping away pretence, and maybe there’s a touch of bitter-sweet artifice in the original’s harmonies that needs to be there for it to work.
Words is a more forgiving candidate, and the versions have flowed freely down the years, from Rita Coolidge to Boyzone.
First of May has been tackled by, among many, Sarah Brightman (whose most memorable contribution was to pronounce the t in Christmas), as well as Matt Monro , Cilla Black, Lulu and Jose Feliciano.
Similarly, To Love Somebody is a nice tune with very singable lyrics, and has received treatments from Leonard Cohen (oddly cheerful), Michael Bolton (typically hysterical), Janis Joplin (what can I say, I don’t get her and never did). Michael Buble (what hasn’t he done a cover of?) and the live duo of Ray Lamontagne and Damien Rice (intense as you would expect).
Much later, after the first phase and then the disco chapter, the Bee Gees and in particular Barry Gibb began offering material to legends of the music business ,presumably because the brothers had had enough of performing and were prepared to let others do the hard work.
Thus came Heartbreaker for Dionne Warwick, whose well was rather dry by that time (1982).
Country colossi Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were presented with a diamond-crusted, inscribed platinum song called Islands in the Stream, and Barbra Streisand got a whole album’s worth, of which Guilty and Promises are prominent.
But to finish this section I would like to go back to I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You. You might think there wouldn’t be too many takers for a song about a man on death row who has only one hour left to live, and in truth most people left it alone. But of the few that had a crack, a special commendation must go to veteran bluegrass merchant Bobby Osborne, who, with his crack team of instrumentalists (banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle), turn it into a thoroughly jolly occasion.
I urge you to have a listen to this, and if you think it’s just grossly inappropriate, I wouldn’t argue with you. On the other hand, there is something so infectiously good-time about this sort of thing – and you can’t not be impressed by the musicianship – that I find it impossible not to like it. They could make you feel good about your own execution.
As an interpretation of a song it’s as weird as they come, but as long as the Bee Gees didn’t take themselves too seriously I think they would have enjoyed this.