When it comes to music history, 1977 and 1978 are pretty hard years to top – as several djrobblog tributes have already attested. So far this year, I’ve commemorated a handful of 40th anniversaries here, including landmark releases by Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye and a whole slate of R&B tunes that made 1977 arguably the greatest year ever for soul music, in my humble opinion of course.
But this week marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of three consecutive landmark singles by a legendary act which, taken together or separately, were so iconic that they forever changed the lives of the artists behind them as well as the course of music for the rest of the decade in which they were released…and beyond.
The group? The Bee Gees. The first song in this trilogy of hits was “How Deep Is Your Love,” the lush ballad that started one of the most unprecedented success stories in music history.
Released in mid-September 1977, “How Deep Is Your Love” made its début on the Billboard Hot 100 the week ending September 24.
The song’s beginnings were humble enough; it started at an inauspiciously low No. 83. That same week in Billboard’s review of the tune, the industry trade publication gave HDIYL a more technical than favorable reception, calling “the Gee Bees’ (sic) newest a warm tender ballad from the forthcoming flick and soundtrack “Saturday Night Fever.”
That tongue-tied typo of the group’s name, by the way, was likely the last time the magazine ever showed the Brothers Gibb – Barry, Robin and Maurice – that kind of slighted disregard, particularly with the year-and-a-half they were about to experience.
Billboard added, “The tight vocals and harmonies are at the forefront while the simple, yet melodic orchestration sets a soft backdrop. The vocals start slow and gradually peak for heightened expressive delivery.”
Really? I’ve seen more superlatives being used for Taylor Swift’s latest single, but I digress.
With the “tight vocals” and “simple melodic orchestration” fully intact, the Bee Gees’ ballad was a stand-alone single from September until mid-November as both its parent album and the barely promoted movie from which it came had yet to be released. As such, “How Deep” followed a slow, modest path up the Hot 100, reaching the top ten after two months and being stuck at No. 3 for several weeks.
Then on November 15, the Bee Gees’ label, Polygram-distributed RSO Records, released the soundtrack album to “Saturday Night Fever.” Four weeks later, the movie itself was released to theaters. By this time, “How Deep Is Your Love” had become a radio and record store favorite, climbing to No. 2, with only one record to beat, the song that had been No. 1 for a then record-setting ten weeks: “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone.
With the power of the movie behind it, plus the inevitable Debby Boone burnout, “How Deep Is Your Love” plowed its way to No. 1 the week of Christmas Eve, and remained there for three-straight weeks, through the week ending January 7, 1978.
And just like that, “Saturday Night Fever” had its first No. 1 single.
But “How Deep” was just the tip of the SNF iceberg. Before the Bee Gees k/o’d Debby Boone from the top of the chart, and due to radio station demand, RSO had already issued the album’s second single: “Stayin’ Alive,” the pulsating disco thumper about survival in the big city that cleverly pondered “the New York Times’ effect on man” and served as the movie’s opening theme.
Buoyed by a successful motion picture and the song’s prominent placement as John Travolta’s walking music in the film’s famous opening scene (plus that unforgettable lead falsetto vocal by eldest brother Barry Gibb), “Stayin’ Alive” had a quicker climb up the charts than its predecessor. It took only seven weeks to reach the top ten and was No. 1 by its ninth week on the Hot 100…just three weeks after “How Deep” had relinquished its reign at the top (btw, it had taken “How Deep” 14 weeks to top the chart).
By then it was clear, the Gee Bees, err Bee Gees were onto something huge.
The soundtrack album (which featured four new Bee Gees songs altogether, plus two of their previous number one hits and songs by various other acts) had hustled its way to No. 1 on the January 21 LP chart where it would begin a 24-week reign; and the movie had ruled the box office since its December release and was the top-grossing film in North America for nine-straight weeks.
By early 1978, with two singles simultaneously in the top ten and a No. 1 soundtrack album, the Bee Gees and “Saturday Night Fever” were just beginning their takeover of America.
Then, with January barely over, came single No. 3: “Night Fever.”
That stylishly produced disco classic was actually one of the first tunes recorded for the album. In fact, the songs “Stayin’ Alive” and the graceful “More Than A Woman” (the fourth new Bee Gees song from the movie and album) had famously borrowed the same looped drum sample from the already completed “Night Fever” because the band’s drummer had taken a leave of absence during recording sessions. (Ever notice that the common rhythm track for “Stayin’ Alive” and “More Than A Woman” never really changes throughout those songs, save for a few added drum notes and cymbal crashes?)
“Night Fever” debuted on the Hot 100 the week of February 4 and was in the top ten by February 25, with, get this, “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Stayin’ Alive” both still in the top ten (and the latter still at No. 1).
