Since the mid-’70s, Dennis Bryon’s hypnotic grooves have been responsible for luring most of the civilized world’s population onto the dance floor. Bryon accomplished this feat by playing with one of the most successful groups of all time, the Bee Gees, who, with worldwide sales of more than 220 million records, are the sixth best-selling musical act in history. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s the brothers who made up the core of the group—Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb—penned some of the most iconic songs in pop music history, songs that endure to this day.
Though you may not have been familiar with his name, to underestimate Dennis Bryon’s contributions to drumming and pop culture would be a grave mistake. Bryon played on some of the biggest hits of all time, including the iconic soundtrack to the film Saturday Night Fever. Released in 1977, the double LP received a Grammy for Album of the Year, and the music on it became a worldwide cultural phenomenon, securing a place in music history for the drummer.
I had the privilege of writing the foreword to Byron’s memoir, You Should Be Dancing: My Life With the Bee Gees, and recently I sat down with this groove-drumming hero of mine to learn more about his remarkable career.
MD: Where are you from, Dennis, and what was your first big break into the music business?
Dennis: I grew up as a young lad in Cardiff, Wales. My first introduction to success in Great Britain came from my soul band, Amen Corner. This put me at the heart of the London music scene in the late ’60s. During our four-year run the band released two albums and six singles, all of which charted, and one [“(If Paradise Is) Half as Nice”] that climbed to number one.
MD: Besides your tenure with Amen Corner, what were some of the highlights of your career during that fertile period in the London music scene?
Dennis: I once got to jam with guitar legend Jimi Hendrix for forty-five minutes at the Speakeasy, a hot members-only club in London at the time. I also received a personal telegram from the Beatles congratulating Amen Corner for winning in the Best Group category on a TV show from Manchester, England, called First Timers.
MD: That’s pretty awesome—what did the telegram say?
Dennis: The Beatles had come in first place in the same category as Amen Corner in the past, so the note said, “From one first to another, congratulations and great success in the future, John, George, Paul, and Ringo.” I still have it!
MD: How did you end up hooking up with the Bee Gees?
Dennis: Amen Corner performed alongside the Bee Gees on many TV shows in those days. This eventually led to me auditioning for the Bee Gees after Amen Corner had run its course. I landed the gig and started my first North American tour with them in January of 1973.
MD: You were an integral part of the Bee Gees’ sound, and instrumental in their decision to move toward more of an R&B style—a sound that helped catapult them to enormous worldwide success. Which albums exactly did you record with them?
Dennis: The first album I recorded was 1974’s Mr. Natural. I recorded every album they made from that time until 1979’s Spirits Having Flown—six albums in total. Anyone interested in hearing my body of work with the Bee Gees should pick up the recently released five-CD box set called Bee Gees 1974–1979. I played on every track of that collection.
MD: One of my all-time favorite grooves of yours is on “Nights on Broadway,” from the 1975 album Main Course. You play this incredibly infectious one-handed 16th-note pattern. What was your inspiration for that groove?
Dennis: My main man Bernard Purdie inspired that groove, but it was a real tough groove to nail because it was a double tempo, so I had to really practice it to get it to sit in the pocket.
MD: What was it like working with legendary producer Arif Mardin on Main Course?
Dennis: Arif brought the best out of me, the band, and the Bee Gees. He was like your favorite uncle, a mentor who was always rooting for you. He introduced me to the click and made it my friend, which helped to build my confidence. Working with him was magic and one of the highlights of my career.
MD: During the bridge of “Love You Inside Out,” you play this wickedly hip and fast 32nd-note groove on the hi-hat. Can you offer any insight on that groove?
Dennis: I have no idea what inspired me to come up with that part, but it was fun and challenging. “Love You Inside Out” reached number one on the Billboard charts in June of 1979 and was just one of the many musical gems that sprung from Spirits Having Flown.
MD: Other great grooves you played with the Bee Gees are on “You Stepped Into My Life,” “Jive Talkin’,” and “You Should Be Dancing.” What are some of your favorite Bee Gees tracks you played on?
Dennis: I liked all of those, but my all-time favorite Bee Gees song is “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” from the Main Course album, and one of my favorite drum tracks was “Baby As You Turn Away,” from the same album. It’s also worth mentioning that we cut “You Should Be Dancing” with just me and Barry Gibb playing rhythm guitar to the click. My hi-hat and Barry’s rhythm guitar were always locked, and that was the key to a lot of our grooves. Barry was an awesome rhythm guitar player.
MD: Where did you record the tracks for the legendary Saturday Night Fever soundtrack?
Dennis: We recorded most of the basic rhythm tracks at Château d’Hérouville in France. We overdubbed a lot of the strings and horns at Criteria Studios in Miami.
MD: Can you tell us about the drum track for “Stayin’ Alive”?
