The Life of a Song: ‘To Love Somebody’

Barry Gibb only revealed the inspiration for the Bee Gees’ single more than 30 years after its release
The Bee Gees in 1968, from back left: Vince Melouney, Maurice Gibb (centre), Barry Gibb; on front row: Robin Gibb, Colin Petersen © Getty

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It is perhaps the mark of a great song that it fits any musical genre. If that’s true, then the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” is a great song. Fans of baroque 1960s pop think it belongs to them. Soul believers swear it’s theirs. Country scions claim it, too. However, the object of the lyrics’ deep longing remained a mystery for decades.

The Bee Gees had not been in Britain long when they recorded “To Love Somebody”, their third UK single. They had arrived from Australia in November 1966 and signed a management deal with Robert Stigwood, who found them a contract with Polydor Records. Stigwood, an astute Australian who worked for Brian Epstein, touted the Bee Gees as a rival to the Beatles, and persuaded Otis Redding that the material the brothers Gibb wrote might suit him. Redding was a beefy blues bawler from Macon, Georgia; the Bee Gees were Mancunian stick insects with nasal voices who’d grown up in Sydney. Undeterred, Stigwood told Robin and Barry Gibb that Redding liked their songs, and to write something for him. The manager arranged a meeting at the Plaza Hotel, New York, where Barry Gibb played “To Love Somebody” to Redding. But the soul giant would never sing it: he died in December 1967, six months after the Bee Gees released their version, which flopped in the UK but made number 17 on the US chart.

Other soul acts stepped into the breach left by Redding’s death. Female trio The Mirettes were first on the case in November 1967; Aretha Franklin’s backing vocalists The Sweet Inspirations gave it a touch of gospel in 1968; and Nina Simone added a funk groove a year later. In 1969 came the definitive heartbroken rendition by James Carr, another icon of southern soul. If Otis Redding had lived long enough to sing “To Love Somebody”, it might have sounded like Carr’s passionate, regretful performance. By proxy, the Bee Gees were now deeply immersed in black music — six years before they launched their disco career with “Jive Talkin’ ”.

Jamaica’s record producers never allow a knock from opportunity to go unanswered and soon created their own versions. Lee Perry supervised an up-tempo reggae interpretation by Busty Brown (a man) that sold thousands of copies to boot-wearing British brats in 1969 and 1970. Five years later, Perry produced another cover as the title track of the debut album by Bunny Clarke, soon to become the lead singer of Third World.

The song grew legs in Europe, too. With an arrangement full of harpsichord, horns and strings, Yugoslavian band Siluete tackled it in 1967; Italy’s I Califfi amended it to “Cosi Ti Amo”, which was all “Whiter Shade of Pale” organ and token psychedelic effects. There were further covers, too. In 1979 “To Love Somebody” received an earnest rendition by Hank Williams Jr, giving it country credibility. In 1990 Jimmy Somerville wove together two of the song’s paths, singing it falsetto like the Bee Gees over a reggae beat.

Only in 2001 did Barry Gibb reveal who’d stirred the emotions behind his agony in “To Love Somebody”. He hadn’t been lamenting a girlfriend or trying to walk in Otis Redding’s soul shoes. Gibb told Mojo magazine he wrote it for someone closer to home: “It was for Robert [Stigwood.] I say that unabashedly. He asked me to write a song for him, personally. It was played to Otis but, personally, it was for Robert. He meant a great deal to me. I don’t think it was a homosexual affection but a tremendous admiration for this man’s abilities and gifts.” “To Love Somebody” may have been all things to all men, but it was inspired by just one.

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Photograph: Getty Images

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