Robin Gibb passed away yesterday, May 21. In the entire history of pop music, there’s never been another voice like Robin Gibb’s. The closest equivalents were, of course, Maurice and Barry, the brothers with whom Robin found massive global success under the banner of the Bee Gees. But even though his brothers’ vocals bore an undeniable familial resemblance, making for the ultra-tight, one-of-a-kind harmonies that were the trio’s trademark, Robin was born with a gift that could never be duplicated.
His phenomenal talent was discernible even when he was just a boy. The Isle of Man-born brothers Gibb started performing when the family moved to Australia, when Robin — and his twin, Maurice — were both still in the single-digit age bracket. They were already earning attention down under before relocating to England in 1967. Once the Bee Gees became movers and shakers on the London scene, though, they blossomed bountifully. The Beatles-esque pop and heavenly three-part harmonies of their ‘67 album, Bee Gees’ 1st, made them an international success, and when Robin stepped into the spotlight for star turns like “I Can’t See Nobody,” his near-operatic, tremolo-laden delivery dripped with passion and longing that made it impossible not to empathize.
The next couple of years were a whirlwind of creativity and hitmaking for the young siblings, who turned out one smash single after another, including such classic Robin-led ballads as “Massachusetts” and the titanic tearjerker “I Started a Joke.” But there was a temporary turbulent period in the Bee Gees’ career when Robin briefly left the group in 1969, following the release of their celebrated double album Odessa. It was a case of too much too soon, with youthful egos pushed to the breaking point, and while Robin released his first solo album, Robin’s Reign, his brothers cut Cucumber Castle without him. They were back together by the end of 1970, though, and they quickly began piling up more hits, including “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and “Run to Me.”
The Bee Gees floundered for a couple of years in the mid ’70s, until they came to America and reinvented their sound with some help from producer Arif Mardin. Sporting a groove-based R&B style heavily influenced by the Philly soul sound of the era, the group rebounded with the funked-up feel of hits like “Jive Talkin’” and “Nights on Broadway,” foreshadowing their ride on the crest of the coming disco wave. As the men behind most of the music on the ubiquitous 1977 soundtrack to cinematic juggernaut Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees became white-suited, multi-Platinum disco avatars.
Of course, that stratospheric level of success proved impossible to maintain, and when disco fell out of favor, the Bee Gees began focusing on writing and producing for others — Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick were among the artists who benefited from the Gibbs’ behind-the-scenes work in the ‘80s. Meanwhile, Robin took the opportunity to renew his solo career, starting with 1983’s How Old Are You, and scoring a string of minor European hits. By the ‘90s, the world was ready to embrace the Bee Gees again, and the brothers reclaimed their rightful place on the pop throne.
The Bee Gees’ story ended sadly, when Maurice died of complications from a twisted intestine on January 12, 2003. Eventually, Barry and Robin declared their intention to work together again, but it was not to be. In 2010, Robin began experiencing a series of serious health problems, beginning with the same intestinal issue that took the life of his twin. Over the next two years, he was in and out of the hospital, being treated for cancer of the colon and liver. On April 14, 2012, Robin came down with pneumonia and went into a coma. Though he woke up from the coma (after his family maintained a bedside vigil and sang to him) he never fully recovered. But as the most distinctive voice in one of the most successful groups ever, Robin Hugh Gibb will never be forgotten.