R.I.P. Robin Gibb, 12/22/49 - 5/20/12
Robin Gibb's musical genius stood out in a crowded field of competitors. It was about taking existing musical ingredients and creating a sound that was entirely new. Gibb, the Bee Gees co-founder who lost his long battle with cancer on Sunday at the age of 62, had a key role in defining the music, aesthetic and lifestyle of an entire era. But his contributions went much deeper than the bell bottoms, carefully coiffed hairstyles and disco dance moves that went along with smash hits like "Night Fever," "Jive Talkin'" and "Stayin' Alive." Along with his old brother Barry and his twin brother Maurice, Gibb guided the direction of a global shift in pop music.
By combining the tight harmonies of the doo-wop era, the danceable grooves and smooth contours of American funk and the tender balladry of the British invasion, Gibb and the Bee Gees helped give disco its identity and durability. But the huge global success of the 1977 Saturday Night Fever soundtrack wasn't the beginning for Robin Gibb. The Bee Gees had already found success in a difficult market; the band had distinguished themselves by showing a reliable skill for penning catchy tunes like "To Love Somebody" and "Holiday."
The Gibb brothers, born on the Isle of Man and raised in Manchester, England, and later Queensland, Australia, showed an early knack for top-notch harmonies and catchy pop tunes. From early appearances in Queensland in the 1950s to their first international success after relocating to England in the 1960s, the band earned critical praise for their smooth musical dynamic. Albums like Bee Gees 1st and Horizontal even earned comparisons to the Beatles for their song structures and harmonies.
It was a modest success that persisted into the early 1970s, despite disagreements among band members. Robin Gibb felt early on that his twin brother Maurice was getting too much of the spotlight, and the band broke up before reuniting for what would become the definitive era in their career.
Bill Oakes, the soundtrack supervisor for Saturday Night Fever, insisted that the disco phenomenon was on the wane by the time the Bee Gees contributed the five tunes for the film in 1977. But songs like "How Deep is Your Love," "Night Fever," "If I Can't Have You" and, especially, "Stayin' Alive" came to epitomize the era of excess and abandon. The Bee Gees' tight harmonies, danceable riffs and funky instrumentation would come to shape the sound and direction of the then flailing musical movement.
Indeed, the soundtrack gave the disco sound new life, staying on the U.S. charts for 24 straight weeks. The record remained on the Billboard's album charts for even longer - it dominated for 120 weeks until March of 1980.
It was a monumental brand of success that gave Robin Gibb the proper platform to launch a solo career. Albums like How Old Are You?, Secret Agent and Walls Have Eyes into the 1980s helped him escape the weight of his twin brother's shadow. But Robin never strayed too far from his family, even as the tragedies began to strike.
His younger brother Andy died at the age of thirty in 1988. Maurice died suddenly from intestinal and cardiac issues in 2003. Those losses brought Robin closer to his roots in his final years -- right before his death, he'd follow an ambitious creative muse with his son penning a requiem in 2011 for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy.
For all of his solo work and his later shifts to orchestral music, Robin Gibb's indelible impact on pop music is still rooted in the disco era, in the heavenly harmonies and unforgettable riffs that brought an entire generation to the dance floor.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter