Ossie Byrne and The Bee Gees
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THE ONE-EYED FAN IN THE BUTCHER’S STOREROOM
The Bee Gees at Ossie Byrne’s St. Clair Recording Studio, 56 Queens Rd., Hurstville
The Bee Gees are now regarded as one of the great phenomena of popular music. The most successful group to ever come from Australia, they are reputed to have sold 110 million records, over 20 million copies of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack alone. However, the eight years that the English show-biz brothers spent in Australia weren’t nearly as profitable. They were once so broke they couldn’t even afford guitar strings. What follows is the story of how a one-eyed fan working in a butcher’s storeroom in suburban Hurstville helped change their fortunes.
It’s early 1966 and the Bee Gees are still serving a gruelling apprenticeship. There’s the occasional concert and TV appearance, and there’s the more usual treadmill of clubs, RSL’s and beer-barns. They’ve issued 9 failed singles. Hip fans give them no respect. They’re called Beatle imitators, young upstarts, whingeing Poms. Life could be better. Their Leedon Records contract has been taken over by Spin Records, a new independent label owned by Australian Consolidated Press, plus four directors of Everybody’s magazine, and Sydney entrepreneur, Harry M. Miller. Heading Spin Records is an American, Nat Kipner, songwriter, record and TV producer, and WW2 U.S. Airforce veteran. He’d worked in Aircorps Supply (81st Air Group) based in Finchaven, New Guinea.
Kipner takes the Bee Gees to the small St. Clair Recording Studio in Queens Road, Hurstville. The studio is a converted storeroom behind a butcher’s shop. The shop itself is used as the studio office. It’s been operating for less than a year, mainly recording Sydney beat groups and suburban R’n’B bands. Like Sam Phillips’ fabled Sun Studio in Memphis c.1954, St. Clair features two mono recorders. While hardly state of the art for 1966, St. Clair is serviceable and cheap. Even better, it is run by one of their biggest fans.
Soon the Bee Gees are given free run of the studio when it’s not booked. Twins Maurice and Robin Gibb begin composing songs, just like their big brother, Barry. Some of these songs will eventually provide singles or album tracks for other Australian artists. Meanwhile, the Bee Gees’ bad luck continues. Everybody’s reports on 20 July 1966 – "The Bee Gees’ new disc, "Monday’s Rain", has been barred by every radio station in Sydney on the grounds that the Bee Gees are not original enough. Surely they’re joking!…The Bee Gees for heavens’ sake write their own material." Make that 10 failed singles. Yes indeed, life could be better.
Despite the setbacks, the Bee Gees have staunch allies. First and foremost, the Gibb family itself works tirelessly for the group’s success. Secondly, fellow performers like Col Joye, Ronnie Burns and Jimmy Little record Gibb songs, and talk up their talents in interviews. Thirdly, Spin Records and Nat Kipner continue to nurture the precocious trio. And then there’s Ossie Byrne.
Ossie Byrne is their fan who runs the St. Clair studio. Ossie is 40 years old. His full name is Oswald Russell Byrne, and he was born in Queanbeyan, NSW, in 1926. He’s from a musical family, the youngest of nine children. His mother played concertina, his brother Geoff plays cornet and sings light opera. Ossie taught himself piano, and also played cornet in a municipal band. The Byrne family lived on the Oakes Estate in Canberra. The large Byrne family had it tough during the Depression, and like many others in Australia, received help from the Salvation Army. It was in a Salvo brass band that Ossie learned to play trumpet. Both he and Geoff attended Queanbeyan High. Ossie eventually relocated to Wollongong in the mid-1950s. Here he built his first small recording studio in his home in Tarrawanna. Ossie loves pop, jazz, rock’n’roll, all types of music, but mostly pop.
Ossie Byrne believes the Bee Gees are the most original band in Australia. He tells 18 year-old Barry and the 16 year-old twins to keep recording, keep writing songs. Persistence will bring more results than luck. Ossie knows about luck. When Ossie was 18, he’d been in the RAAF; like Nat Kipner, he’d been stationed in New Guinea. Ossie had been badly injured. He lost an eye. His war traumas are never mentioned. For a party trick, he’ll sometimes pop out the glass marble from his eye-socket and ghoulishly wink. Too right Ossie Byrne knows about luck. He knows he’s lucky to be alive. After the war he’d played piano with groups in Canberra and Sydney. Before moving to Wollongong, he’d worked as a finance officer in Rockdale, still playing in bands at night, sometimes with old service mates.
