This summer is the half-century mark since the Bee Gees, an Anglo-Australian quintet, were a smash at the iconic Forest Hills Stadium. On Saturday, August 10, 1968 at 8:30 PM, the Gibb brothers, Maurice (1949 – 2003), Barry (born 1946), and Robin (1949 – 2012) performed, along with two Australian members, Colin Petersen (born 1946) and Vince Melouney (born 1945) at the annual Forest Hills Music Festival, which originated eight years earlier. The Bee Gees were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1977, and in recent years were considered best-selling artists worldwide, with over 220 million record sales.
The Bee Gees’ fifth album, “Idea,” was released that summer, but it was not accomplished without sleepless nights for the sake of songwriting. It took its toll, as in the case of Robin collapsing, and a decision was made to return to England, where he was admitted to the Sussex health farm. After recovering, their tour throughout America was underway, and their manager Robert Stigwood was proud of their first large New York appearance at Forest Hills Stadium.
Some romanticism made a comeback for the youth pop scene, thanks to the Bee Gees. Robert Shelton, a well-known music critic of The New York Times praised the Gibb brothers and their two side men for their undeniable charm. He then wrote, “After years of so much hard-driving, outrageously voluminous rock, the Bee Gees bring a sensitivity and a disingenuousness to pop that is quite without parallel. Some echoes of the vocal style of The Beatles and the Everly Brothers can be discerned, even though the Gibbs were working as a child act before those groups appeared.”
Tickets could be purchased at the minimal price of $5.00. “Presenting The Bee Gees,” a souvenir program was available for concertgoers, and it offered a list of successes – “Voted Best New Group 1967 by the ‘New York Musical Express’; World’s Brightest Hope by ‘Disc and Music Echo’; World’s Most Promising Group by ‘16’ magazine; and Radio Luxembourg’s Golden Lion Award for the Best Record of 1967 – ‘Massachusetts.’ They have won awards in America, Australia, and Germany, as well as their many British trophies.” It then read, “The Bee Gees are truly an international group. Never before has any act had such instant and overall appeal. Apart from their three Golden Discs – ‘Massachusetts,’ ‘Words,’ and ‘World’ – the Bee Gees have notched up 27 No. 1 hit records in 15 countries. Not bad work for a group that’s been together for just over a year!”
Another excerpt read, “The Bee Gees begin their first million-dollar tour of America. For more than a year, fans of the group in the US have had to wait for their idols due to their commitments in Europe, but now the dates have been set – the Bee Gees are on the way. Already their records are smash hits there – just wait for them to take the United States by storm!”
Concertgoers will never forget the magical experience of attending the Bee Gees concert in Forest Hills. The Bee Gees’ 15-song setlist was comprised of the following classics: “New York Mining Disaster 1941” (their first hit), “To Love Somebody,” “Jumbo,” “The Singer Sang His Song,” “I Have Decided to Join the Air Force,” “I Started A Joke,” “Let There Be Love,” “Words,” “I Can’t See Nobody,” “Morning of My Life,” “Really and Sincerely,” “Massachusetts,” “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You,” “Spicks and Specks,” and “World.”
East Village resident Eric Paulin, who once resided at 1 Ascan Avenue, and was in many bands with his brother between 1964 and 1974, was a huge fan of Nazz, a hard rock quartet as an opening act. “They really rocked, and of course guitarist Todd Rundgren, who was very big into the 1970s and 1980s. Today I can say that I saw him with the group that brought him to public attention. The Nazz had a cool semi-psychedelic concept and not over-produced pop music, but more organic and raw, almost like The Who.” One of their most well-regarded numbers remains “Open My Eyes.”
Freddie Gershon was an attendee who eventually presided over the Stigwood Group and worked with the Bee Gees who had a 25-member orchestra consisting of horns, harp, and strings. In “The Ultimate Biography of The Bee Gees: Tales of The Brothers Gibb,” he said, “It was stunning. There was a full orchestra supporting them, and I had never seen anything like it. I don’t believe there was anything like it. That powerful orchestral sound was awesome, and the three brothers used their voices in an almost classical way; making sounds instead of words. That was before I had any business relationship with the brothers.” Their vocalism was a standout, and Robin Gibb was particularly praised for his heavy vibrato. Their father, Hugh Gibb, was observed with tears of joy rolling down his face in the audience.
