An Appreciation of The Bee Gees' Robin Gibb and his magical musical gifts
Robin Gibb, who died today at 62 after a long battle with cancer, had a unique voice so filled with trembling, pure beauty that it had the ability to pierce your heart and break it in half.
As a third of the Bee Gees, and twin to Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb and his other brother Barry, shared lead vocals in the group that started in their native Australia in the late ‘50s, but it is Robin’s voice that dominated those early singles that so clearly set the brothers on their path to superstardom.
Three years ago, Rhino Entertainment hired me to work on the booklet for “Mythology: The 50th Anniversary Collection,” a 4-CD box set heralding all things Bee Gees. Each disc is devoted to one of the four brothers.
As I write this, a few minutes after hearing the news of Robin’s passing, I pulled out “Mythology” and slipped in Robin’s disc. The CD opens with “I Am The World.” It was the B-side to 1966 single “Spicks and Specks.” Robin’s love, and similarity, to Roy Orbison is all over the song.
On the trio’s first hit, 1967’s “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” Robin and his brothers sound so much like the Beatles, there were rumors that the song had actually been recorded by the Fab Four under a pseudonym.
But just months later, Robin’s voice had fully developed into its own wondrous instrument that would never be confused with anyone else’s again, whether it be on “Holiday,” “Massachusetts,” “I Gotta Get A Message To You” or Robin’s vocal masterpiece, “I Started A Joke.”
I was too young for any of those hits in real time, and most of my Bee Gees’ memories, like most of the world’s, are from the mid-to-late ‘70s when Barry’s lead vocals were dominant on such albums as “Main Course,” and, of course, “Saturday Night Fever.” But Robin, who left the group for awhile over infighting with his brothers, certainly continued to make his mark in the latter years, especially on the gorgeous “Love Me” from 1976’s “Children of the World.”
Of course, it’s not only his lead vocals: listen to “Run To Me,” and how Robin’s voice carries the verses, but then serpentines around Barry and Maurice’s vocals to where the three voices are distinct, but completely and beautifully inseparable. Like the Everly Brothers, the Bee Gees possessed that preternatural ability to harmonize that simply doesn’t exist for those not united by blood.
Robin’s vocal gifts were only part of his incomparable talent: He co-wrote virtually all of the Bee Gees‘ songs, one of the most valuable catalogs in pop history (Paul McCartney was once asked if he could own any catalog other than the Beatles, whose it would be, and he replied The Bee Gees’). They wrote songs for other artists, including “Islands in the Stream” for Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers; “Immortality” for Celine Dion, “Heartbreaker” for Dionne Warwick. Their abilities were seemingly non-ending. For anyone who wants to learn the craft of writing pop melodies and the discipline of the verse/chorus structure, studying the Bee Gees is mandatory. Their sense of building and tension and emotional wallop is unparalleled. They had a gift for bringing in other influences —funk, disco and rock—but still staying within a magical pop framework.
So back to my work on “Mythology”: my part of the project was to gather tributes from artists, songwriters, DJs and executives who had worked with or known the brothers: Barry and Robin provided the list (Of course, sadly, Maurice and Andy had already passed). Though well familiar with their output by now, I was in no way (stupidly) prepared for the love, respect, and genuine adoration that their fellow artists had for them and the number and breadth of musicians they had influenced from The Cure’s Robert Smith to Beach Boy Brian Wilson and Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. They praised their songwriting prowess every bit as much as their singing ability.
A few highlights from the artists I reached out to:
“Their songwriting is...just so brilliant. They gave great ballad and great tempo. My favorite is ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.’ ‘Words” is another great one. ‘I Started A Joke’... There are so many songs I wish I’d writtten.’--Elton John
“The majesty of their work, the uniqueness of their music, the vision that they were gifted was heaven sent. Every song is a slice of perfection...The thing about genius is that it cannot be explained.” --David Foster
“When N’Sync first formed, we used to put together a medley of songs by the Bee Gees that we sang a cappella. It helped us become tighter as a vocal group and learn our voices. They were a huge inspiration to us...If you fast-forward to the Bee Gees tribute we did at the 2003 Grammys... I don’t remember ever getting a reception like we did when we performed that medley. It’s one of my career highlights”--Justin Timberlake
“Between the three of them, they had the whole package: They sang, they played, and they wrote all their stuff. That’s about it. One, two, three, you’re out.”--Glen Campbell
Robin also wrote an essay for “Mythology” in which he sums up their potency: “We were like one soul in three bodies...We strived to be original and were envious of anything that was great, but instead of resenting what was great or copying it, we wanted to be different, or to improve upon it...I always see our songs as ‘just us three brothers’ having a good time. When I look back now, it is more about the journey, not the arrival.”
Wishing you a speedy last journey, Robin, and a blessed arrival.