In late 1961, Ossie helps manage a local instrumental group called the Del-Fi’s. He records some of their material in his Wollongong home studio. The Del-Fi’s provide back-up for visiting vocalists, like Dig Richards, George Johnston and Averill Trotter. The Del-Fi's bass player, Jim Steedman, recalls, "In June 1965 Leedon Records issued a single of us backing Wollongong singer, Derek Lee. It was recorded at Festival studios. Later that year Ossie moved up to Sydney, and we didn't see him again."
Another of the visiting singers is the young British-born Trevor Gordon. He’d been a schoolmate of the Gibb brothers in Brisbane. By 1965, Trevor will have recorded several of Barry Gibb’s songs. In 1969, back in Britain, Trevor Gordon will team up with Graham Bonnett to form The Marbles. The Marbles will have an international hit with yet another Gibb composition, Only one woman.
Throughout June and July 1966, the Bee Gees virtually take up residence in Ossie Byrne’s St. Clair studio in Hurstville. Ossie produces most of these all night recording sessions, some are in tandem with Nat Kipner, while other sessions see the Bee Gees themselves take the controls. Ossie strikes up a friendship with Hughie Gibb, the boys’ father and manager. They discuss Ossie taking over the group’s co-manager role from Nat Kipner. Ossie looks the part – he’s a service veteran, a one-time JP, quiet and self-deprecating. The boys themselves treat Ossie something like a father-figure. The age difference between himself and the Gibb boys doesn’t bother him. If anything, it unites him with their ambitions. At 18 Ossie was old enough to be in uniform. Who’s to say these kids aren’t old enough to be in the charts?
June 1966 sees the emergence of the Down Under record company, believed to be Ossie’s own imprint label distributed through Festival records. Down Under operates from June to October 1966, and releases 13 singles, all recorded at the St. Clair Studio. Nat Kipner wrote many of the songs issued on Down Under; some of the other releases are written by Barry Gibb, or Maurice Gibb in collaboration with Nat. Ann Shelton’s delightful "I miss you" features the Bee Gees as backing band, and credits Nat Kipner and Ossie Byrne as the writers.
Three quarters of the way through 1966, the Bee Gees’ perseverance starts to pay off. Everybody’s magazine reports on the 10th of August that Barry Gibb & the Bee Gees have won the Adelaide radio station 5KA’s talent award for the best Australian composition for "I was a lover, a leader of men." It had been one of their failed singles from the previous year. Despite the award, Hughie Gibb continues preparations to take his family back to England.
Yet another Bee Gees single appears. It’s from those sessions held in June and July. Kiwi songstress, Dinah Lee, says, "At first the boys had been unsure whether the song suited them, so they offered it to me." She’d been prepared to record it but, after discussions with Nat and Ossie, the Bee Gees release it themselves. The new single is a ballad, paradoxically with a strong dance beat. It prominently features the St. Clair studio piano, a one-time pianola that’s had the roll ripped out. The piano riffs obsessively behind lyrics drenched in alienation, despair, heartbreak and loss, but as the song shifts up through its key changes, it allows Barry Gibb’s vocal to end with a triumphant rallying call. "Spicks and specks, Spicks and specks", he cries, soulfully but somewhat enigmatically. The song says yes, determination can defeat anguish, but that splendid and steely resolve just might increase your isolation. It’s a great record, one of the best Australian singles. Would it be their 11th dud in a row?
Spin Records release the latest Bee Gees single, "Spicks and Specks", in September 1966. On September 28th, it sneaks into the Sydney charts at number 38. It will go on to spend 19 weeks in the Sydney Top 40, and peak at number 3. Elsewhere in Australia it becomes a number one seller. The song’s impact is so great that the Melbourne based Go-Set magazine names it their "Best Record of the Year". It’s released internationally in late February 1967, and becomes their first European hit.
Nat Kipner outlines the recording process using St. Clair’s two mono recorders:
"The band would record the song on the first tape recorder and it had to be a perfect tape because you couldn't drop in as there was only the one track. Sometimes it took a considerable amount of time to obtain a good sound balance as well as recording.
After having obtained the original backtrack then it was almost always necessary to dub in another instrument or two, plus of course the vocal. This was done by relaying the existing track over to the second tape recorder, plus recording the other instruments at the same time. This process was often repeated several times until the musical-backtrack was accomplished. On each dub the music generally lost a little bit of its clearness and particularly the bass had almost disappeared so one had to overdub it again and add a bass boost. Finally the vocals were put on and the same process occurred until the record was as complete as it could be."
