“If you think it’s a good idea, you put it together.” Upon hearing Barry Gibb say those words to him, drummer Dennis Bryon moved forward with rounding out the backing band that would help propel The Bee Gees to superstardom in the mid-to-late 1970s.
That’s just one of the interesting accounts in Bryon’s new autobiography, You Should Be Dancing: My Life With The Bee Gees, out now via ECW Press. It’s a lean, breezy account of his life growing up in South Wales, becoming a drummer, finding early success with the band Amen Corner, landing the gig with The Bee Gees and what has happened since the early 1980s, when Bryon parted ways with Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb.
Bryon recently checked in to discuss his book, his bond with Maurice Gibb, the disco backlash of the late 1970s and more.
Medleyville.us: What were the circumstances that led to you releasing You Should Be Dancing in 2015 as opposed to writing it in the 1980s, right after you parted with the Bee Gees, or at another point in the past 30-plus years?
Dennis Bryon: “In life, timing is everything, but when you’re a drummer, good timing is imperative. When the Bee Gees band was let go in 1981, the last thing on my mind was to write a book about the whole experience. To be honest, I was hurt — I didn’t see it coming. The Gibb brothers felt it was time for a new direction and replaced the band with top session players from Los Angeles and New York.
“After a couple of years, my wife Jenny and I sold our house on Miami Beach and moved to a small town called Franklin, just outside of Nashville. We bought a beautiful house in the countryside on 13 acres. I renovated the house over the next few years and built a 24-track studio in the basement. I started writing songs — as you do when you live in Nashville — and met a lot of amazing people. Everywhere I went, people were fascinated by my past and wanted to hear stories about living and recording with the Bee Gees.
“While I was living in that home, I wrote a novel: a musical story about life and the conservation of our planet. I discovered that I loved to write, but I never thought about writing a memoir.
“The next chapters of my life were pretty rough. I lost Jenny to cancer after a two-year battle, and also lost one of our best friends to ALS. And if that wasn’t enough, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“I’d had a longtime relationship with Kayte Strong, an independent artist who also lived in Nashville. Six months after Jenny passed, I asked Kayte to move in with me, and she supported me through those troubled times. After the cancer scare, but before the operation to get rid of it, I put everything into perspective. I knew I loved Kayte and wanted to make things easy for her in case anything happened to me. I asked her to marry me. She said yes, and we got married straight away.
“In the weeks before the operation, I realized I’d had a pretty interesting life, and if I didn’t tell my story, nobody would. I made a commitment that after the surgery I would sit down and write it all out.
“It took me about 18 months to finish the book. During the writing stage, it was hard to relive all of the pain and loss. On the other hand, I was able to re-experience my many adventures and achievements.”
In your book, you refer to the group anchored by yourself, Blue Weaver and Alan Kendall as “the Bee Gees’ band.” Did you three ever want to have an official name to use in public?
Bryon: “As with many musicians at the time, most artists had a dedicated backing band. At the beginning of our employment with the Bee Gees, Alan, Blue and I were three hires looking to create a new sound. But with the success of Main Course, Robert Stigwood of RSO Records made the three of us junior partners in the organization, a very unusual thing for any backing band. I felt a special camaraderie, a closeness to Blue and Alan that has never dissolved over time.
“The Bee Gees band was my idea. It was about my second year as their drummer. I’d just finished my first album with them called Mr. Natural. All the songs on the album were fantastic, but RSO couldn’t hear any hits. The title track ‘Mr. Natural’ did make it onto the Billboard Hot 100, but barely.
“To promote the album, we went on a three-month world tour. At the time, our onstage lineup included an orchestra. … I was having dinner with Dick Ashby and Tom Kennedy, both of whom held management positions at RSO. Dick told me if the next album didn’t produce any hits, Stigwood was going to make major changes.
“I knew at once one of those major changes would be me, so I immediately went on the attack. … I told Dick that they needed to get rid of the orchestra and put together a new hip band: a five-piece brass section, two keyboard players, two guitarists and even a percussionist. And they needed to start writing some more up-tempo songs: songs with groove, [an] R&B groove.
“Dick told me I should present the idea to Barry. Barry was the boss, and Barry, Maurice and Robin set the policy. How would he take to his new drummer coming up with a new plan? I had to pick just the right moment.
“Toward the end of the tour, we were on a speeding bullet train in Japan doing about 160 mph. We were all sitting around a square table. … I looked at Barry, who was sitting opposite me, took a deep breath and said, ‘Barry, I’ve got an idea.’ … I repeated everything I’d told Dick, and more.
“Barry looked at me for the longest time. Everybody around the table was silent. I thought he was going to fire me, but he did the exact opposite: ‘If you think it’s a good idea, you put it together. Dick will make sure you have everything you need.’ We spent the rest of the tour planning the new band and the new music.
“On all the records that followed, we were credited by our names only. It was only once — on a greatest hits album — that the three band members plus the three Gibb brothers were lumped together to form a Bee Gees band of six for the album credits.”
