‘Saturday Night Fever’ at 45: Music Producer Bill Oakes Explains the Soundtrack’s ‘Staggering Success’

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Bill Oakes, who was president of RSO Records in the 1970s, remembers the first time he heard Bee Gees’ demos for the songs that would end up on the label’s blockbuster 1977 soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. He and Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees manager and founder of RSO, were visiting brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb at the Château d’Hérouville recording studio in northern France as the trio were mixing a live album. Stigwood requested that the Bee Gees come up with some new songs for a disco movie he was producing, starring an emerging actor named John Travolta. Following the meeting, Oakes went to Paris; a short period of time later, he received a cassette from Bee Gees’ personal manager Dick Ashby.

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“I put it on in my hotel room,” Oakes recalls. “It was one after the other — No. 1 records. Even in their demo form, it was quite obviously a staggering success. It started with ‘More Than a Woman,’ ‘Night Fever,’ ‘If I Can’t Have You,’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’ and ‘How Deep Is Your Love.’ I said to Robert, ‘We’ve got the score. We’ve got it.’”

Those new songs that the Bee Gees came up with in short order catapulted both the movie and the soundtrack to massive commercial success, transformed the Gibb brothers into superstars and further popularized disco. Released 45 years ago on Nov. 15, 1977, the double album of disco standards is one of the best-selling soundtracks ever; in the last five years, the soundtrack’s songs have racked up 1.9 billion on-demand U.S. streams, per Luminate.

“As the years go on, it makes me more proud in a way,” says Oakes, who is credited with “album supervision and compilation” in the Fever liner notes. “Anything that stands the test of time must be, by its very essence, worth it. Other things I’ve done have disappeared and you don’t usually get satisfaction, 40 years later, out of what you did back then. But [the Fever soundtrack] does hold up.”

During his time as RSO Records president, Oakes oversaw a roster that included Bee Gees and Eric Clapton. He was friends with the British journalist Nik Cohn, who wrote a 1976 New York Magazine story, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” which centers on an Italian-American working-class youth named Vincent who spends his Saturday nights at the 2001 Odyssey disco club in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Through Oakes and Stigwood’s assistant Kevin McCormick, Stigwood became acquainted with Cohn’s article and bought the film rights that would serve as the basis for Saturday Night Fever. For the movie’s lead character Tony Manero, Stigwood signed Travolta — who was best known as Vinnie Barbarino in the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter — to a multi-picture deal.

“Robert saw [Travolta] and he just made a note, ‘This is the guy who could play the lead in Saturday Night Fever,’” says Oakes. “He said [to Travolta’s manager], ‘I’ll make you an offer for three pictures for a million dollars.’ That was Robert just basically taking everyone else out of the market. It turned out to be actually a very good deal because, from the million dollars, he got him for Saturday Night Fever and Grease, which turned out well.”

Stigwood suggested to Oakes that the soundtrack would be a two-record set of disco’s greatest hits featuring Bee Gees. “That was an inspired move of saying, ‘We’re gonna do a gatefold double album and fill it up with all the best soundtrack goods,’” says Oakes. “It didn’t really matter if you didn’t see the movie. It became an iconic thing in itself, because if you were giving a party in 1978, all you needed was that album. I sequenced the album specifically so it would be that way.”

Before their involvement in Saturday Night Fever, Bee Gees were slowly making a comeback after a commercial and creative dry spell, starting with such Billboard Hot 100 toppers as 1975’s “Jive Talkin’” and 1976’s “You Should Be Dancing” (both of which also appeared on the soundtrack). “I presided over a bad time in their career with [the 1974 album] Mr. Natural,” says Oakes. “They couldn’t really get a hook on how to sell themselves. It was [producer] Arif Martin who really brought their sound into a modern R&B world.”

Oakes recalls that after he and Stigwood met with the Bee Gees at the Château d’Hérouville, he realized that the film script remained unopened on the studio console. “They hadn’t even looked at it,” he says. “What Robert did tell them in broad terms is it’s about a guy who works in a paint store and blows all his wages on a Saturday night, and he goes to a club and they do the hustle…Robert’s mission was [to] get the Bee Gees to write a disco track that you cannot stop dancing to, with a great melody. And that’s how they came up with ‘Night Fever,’ for instance. These are great melodies that happened to be in the disco mold. That was the breakthrough. It was interesting: they just simply dropped the live album they were mixing and went straight into it.”

With Bee Gees compositions taking up side one, Oakes now had three more sides of the record to fill. Aside from contributions by Kool & the Gang (“Open Sesame”) and KC and the Sunshine Band (“Boogie Shoes”), the soundtrack consisted of mostly relatively unknown acts. One of them was singer and Oakes’ then-wife Yvonne Elliman, who recorded the Bee Gees-penned “If I Can’t Have You.” “The Bee Gees originally wanted her to do ‘How Deep Is Your Love,’” Oakes says. “But Robert said no — he wanted the Bee Gees to do that. So Yvonne got ‘If I Can’t Have You.’ It just happened she was on the label, so there’s a bit of nepotism there (laughs).”

In addition to Bee Gees’ recording of “More Than a Woman,” R&B group Tavares’ version of that song also appeared on the soundtrack and peaked at No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100. Says Oakes: “We wanted another act doing a Bee Gees song, so Tavares seemed the logical choice. I remember calling [their producer] Freddie Perren, and he took it in a different direction. He of course made it into a hit on his own. That was a very fairly easy one because I knew Freddie. He produced two hits with Yvonne: ‘Love Me’ and ‘Hello Stranger.’”

Other numbers, such as Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” MFSB’s “K-Jee,” Ralph MacDonald’s “Calypso Breakdown” and the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno,” had been released prior to Fever but enjoyed renewed popularity when they were included on the soundtrack. They were augmented with instrumental scores composed by David Shire such as “Manhattan Skyline” and “Night on Disco Mountain.” However, not every artist that Oakes sought for the soundtrack came on board — including Boz Scaggs, whose 1976 hit “Lowdown” was initially used in the film’s dance rehearsal scene involving the characters Tony and Stephanie (played by Karen Lynn Gorney).

“I just thought Irving Azoff, who managed Boz Scaggs, would let me have the track,” Oakes remembers. “Why wouldn’t he? Of course, his response to me after we shot the scene was: ‘Bill, I don’t want my artist in your little disco movie,’ which was a phrase that I was assailed with throughout the production. In those days, music artists didn’t really want to be in movies. Now it’s completely different. Artists actually upfront tout their songs to get into a movie because they know how good it is for their sales.”

As he was wrapping up work on the album, Oakes saw something one day that told him the disco trend was on its last legs. “I was finishing up after listening to the tracks for a straight 14 hours for any defects at the mastering lab. And then I put the masters in my car, which would become the album. I was stuck behind a truck [whose bumper sticker said] ‘Death to disco,’ and it dawned on me. I told Robert, ‘We might have missed this one.’ We didn’t coin the word ‘disco’ — disco was around. What [the soundtrack] did was just when disco seemed to be dying, it gave it a new lease on life. We certainly didn’t create disco–we created a real global, across-the-board demand for it. That’s what Fever did.”

Three months ahead of the film’s Dec. 14, 1977 premiere in Los Angeles, Stigwood had the foresight to release the soundtrack’s first single, Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love.” “One of the things that Stigwood initiated with film companies was how a record could promote a movie,” Oakes explains. “Paramount said they were thinking of [Fever] as a strictly token release — 50 cinemas for this indie picture. [Stigwood] said, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. If we’re putting out a single in September three months in advance, and everybody plays the record, we’ll say it’s “From the forthcoming film Saturday Night Fever.” That will sell the movie.’ He was right about that because by the time ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ went to No. 1, Paramount did have to increase the screens. That was entirely due to Stigwood tying in the record with a promotion for the film.”

Released on Nov. 15, 1977, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and stayed there for 24 consecutive weeks. It gave the Bee Gees three Hot 100 No. 1s with “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” with Yvonne Elliman’s version of the group’s “If I Can’t Have You” also topping the chart.

“When ‘Stayin’ Alive’ went straight to No. 1, that’s when I thought, ‘We really got something here,’ because the album was shipping that next week and the orders were coming in,” Oakes says. “We didn’t know still until the movie opened whether it would open big. It was only after it opened that the cinema owners were calling Paramount saying, ‘We are having people dancing the aisles. We gotta call security.’ Paramount was taken aback. They said that every screening was sold out. It was just an extraordinary thing. So that’s when we knew that the record had really promoted it.”

The Fever movie and soundtrack launched Bee Gees into superstardom. The trio’s next record, 1979’s Spirits Having Flown, also topped the Billboard 200 chart and gave them three more Hot 100 No. 1 songs: “Tragedy,” “Love You Inside Out” and “Too Much Heaven.” “Their following went up through the roof after Fever,” Oakes says of the Gibb brothers. “They were the biggest artists in the world by that point.”

In addition to Bee Gees, the blockbuster success of the Saturday Night Fever movie and soundtrack marked a triumphant period for Stigwood, who enjoyed massive success again in 1978 with another film he produced: Grease, also starring Travolta. The following year, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack won the Grammy for album of the year. But the Fever hysteria also marked the end of an era: in the 1980s, disco was out; Bee Gees never had another No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100; and RSO Records folded. Still, the legacy of the soundtrack endures: in 2013, the U.S. Library of Congress added it to its National Recording Registry; five years later, the album was reissued as a deluxe box set for its 40th anniversary.

Oakes admits that he is surprised by the soundtrack’s longevity decades after the fly-away collars and bell bottoms became passé. “It’s easy to see how it resonates with people who were young at the time. When you go to a party or a wedding anywhere in the world, they’ll still play ‘More Than a Woman,’ ‘Night Fever’ and ‘Stayin’ Alive.’

“’Stayin’ Alive’ is probably one of the most-played songs ever—I get that. What is interesting to me is how is it that young people today are finding it. I think because it is a classic combination of melody and dance. The Bee Gees combined the tune with the dance record. There is something haunting about their hook lines and choruses, which is unique. That’s really down to their music, it’s down to their combining melody with dance and rhythm. I think that’s the combination that still hasn’t been surpassed.”

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