Stigwood once stated, “The Bee Gees’ original breakthrough in the states was the most exciting thing. The concert I most enjoyed was when they played at Forest Hills Stadium. They were using their full orchestra, and it was an outdoor concert. It rained, but they played an hour and a half in the rain. Not one person in the audience moved. I’ve never seen a reaction at a concert like that. The audience wouldn’t let them off the stage, and gave them a 30-minute ovation.”
Somerset County, New Jersey fan Karen D’Ambrosio, who lived in Ozone Park, New York at the time, was thirteen years old, and attended with her friend Mary from elementary school and both of their mothers who were also fans. After attending The Monkees’ concert in 1967, she was very excited to return for another concert experience. She said, “I couldn’t wait to hear the Brothers Gibb sing live. My friend was a huge Maurice fan, and she screamed his name throughout the evening.” Her favorite performance numbers were “Massachusetts,” “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” and “Holiday.” “The beautiful harmonies of the Bee Gees, along with the other band members Colin and Vince as a trio or as solo artists, are undeniable,” said D’Ambrosio.
She continued, “Their music withstands the test of time, whether it is their early work, disco era, or more recent works, and their songs are still in rotation on terrestrial and satellite radio. Hearing their older songs brings me back to my early teenage years. I have listened to them regularly since 1968, and I am partial to their pre and post disco works.” In addition to her memories that she will always be grateful for, ticket stubs from that evening serve as a keepsake, in addition to a Bee Gees program that she purchased.
“In 1968, at 19 years old, I heard songs on the radio from a new group called the Bee Gees. I immediately related to their music, and knew this would be the group I would follow the rest of my life,” said native Long Island resident Larry Oliver. Without a driver’s license at the time, he commuted on the Long Island Railroad, and what is believed to be the first concert he ever experienced would generate quite an impression.
“I knew the Bee Gees would be backed by a full orchestra, which was pretty much unheard of at that time, and it would result in their music sounding very close to the way the songs were recorded,” said Oliver.
He reminisced, “The full orchestra resulted in a lush sound that complemented the brothers’ harmonies. One song that sticks in my mind is Robin Gibb’s ‘Really & Sincerely.’ The audience was totally silent, listening to Robin’s vibrato voice. Barry Gibb belted out a stunning rendition of ‘Let There Be Love.’ When they performed ‘I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You,’ it was met with great fan reaction, since it was a huge hit.”
Midway through the concert, it began to rain, but did not place a damper on the experience. He explained, “The Gibbs continued singing and the fans reacted with true enthusiasm. I distinctly remember Maurice Gibb getting a shock when he touched his microphone, but the show went on. The Bee Gees enjoyed several standing ovations, and the crowd just wouldn’t let them off the stage.” He recalled reports indicating as many as 13 curtain calls.
As a Bee Gees fan, Oliver nearly saw them every year they toured, such as in 1979. He reminisced, “I would see the Bee Gees perform at a standing room only concert in Madison Square Garden at the height of Saturday Night Fever!” Nearly fifty years later, he said, “I still listen to their music daily and collect memorabilia including CD’s and videos.” In his possession is also the 20-page official souvenir program for their U.S. tour. “I feel very fortunate that fans supported the Forest Hills concert. From what I read, with the group being new, many of their concerts were canceled across the country in 1968 due to poor ticket sales. I believe the two that worked for them were in Forest Hills and Anaheim, California.”
The evening’s finale consisted of Spanky and Our Gang, a 1960s sunshine pop band distinguished by its vocal harmonies, which younger and older generations engaged in. Performance hits included “Brother Can You Spare A Dime,” “Sunday Morning,” “Like To Get To Know You,” “Lazy Day,” “Sunday Will Never Be The Same,” and “Making Every Minute Count.”