The Bee Gees caught a lot of heat during the anti-disco sentiment that emerged in America around the late 1970s. How did you feel about that at the time?
Bryon: “It didn’t bother me at all. I was confident that the songs and recordings were good and not trash disco. We put a lot of time and effort into our records. We tried to turn each one into a little gem. There was a lot of bad disco out there, for sure, but there was great disco, too. Our concerts were sold out, and when we played those songs, the audience went crazy.
Did you personally experience a similar anti-disco resentment or snobbery from within the music industry back then?
Bryon: “Absolutely not! Musicians don’t do that to each other, or at least not the ones I knew. As a professional musician, if you don’t like a certain genre of music, you just steer clear of it. A good musician will always have total respect for fellow musicians, even if he/she doesn’t like what they do.”
You were tight with Barry, but the Gibb brother you seemed to connect with immediately, starting with your audition, was Maurice. Once he dubbed you “Den Den,” did anyone else ever refer to you by that nickname? And talk a little bit about the role of Maurice’s voice and bass playing in the Bee Gees’ music.
Bryon: “I met Maurice when I was in my previous band; Amen Corner and the Bee Gees had hit records at the same time, which meant we did the same music TV shows.
“I could tell straight away Maurice was an exceptional bass player — probably the most melodic bass player I’d ever worked with. He idolized Paul McCartney, and it showed in his playing. He was a solid player, and in the studio, we planned out the bass and kick parts together.
“As for Maurice’s voice, he didn’t have the strongest one. That would’ve been Barry, and of course the uniqueness of Robin’s voice stood alone. When Barry and Robin sang together their harmony was pure, but when Maurice joined in, it became The Bee Gees.
“Maurice was the only person who ever called me ‘Den Den.’ But now that the book has been released, some of my friends on Facebook are starting to pick up the nickname.”
What are some of your favorite Bee Gees songs featuring your drum work?
Bryon: “My favorite Bee Gees song of all time is ‘Fanny (Be Tender With My Love).’ It reminds me of an old song from my youth, a song by Brian Hyland called ‘Sealed With a Kiss.’ Every time I hear ‘Fanny,’ I get a little nostalgic for that song. It’s not my favorite drum track, but I love the song.
“I think my favorite drum track has to be from ‘Jive Talkin’. This is the one that started it all, and it’s definitely the favorite of most of the drummers I talk to. Strange as it seems, all the drum fills on that song are based on Barry’s first vocal pickup. When we rehearsed the song, after the scratch guitar and bass drum intro, Barry was supposed to start the first chorus with jive talkin’. But he changed it! He added three pickup notes. He sang, It’s just your jive talkin’. I loved the pickup and stopped the take. I asked Barry to do it again with the pickup, and I would catch it with him. That small intro fill set the mood for the other drum fills on the record: just very simple eighth notes with a hint of ghosting. That was before I knew what ghosting was.
“The next two [drum favorites] have to be ‘Night Fever’ and ‘Stayin’ Alive’ from the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. The reason I’m listing these two songs at once is because they are essentially one. We were recording the tracks for SNF in France at the Château d’Hérouville studios. We’d already finished the tracks for ‘Night Fever,’ ‘If I Can’t Have You’ and ‘More Than a Woman’ when I get a call from home. It was my girlfriend Jenny telling me that my mother — who was in a hospital suffering from the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease — had developed pneumonia. The doctors didn’t think she would make through the day. I got on the first plane from Paris to London. I rented a car at Heathrow and drove the 160 miles to Cardiff. Fortunately, my mum was still alive when I got there. … [Following her funeral], I got on a plane back to France.
“After paying a tribute to my mother, Barry let it out — ‘Den, we’ve got a new song. It’s amazing!’ I’d never seen Barry this excited: ‘Now, don’t kill me mate, but we made a drum loop. You weren’t here, and I didn’t want to bring in another drummer, so we took four bars of the drum track from “Night Fever,” made a loop, slowed it down a little, and started recording to your drum track. You gotta hear this thing, Den — it’s a monster.’
“Barry let me into the studio, which was upstairs in another building. [Engineer Carl Richardson] hit play, and ‘Stayin’ Alive’ smacked me in the face. … Barry gave me the options of recording the track again with live drums along with the full band, keeping what we had and just replacing the drums, or keeping everything and only adding some cymbals and toms. I didn’t want to change anything about that magic groove. But I did want to add some toms and cymbal fills to give the track some dynamics and personality. The drums sounded flat.
“I started with some tom fills, but the more I tried, the more the song shut me out. Everything I tried seemed to get in the way and divert the attention from the groove. Adding cymbals worked well, I thought. I was able to add some crashes and swells at the appropriate moments. Finally, the track took on some dynamics and had some room to breathe. When we mixed the song later that year at Criteria Studios in Miami, the late, great Joe Lala laid down some percussion, and the rest is history.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Dennis Bryon photo courtesy of Moments by Moser