The Vibrato That Defined a Decade
Andrew Sandoval, Grammy-nominated producer and author of upcoming "Bee Gees: The Day-By-Day Story, 1945-1972," honors the songwriting cornerstone of the famous band of brothers.
Some artists live one life; Robin Gibb enjoyed several before his passing on May 20 after a long battle with cancer. Catapulted to fame in the 1960s as a teenage member of The Bee Gees (singing lead on such hits as "Massachusetts," "Holiday" and "I Started a Joke"), Robin and his brothers Barry and Maurice spent their lives honing a craft as songwriters and performers. In the early '70s, The Bee Gees rode a second wave of success with hits "Lonely Days" and their first stateside No. 1, "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" (featuring Robin's unmistakable quavering lead voice). But it was their mid-'70s makeover as R&B artists that brought a third, epochal wave of popularity and a parade of No. 1 singles: "Stayin' Alive," "How Deep Is Your Love," "You Should Be Dancing," "Jive Talkin' " and "Night Fever."
In the wake of this remarkable string of hits, the group would become a runaway success synonymous with Saturday Night Fever (for which they penned the key songs) and the disco style of music that swept the world. Overexposure and backlash would cause Barry to quip that they were "the enigma with the stigma" upon their 1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
No matter the era, The Bee Gees (who officially disbanded after the death of Robin's twin, Maurice, in 2003) were capable of lifting any genre with their material. In their post-disco days, Robin helped pen Barbra Streisand's massive single "Guilty" (a duet with Barry) and hits like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers' No. 1 "Islands in the Stream" and Dionne Warwick's "Heartbreaker."
A slender figure with an otherworldly vibrato, Robin stood alone from his brothers, neither a skilled musician (Maurice) nor sex symbol (Barry). Portrayed by Justin Timberlake in the Saturday Night Live sketch "The Barry Gibb Talk Show" as a meek, monosyllabic foil to his fiery older brother, Robin was, in reality, a powerful force in his role as the group's lyricist, making pop from unusual ingredients for such songs as "I've Gotta Get a Message to You," about the final rites of a man sentenced to death. The Bee Gees' miraculous melodies were created in the studio without preparation and with what Robin deemed "mental telepathy."
Their strong family bonds notwithstanding, the worldwide success of 1968's "I Started a Joke" (inspired by the humming Robin heard inside a plane engine in Europe) created a rift from which they would never truly recover. Robin wanted to be lead vocalist on The Bee Gees' next single, but manager Robert Stigwood instead issued the Barry-sung "First of May." A hurt Robin briefly split with the group for a solo career, crafting the futuristic hit "Saved by the Bell," a mixture of primitive beat-box and orchestral pop, before brokering a reunion in 1970.
Still, Robin would go solo again in the '80s with such technopop-styled European dance hits as "Juliet" and "Boys Do Fall in Love," showing, yet again, his stylistic range. In the U.K., Robin proudly noted that the Gibbs enjoyed a singular feat: scoring hits in five decades, from pop to country to R&B. Yet it was Robin's unmistakable voice that will be his lasting legacy, a left-of-center sound with a mainstream success that touched millions.
GIBBS BY THE NUMBERS
- 220,000,000: Albums sold over 40-plus years
- 9: No. 1 hits, from "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" (1971) to "Too Much Heaven" (1978) to "Love You Inside Out" (1979).
- 21: Number of straight weeks the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack topped the Billboard 200.
- 49: Survivors of a 1967 London train crash, including Gibbs and future wife Molly Hillis.