While Ossie’s St. Clair Recording Studio seems primitive by today’s standards, it was comparable to other small studios of its time. The archetypical small studio, Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, in Memphis, Tennessee used twin Ampex 350 recorders to tape stars like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, BB King and Howlin’ Wolf. The equipment was installed in 1954; one recorder was the console model and the other was mounted behind Sam Phillips’ head to create tape delay echo, or slapback.
At the Atlantic label’s New York office at West 56th Street in the early 1950s, the studio space only existed at night. Record producer Jerry Wexler recalled years later in a Rolling Stone magazine interview, "During the daytime, Ahmet (Ertegun) and I shared one office. At night, we put one desk on top of the other and Tom Dowd, the engineer, would take out the microphones and the camp chairs and that was our studio." This makeshift studio was used to record Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, the Clovers, Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles.
In Kingston, Jamaica from the late 1950s and into the mid-1960s, mono recorders were used in Clement Dodd’s Studio One, and in Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio. Bob Marley and the Wailers and other early Jamaican ska and rock steady artists first came to prominence using these facilities.
Perhaps most tellingly of all, the early Beatles Parlophone recordings in 1962-63 were all on basic two-track equipment. In the same years, the Rolling Stones also recorded for the Decca Company in either 2 or 3-track studios. This is all a long way from the multiple tracks now available on even the simplest home recording equipment.
Ossie himself remodelled the storeroom behind the butcher’s shop in Queens Road, Hurstville. He shifted equipment and some soundproofing from his backyard shed in Tarrawanna. Extra soundproofing was added in the shape of old mattresses and carpet. Nat Kipner describes the layout: "The studio was a garage with a cement floor. At one end the control panel had one glass window... I’m not sure what the recorders were, however they might have been Ampex. Before he left for England, Ossie sold off some of the equipment and dumped a lot". Col Joye remembers salvaging some of the soundproofing for his own little home studio. As for the name, St. Clair Recording Studio, an educated guess would be that it’s named after St. Clair (or Claire or Clare) of Assisi. In 1958 Pope Pius XII announced St. Clair would be the patron saint of television, radio and communications.
Ossie travelled with the Gibb family to England on the SS Fairsky. Even before they arrived in Southampton in February 1967, Ossie’s skills with mono recorders were passe. The London scene had moved on to stereophonic mixes and multi-track recording facilities. Consider Abbey Road Studios, London, where the Beatles were creating their Sgt Peppers LP:
"Sgt. Peppers was recorded on 1 inch 4 tracks and it was 2 or 3 machines running at a time to make Sgt Peppers, and they had amazing outboard gear, like old tube compressors, and George Martin was at the helm, he was cutting acetates and lining things up, it was a BIG DEAL." - Benjamin Gibbard, from US band Death Cab for Cutie.
Ossie had no formal training in sound engineering, and no experience with the new multi-tracking technology. He had to learn as he went along. While he learned, so did the Bee Gees. For the ambitious Gibb brothers it must have been a strange situation. Ossie was a family friend, as well as the group’s mentor and guide. However, like the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees were aiming to produce themselves.
In the month after the Beatles unveiled Sgt Peppers, the Bee Gees released their First LP in England on 14 July 1967. Colin Peterson, then the Bee Gees’ drummer, said these were "fantastic sessions in the studio…very, very inventive". The LP showed the band experimenting extensively with orchestrated arrangements, and tackling a diverse range of song subjects. Ossie’s production showed little evidence of any technical inadequacy. The sound was warm, even lush on occasions. On some cuts the orchestration approaches symphonic, yet always the voices, the harmonies and melodies, are the central focus, beautifully framed by Bill Shepherd and Phil Dennys’ fine arrangements.
The Bee Gees’ First was a step forward in every facet of the Bee Gees’ development. As you’d expect, the London studio had resulted in a more polished sound than at Hurstville. As for the songs, most were as good as "Spicks and Specks", in some cases, such as "To love somebody", "I can’t see nobody" and "New York Mining Disaster 1941", they were even better. The harmonies were more intricate, the lead vocals more confident. It was a wonderful record, a triumph. By the end of the year it would be a Top 10 seller in the USA, England and Germany. In one delightful swoop they were no longer Beatles pretenders. They were peers. However, it would take them nearly a decade and their Main Course LP of 1975 before they would once again make an LP as consistently satisfying as their First.
Ossie Byrne never worked on another Bee Gees recording session after 1967. The Bee Gees became more self-sufficient, producing and mixing many of their own releases. Ossie continued as a freelance producer in London. He recorded Eclection, a folk/rock group featuring former Sydney singer, Kerrilee Male. Their self-titled LP was released on Elektra in 1968. It has been described as "one of the finer overlooked folk-rock recordings of the 1960s, and perhaps the best relatively unknown British folk-rock LP of its time". He set up a new studio near Wimbledon. He recorded Cressida’s well-regarded debut LP, and its follow-up, Asylum, and other English folk and pop acts. He became involved with managing the New Seekers. While he was unable to repeat the great commercial success he’d found with the Bee Gees, he was able to maintain his veteran Rolls Royce.
