07/02/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
"My new baby," coos Maurice Gibb, cradling his shiny, deluxe-model paintball gun. "Isn't it gorgeous?" He and the eight ninja-clad friends who make up Gibb's Royal Rat Rangers then proceed to stalk and splatter a rival team of Sunday warriors in mock combat at an Opa Locka, Fla., sports complex. Three hours later, Gibb himself gets slimed when a paint cartridge explodes harmlessly on his Plexiglas face mask in a bright pink blob. "Thanks, Robby," he hollers good-naturedly at the shooter. "Bummer!...Ah, it was a good game!"
With similar aplomb, Maurice, 51, his twin brother, Robin, and their brother Barry, 54, have weathered the occasional splats and letdowns that have come with being the Bee Gees. True, the British-born trio may be, according to Guinness, the most successful family vocal group in pop history, having sold more than 110 million albums over the past 35 years. (Only Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney have done better.) And as songwriters they helped Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Barbra Streisand all go platinum. ("Barry particularly made it a thoroughly joyful experience," says Streisand of 1980's Guilty.)
But the brothers' own 40 million-selling megahit, the soundtrack to 1977's Saturday Night Fever, was quickly followed by a 1978 stinker, a Bee Gees-starring film musical of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And when, at decade's end, the disco craze fizzled, the brothers suddenly found themselves passé. Deejays began declaring Bee Gee-free weekends. "I think it was an unfair rap," says Barry. "There's a lot of wonderful music from that period that we should all be proud of."
What the band learned from the spotty years that followed, adds Barry, is "that you've got to dust yourself off." That they have. On their latest album, This Is Where I Came In, a tribute to idols ranging from Noel Coward to the Beatles, "the Bee Gees' voices seem richer now," says Billboard editor Timothy White.
Their public appearances, though, are rarer. A recent weekend found the Gibbs in Los Angeles. On Friday they taped an interview with Larry King. On Saturday Maurice attended the stage version of Saturday Night Fever. Then, on Sunday, he joined his brothers in a performance at Dodger Stadium, their only concert this year.
And one of the few times they'll actually be together. "All three of us have pretty much our own lives," says Robin. "We have our own circle of friends. I think you have to. You can't live in each other's pockets."
But you can, apparently, dwell in the same neighborhood. Since the late '70s, Miami Beach has been home to the brothers, all of whom have divorced and are enjoying second marriages with children. Robin and Dwina, 48, live just down the block from Barry and Linda, 51, while Maurice and Yvonne, 50, reside on a luxury island in nearby Biscayne Bay.
The Gibb families also maintain houses in England, where Robin, a voracious reader of military and political histories, spends at least half the year with Dwina in a converted 10th-century monastery near Oxford. "I can feel quite creative over there," he says.
Not so brother Barry, who "keeps mostly to himself," says Steve, 27, the oldest of his five children. "My mom's really his best friend." And when they do socialize, says Steve, it's "mostly with entrepreneur types" rather than musicians.
"I don't take the show business part of my life seriously at all," says Barry, "because I know what it does to people." He's referring, of course, to his youngest brother, Andy, who died at 30 of a heart ailment—a death the others feel was hastened by alcohol and drug abuse. "He's with us everywhere," says Maurice, including the Gibbs' Miami recording studio, where photos of Andy adorn the lobby walls. Maurice, himself a recovering alcoholic for the past 10 years, says, "I just wanted to stop. Andy wasn't quite ready."
At least a few of the Gibb clan's offspring appear ready to follow in their fathers' tracks. With the blessing of Las Vegas-based grandmother Barbara, 80, a onetime British band singer (whose bandleader husband, Hugh, died at 73 in 1993), Barry and Linda's son Steve plays guitar in various L.A. hard-rock bands. Maurice and Yvonne's daughter Sami, 20, who fronts her Miami band Skylla, often collaborates on songs with her brother Adam, 25. But the kids may soon find themselves competing with their fathers and Uncle Robin—Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in 1997. "Young kids," notes Barry of vintage Bee Gees album sales, "are starting to get into the very early music."
And why not? After all, no one could be younger at heart than paintball king Maurice. Playing the game, he says, "you relieve yourself totally of stress. I get home and I go to my AA meeting at night, come home totally wiped out. Sleep like a baby. It starts your whole week off."
Don Sider in Miami Beach