The significance of all three songs being in the top ten together was not lost on music journalists and industry watchers back then. No act had simultaneously placed three songs in the Billboard top ten since the Beatles in 1964. And no one would do it again before the Nielsen era of tracking actual singles sales and airplay (and now streaming) took hold in late 1991.
With “Night Fever” speeding up the chart to its inevitable No. 1 peak, the album’s first single, HDIYL, managed to hold on in the top ten for a couple more weeks, establishing a then-record 17-week run (again, topped only after Nielsen data began feeding Billboard’s charts fourteen years later).
By the time “Night Fever” reached No. 1, “Stayin’ Alive,” which had dipped to No. 6, made a dramatic rebound to No. 2 – seemingly threatening to replace its successor at the top, but more importantly giving the Bee Gees a powerful one-two punch at the top of the Hot 100 (again, not done since the Beatles fourteen years earlier and not repeated until after Nielsen data was adopted).
“Night Fever” remained at No. 1 for eight weeks (longer than any other song in 1978) with “Stayin’ Alive” incredibly lodged right behind it at No. 2 for five of those weeks. The fact that all three singles reached No. 1 made SNF the first soundtrack album to do that.
By May, all three singles were finishing their course. “How Deep Is Your Love” spent the last of its 33 Hot 100 weeks on the May 6 chart, the same list that “Night Fever” spent its last week at No. 1. By July, all three singles were off the chart and the album would finish its long run at the top, but the impact had already been made.
Disco – itself already very popular – was catapulted to new heights in the wake of SNF. Everyone from The Rolling Stones to Rod Stewart and from Kiss to the Doobie Brothers were about to get in on the act, as were pop acts like Helen Reddy, Barbra Streisand and Paul McCartney. Jazz musicians like George Benson, Herbie Mann and Herbie Hancock, not to be left out, also capitalized with disco releases. Even people like Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman and Engelbert Humperdinck jumped on the bandwagon.
Groups that were true to the genre, like Chic, had multiple million-sellers and No. 1 hits on the pop and soul charts over the next year-plus, and Donna Summer established herself as the reigning queen of disco with four No. 1 Hot 100 hits before the decade ended.
Disco was so prevalent after the success of SNF that some radio stations in major markets changed their entire formats to the genre, while others devoted larger percentages of their programming to it. One way or the other, station managers had to confront disco, either by joining the fray (a gamble to get ratings) or by programming against it (so as not to be seen as caving to disco by rock purists).
What was once the sacred ground of club DJs was now a huge part of radio and the pop mainstream, thanks in large part to the doors being blown wide open by the Bee Gees’ singles from SNF.
Indeed, disco’s dominance was undeniable in the wake of SNF. Twelve of the first fourteen No. 1 singles of 1979 were some variation of disco, with the lone exceptions being two ballads that could still be heard in discotheques (much like “How Deep Is Your Love” had been): the Bee Gees SNF follow-up “Too Much Heaven” and Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited.”
America’s post-SNF obsession with disco in 1979 ultimately led to its crash and burn later that year. The Bee Gees could barely buy a hit after 1979 (except for a few sporadic singles throughout the eighties). Most other disco acts suffered as well.
It would be the ultimate rollercoaster ride for a genre whose recovery would come years later, albeit under many other names and sub-genres. One could argue that had it not been for SNF, disco might have continued its more modest, also-ran existence and might have actually continued its less ubiquitous mainstream popularity into the 1980s – even under the name “disco.”
As it stood, SNF did exist, big time – and its album and the singles from it ruled North America for the better part of half a year. The three Bee Gees singles in particular set in motion one of the most incredible instances of chart domination ever seen in music.
They were three songs that, to this day, are part of arguably the most recognizable threesome of consecutive hit singles by the same act in popular music history. Three songs that are forever linked by the common movie and album they shared, the charts they simultaneously ruled and the impact they uniquely had on pop culture.
They were true game changers – songs that would define the course of disco and popular music in general, for better or worse, over the next several years.
For those reasons, the triplicate of “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever” still likely stands as the greatest – even most important – one-two-three punch that any artist or band has created before or since.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Bee Gees’ other accomplishments during this period, including their hand in several other No. 1 singles from 1978 and ’79, like three more of their own (“Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy” and “Love You Inside Out”) plus hits by little brother Andy Gibb (“(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” and “Shadow Dancing”) and Frankie Valley’s “Grease” (written by Barry Gibb who also sang backup).
They also wrote Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” the fourth No. 1 single from SNF soundtrack which had the distinction of knocking “Night Fever” out of No. 1 on the Hot 100.
The SNF Soundtrack not only topped the pop albums chart, it also led Billboard’s Hot Soul LPs chart for nearly two months in early 1978.
“Saturday Night Fever” largely contributed to the music industry reaching $4 billion in annual revenue for the first time in 1978. Polygram Records, RSO’s distribution label, topped $478 million in revenue – up from just $27 million only two years earlier.