In Nat Kipner’s opinion, Ossie "was a very good engineer". Barry Gibb has said, "Ossie was a good producer." Barry’s view is backed up by ex-Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs member, Tony Barber. He wrote in mid-1966 : "If you find the sound on Spin Records is even better than it was, it’s due mainly to a man called Ossie Byrnes (sic)…[he’s] a real pusher where Australian artists are concerned, and when he records them he offers advice and new ideas, but listens to the artists’ view, too."
The Bee Gees’ biography, Tales of the Brothers Gibb, offers a conflicting opinion of Ossie’s merits as a producer. IBC studio technician, Damon Lyon-Shaw, who worked with Ossie in London, stated, "I did more stuff with Ossie Byrne without the Bee Gees than I did with the Bee Gees. Ossie had a knack of keeping quiet and letting people get on, and then he went adrift a bit and got some bands that weren’t quite so good. I had a lot of time for Ossie, he was a nice chap…he didn’t have much talent as a producer I have to say, but he had enough talent to see the band. He had this talent of keeping people together and making them productive…" Damon’s colleague John Pantry agreed with Damon’s assessment. "Ossie was a nice guy. He didn’t know a great deal technically and initially relied heavily on the engineers. It wasn’t long before the Bee Gees knew as much as him and started doing sessions without him…He did a great trick with his glass eye, which he could pop out!"
Colin Petersen, drummer for the Bee Gees 1967-1969, said, "Ossie had a fair technical knowledge. He certainly wasn’t out of his depth as an engineer…he wasn’t my idea of a producer, but he had a rapport with the Gibbs so he could give them a kick along when they needed it."
It’s true that Ossie had no experience or training with the sophisticated multi-track equipment used in the London studios. But he did have a good ear. And he was able to obtain excellent results through a collaborative process involving himself, the artists, and the English sound engineers. Perhaps nowadays the buzz-word "facilitator" would better suit the role that he played in the studio. Paradoxically, Ossie’s conception of the producer’s role was determinedly old-fashioned. Modern producers now see themselves as integral to the creative process – they make records by manipulating sound. Ossie might have acquainted himself with the new technology, but he saw production as taping a performance. Even with overdubs, his aim was to best capture how the song sounded when performed live. Naturally, his productions could only be as good as the bands and their songs. When the band was as talented as the Bee Gees, and the songs as brilliant as "Spicks and Specks" or "New York Mining Disaster 1941" it was an unbeatable combination.
The long-forgotten singles and album tracks recorded on the basic equipment in his St. Clair studio are another vindication of Ossie’s production skills. Ossie’s approach to recording had well served the energetic beat groups and rowdy R’n’B bands that hired St. Clair studio for 5 pounds ($10) an hour. Nuance, subtlety, delicacy were not at issue. What was required was an ability to capture the excitement of drums pounding, guitars ringing and vocalists shouting their version of the pop dream. As more of the songs taped at the St. Clair studio are reissued in crisp re-mastered mono, the evidence shows Barry Gibb is right: Ossie was a good producer. He was able to channel the energy and talents of young Australian bands and artists into raw and vibrant pop songs.
In the short time the St. Clair studio was operating (1965-1966), Ossie Byrne, either alone or in conjunction with Nat Kipner, recorded some of the top Australian acts of the day - the Twilights, MPD Ltd, and Ronnie Burns. Ossie’s generosity also helped fashion the Bee Gees into global entertainment stars. The St. Clair studio saw the Bee Gees become a commercially viable pop act. It saw the three Gibb brothers join together as a song-writing unit, and it saw them begin to master the studio for themselves. Ossie Byrne’s Hurstville studio saw the creation of "Spicks and Specks", their first international hit. Buying guitar strings would never again be a problem for the brothers Gibb.
The storeroom that held the St Clair Studio and the butcher’s shop at 56 Queens Road, Hurstville were both demolished in the mid-1970s.
The Bee Gees maintained their friendship with Ossie over the years. The three Gibb brothers visited him in hospital the week before he died of cancer in London in December, 1983. Ossie left his estate and his London studio to Paul Layton of the New Seekers. The Bee Gees’ 1987 release, ESP, was dedicated to his memory.
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Copyright 2002. Bill Casey