Dennis: While we were recording tracks for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, my mother was taken ill and I had to fly back to Cardiff. When I returned Barry greeted me with this big hug and smile and said, “While you were gone, Dennis, we wrote this new song you’re going to love called ‘Stayin’ Alive.’ We didn’t want to bring in another drummer, so we took your drum performance from ‘Night Fever,’ slowed it down, and made a loop.”
MD: Whose idea was that?
Dennis: The Bee Gees’ producer Albhy Galuten came up with the idea of taking the best two bars of my drum groove from “Night Fever.” Engineer Karl Richardson took that twenty-foot piece of tape, which contained the very best two bars, gaffered some empty tape hubs to the top of mic stands, and ran the tape between the 4-track machine and an MCI 24-track deck to create a physical tape loop. They recorded that groove onto two tracks of the 24-track recording machine, and thus the “Stayin’ Alive” drum loop was born.
MD: What did you think of it when you first heard it?
Dennis: When I went into the control room to listen to “Stayin’ Alive” for the first time, I was blown away. Barry said, “If you want to rerecord the drums or play the whole track with us, you can.” I said, “Man, I don’t want to touch that groove, but I will overdub some hi-hats.” Barry was thrilled I didn’t want to mess with the track, because he knew what they had. So the next day I went in and did some cymbal crashes and hi-hat overdubs.
So, oddly enough, I played on the basic drum track of “Stayin’ Alive” without actually having been there—and it became one of the most popular dance tracks in history to use a drum loop. They later used that same drum loop of mine on both the Tavares and Bee Gees versions of “More Than a Woman” on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and on “Woman in Love” by Barbra Streisand.
MD: What was it like to tour with the Bee Gees at the height of their popularity?
Dennis: The last tour I did with the Bee Gees was for Spirits Having Flown, which was their biggest. We flew on a private fifty-five-seat Boeing 720 jet to sold-out stadium crowds in thirty-eight cities all across the U.S., from summer through fall of 1979. There were many notable celebrities that came to the shows, like John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Rod Stewart, Cary Grant, Barbra Streisand, and Jack Nicholson. The stage was a replica of the one from the Saturday Night Fever movie. The stage design manager thought my Gretsch kit wasn’t flashy enough and approached Ludwig for a chrome kit. Ludwig agreed and made me a chrome-over-wood set to match the extravagant stage design. It was an awesome experience.
MD: Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?
Dennis: Well, I share the honor with Ringo Starr of the Beatles of being one of only two drummers in history to have five songs on the top ten of the Billboard chart simultaneously. I also played on nine number-one records with the Bee Gees that spent 188 weeks on the Billboard Top 100.
MD: What special moments in your career particularly stand out?
Dennis: Watching the screening of the Saturday Night Fever movie in New York and hearing our music and my drumming coming through the amazing sound system. That was one of the most special times in my life!
Also, seeing how the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack blew up around the world. When I first moved to Miami after we finished recording it, I really didn’t have any idea how huge the album had become. But I got a clue when I got into my car that I had shipped out there and turned on the radio and started flipping through different stations. One station was playing “Stayin’ Alive.” Then I’d flip it to another one and I’d hear “Night Fever.” Then another would be playing “Jive Talkin’,” and another “You Should Be Dancing,” and another “How Deep Is Your Love,” and another “More Than a Woman.” It was an unbelievable and surreal feeling that every radio station I turned to was playing a song that I’d played drums on. I couldn’t believe it! It was epic, and with the small royalty I was given on the soundtrack—a quarter of one percent—I bought a castle on Miami Beach!
MD: Besides playing drums on all those classic Bee Gees tracks, I heard you played those funky rhythms of the wah-wah guitar pedal as well.
Dennis: Yes, that’s right. I played the wah-wah guitar pedal with my hands on the studio floor while Alan Kendall played his guitar parts.
MD: Tell us a little bit about your memoir.
Dennis: It’s called You Should Be Dancing: My Life With the Bee Gees. In it I give readers an all-access pass to what it was like to be the drummer in one of the world’s most popular bands during their heyday. It’s basically my life story and how I got my start in music.
Tools of the Trade
Bryon has played Zildjian cymbals and Remo drumheads throughout his entire career. With Amen Corner he played Premier drums. With the Bee Gees he began with a Ludwig kit and then switched to Gretsch, which he played between 1975 and ‘79. Today Dennis plays DW drums and uses the Drum Muff muffling system. He plays Promark 5B Natural sticks.
Zoro has played with Lenny Kravitz, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, the New Edition, and Bobby Brown and is the author of The Commandments of R&B Drumming series, Soar! 9 Proven Keys for Unlocking Your Limitless Potential, and The Big Gig: Big-Picture Thinking For Success. For more, go to zorothedrummer.com.