The Meaning Behind “Grease” by Frankie Valli and How Barry Gibb Brought Disco to the Golden Age of Rock and Roll

Grease is the word, Frankie Valli sang in 1978, and that was an incredibly accurate assessment. The movie of the same name emerged from its Broadway origins to become a sensation that same year. And Valli’s single “Grease” did amazing business as well, topping the pop charts.

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What is “Grease” about? What superstar songwriter/performer wrote it at the height of his popularity? And why was Valli chosen to deliver this massive hit? Let’s take a look back one of the biggest hits of the ’70s, sung by a ’60s icon, about a movie set in the ’50s. Of course.

When Barry Met Frankie

If you were to create a Venn diagram to explain the making of “Grease,” Robert Stigwood would be at the center. Stigwood made his name as a music manager, and the Bee Gees were his most successful clients, especially when they went nuclear in the late ’70s with their disco hits. Stigwood helped make that happen when he moved into film production, optioned a New York Times article about discos, and turned it into Saturday Night Fever, the 1977 film whose soundtrack was jam-packed with Bee Gees smashes.

Saturday Night Fever starred John Travolta, who would also play the lead Stigwood’s next big production: a movie adaptation of the hit musical Grease. Since the source material was already rife with excellent songs, there wouldn’t be the need for too much new music for the film.

But an opening existed for a title track to be played over the opening credits. Grease director Randal Kreiser had lined up a song by Charles Fox and Paul Williams. But Stigwood had the ultimate say-so in this department, and he made the smart move of enlisting Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees to write the title track.

Gibb churned out a demo, but Stigwood had decided he didn’t want the Bee Gees (or Gibb himself) as performers, because he wanted Grease to stand out from Saturday Night Fever. Instead, he thought of someone whose heyday was a little bit closer to the era in which Grease was set. Frankie Valli told Songfacts accepting the offer was a no-brainer:

“I almost immediately said yes. How could anybody not hear that it was an incredible song? I think if they knew it was going to be as big a hit as it was, they probably never would have given it to me. They probably would have recorded it themselves.”

Interestingly enough, Valli had the choice of either singing the song or appearing in the film. When he chose the former, former teen idol Frankie Avalon accepted the opportunity to appear in the movie as a guardian angel singing “Beauty School Dropout.” Both men enjoyed a financial windfall in the process from their involvement in the film.

What is the Meaning of “Grease”?

It is a tribute to Barry Gibb’s songwriting acumen that he was able to turn “Grease” into a song that meant something outside the context of the film, even as it was perfectly suited to its place in the movie. He did that by framing the song as a testament to individuality and belief in oneself, even if that means standing out a bit from the pack.

There ain’t no danger we can go too far, the lyrics insist as a way of reassurance to audience members wondering about their own personalities. Gibb also suggests that relationships can withstand the pressure of outside opinion: Their lips are lyin’, only real is real / We stop the fight right now, we got to be who we feel.

Railing against conventionality, Gibb turns the word “Grease” into something beyond what you throw in your car or your hair: Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion / Grease is the way we are feeling. Give credit as well to Frankie Valli, who sells these lyrics with his ability to handle Gibb’s acrobatic melody in perfect stride. It’s a bravura performance of a razor-sharp song, one that somehow encompassed three decades upon its release. And it still sounds fresh and relevant in the almost five decades that have passed since we first heard it.

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Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Capital Concerts

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