Writing a hit song can take weeks, months, even years. But sometimes, it turns out, it’s possible to crank ‘em out in a couple of hours. Which is exactly what happened when Barry Gibb was asked to write the title track for 1978’s original high-school musical, Grease.
On the eve of a new 40th anniversary edition of the film on 4k Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital, which is stuffed with more extras than the background of a Rydell High song-and-dance number, we not only spoke to Gibb about recording his still-infectious hit single “Grease” (sung by Frankie Valli in the film), but also landed an exclusive listen to the eldest Bee Gee’s long-lost demo tape of the song. You can listen to it below.
When we spoke with the 71-year-old Gibb, he was at a disadvantage. He still hadn’t heard the demo in the four decades since he recorded it. But his memory of how the song came about was so clear, he didn’t have to. “I remember doing it,” he says. “I just don’t remember ever hearing it afterwards. I just remember that it all happened in one afternoon.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you remember of actually writing the song “Grease”?
BARRY GIBB: I was babysitting and my wife was out. And [Bee Gees manager and Grease producer] Robert Stigwood called up and said. “I have two wonderful new songs by John Farrar called ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ and ‘You’re the One that I Want.’ But what we don’t have is a song for the title of the film. Could you come up with a song called ‘Grease’?” I said, “How do you write a song called ‘Grease’? I don’t understand what direction I would take to do that.” And Robert said, “Just Grease duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, Grease duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.” So he wasn’t very helpful. But I understood that they really wanted something that was positive and sunny. It really all happened in that afternoon. I walked on the dock for a bit….
Where was this?
Here in Miami, on Biscayne Bay. And so I went out on the dock and walked around thinking, Well, Grease is symbolic of that period with the Greasers and all that. And it’s really my period. My favorite time is the late ‘50s. And so it suddenly occurred to me to write about Grease as a word because it represented a time. So Grease became the word.
So how long did it take to get the lyrics down on paper?
About two hours. Because if I get an idea and my head says to me, “This is good, do it!” then I’ll just go with it. It began to make sense and it just fell into place. I can’t really explain it.
If it only came that easy all the time….
It doesn’t. All songs are a little bit different. Some things come all at once — and usually in the middle of the night. Dreams, for me, give me songs. And so I have to then shape the thought. But if the thought in my head says, “You have to do this, this is good”, then I’ll go to work. But my head very often says, “Don’t do this!”
This demo was recently found after four decades. Do you know where it had been all this time?
No, I don’t. Universal/Capitol has all of our demos and original recordings in house and I just don’t know what’s in there. They didn’t tell me how they found it.
Can you believe that it’s been 40 years?
Of course, I can. Don’t forget we just went through this same emotion with Saturday Night Fever.
You were so hot at the time Grease was made, having just come off Saturday Night Fever. And you really sing the hell out of the demo. So why was the song given to Frankie Valli to sing instead of you?
They needed someone who was relevant in the period the movie is set in. And there was really no choice. Frankie Valli is probably my favorite pop singer of all time. And he was really big at that point in the mid-‘60s. So it was an instant choice. The question was: Could we get him to do it? During the chaos of making the film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by the last day of shooting we had [that film’s star] Peter Frampton and he came in and laid down the guitar line on “Grease.”
I never connected the dots between Frampton being on “Grease” and Sgt. Pepper’s.
Yeah. We were all in town at that point. And I couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t ask him to do it, you know?
Is it true that you had moved to Miami on the recommendation of Eric Clapton?
He had just done 461 Ocean Boulevard and he said you ought to go stay in that house. The idea of being on the beach and making an album under those circumstances was so much more fun — the sunshine, the beautiful unique sky there. You’re never in a bad mood. You’re always happy and you always want to work. And yeah, it was Eric who said, “Why don’t you make an album in America — specifically Miami?” So that’s how we ended up here. It was good advice.
Is that you playing the piano on the “Grease” demo?
No. I don’t play piano. I’ll tinkle, but I’m really more of a rhythm guitarist.
And what about the handclaps?
I have no idea. (laughs) Possibly me. I don’t have any memory of the handclap. Don’t forget, I haven’t heard the demo in 40 years!
Where did you record it?
Probably the Hit Factory, which used to be Criteria.
Tell me about the backing vocals you do on the song. It must have been cool to sing with Frankie Valli if he was one of your idols….
Absolutely. What we did was, the bridge: What are we doin’ here? We did that section together in falsetto. A little bit of me and a little bit of him. What a voice! “My Eyes Adored You” and songs like that. That’s a great pop singer.
Are you excited to have people hear this demo?
No, not particularly. I’d just rather people enjoy the film as a whole. It was a small thing on my part to come up with that song. I think Robert [Stigwood] loved it, but [Grease producer] Allan Carr was in doubt. But that’s the story of my life. I went through situations with Dionne Warwick, where she didn’t particularly like “Heartbreaker” very much. I’ve been through that situation with Barbra Streisand, where the artist doesn’t necessarily embrace the song as much as you are embracing it giving it to her. But you have to deal with that. That’s a songwriter. I had to convince Dionne Warwick to sing that song. I didn’t have to convince Frankie Valli to sing “Grease”.
Lastly, what do you think of Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon’s Barry Gibb talk show impression of you?
I love Jimmy and I love Justin. And at this time of my life, I love laughing at myself. So I don’t have an issue over it. It’s the most bizarre experience you can have. But all in good fun. If you can’t laugh at yourself something’s wrong with you.
Paramount’s Grease 40th anniversary edition 4k Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital comes out on Tuesday.