Robin Gibb's Death Latest Family Heartbreak
Robin Gibb, who has died aged 62, was one of the three brothers behind the Bee Gees, the phenomenally successful pop group responsible for such high-pitched hits as Stayin’ Alive, Night Fever, How Deep is Your Love, More Than a Woman, Jive Talkin’ and You Win Again.
Although best known for their disco-driven songs of the 1970s, powered by Barry Gibb’s falsetto, the Bee Gees (it stands for “Brothers Gibb”) first achieved success in the 1960s on the back of Robin’s lower registered, if still adenoidal, vocal performances.
Then the trio went off the rails. Fulled by drugs and alcohol, the brothers fought during the production of the 1969 album Odessa. Rivalry between Barry and Robin over who was the true star of the band (Robin’s twin brother, Maurice, confined himself to the bass, keyboard and backing vocals) forced a split, which saw Robin depart for a solo career that he would intermittently reignite in the years to come.
His first solo product, the album Robin’s Reign (1970), was underwhelming. Demoralized, he was reconciled with his brothers, who themselves had flopped with their album as a duo, Cucumber Castle. United once more, their fortunes were briefly revived, only to dip again as they struggled to find a formula for consistent success.
Then Barry began experimenting with falsetto, which the band set to funky, higher-tempo melodies. Their renaissance started with Jive Talkin’, which in 1975 reached No 1 in America and No 5 in Britain. That performance was repeated the following year by You Should Be Dancing before, in 1977, the Bee Gees contributed to the album that would secure their place in the history of popular music.
The brothers wrote eight songs for the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever (1977), the celebrated film starring John Travolta. Driven by incessantly catchy bass lines, synthesized backing tracks and by now ubiquitous falsetto vocals, the album remained at the top of the charts for almost half a year.
Suddenly the Bee Gees, who had been preparing themselves for a return to musical obscurity before the album, were among the hottest tickets in popular music. But just as Travolta found it hard to shake off his role as the star of much-imitated, often parodied dance routines, so the Bee Gees’ image seemed to be forever fixed by their disco success. Whatever the reality, the brothers Gibb were thereafter thought of as perma-tanned, hugely-coiffed performers in platform heels; blinding white teeth, a flash of chest hair and skintight gold or white romper suits completed the look.
Robin Hugh Gibb was born at Douglas, on the Isle of Man, on December 22 1949, an hour before his twin, Maurice. Barry was three years older. Their father was a jobbing drummer and the boys grew up in relative poverty in Manchester. “I can remember my dad sitting under a 40-watt bulb counting pennies, trying to make them last until Friday,” recalled Robin. “The evening meal was a sixpenny bag of chips divided among us all. But kids don’t question that. We didn’t think we were poor then. We only knew we were poor later.”
In 1958 the family, complete with a fourth brother, the newly-born Andrew, moved to Brisbane in Australia. Robin and Maurice left school at 13, and with Barry they began performing in local clubs and theaters. Robin Gibb remembered in 2003: “We were writing music even as young kids, we created a world into which a lot of our friends couldn't enter. We wanted to make music all our lives and it evolved to a point where the only people who could understand that were the three of us. We didn't feel comfortable with anyone but ourselves. The three of us were like one person.”
From the outset they concentrated on the close harmony vocals and detailed arrangements that would become their calling-card for decades to come; and soon they recorded an album which broke into the local charts.
Barry Gibb sent the album to record companies in Britain, and in 1967 the brothers returned to England, where they were signed up by the promoter Robert Stigwood, a business partner of the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein.
Their first release, for Polydor, New York Mining Disaster, was a small hit. But it was followed by a series of successes which began to cement the trio’s fame — To Love Somebody, Words, and then the No 1 hits Massachusetts and I've Gotta Get A Message to You. By the time the Sixties drew to a close, the Bee Gees were stars on both sides of the Atlantic, and noted for their willingness to experiment with unusual musical styles.
But Robin Gibb’s personal life was proving turbulent. On arriving back in England he had met and married Molly Hullis, a secretary from Brian Epstein’s office. The pair were together in 1967 when they were caught up in the Hither Green rail disaster, in which 49 people were killed. “I remember it very vividly,” he later recalled. “Children were trapped, passengers were being given anaesthetics to have their limbs removed. It was horrendous, like Dante’s Inferno. I just wanted to escape.”
By his own admission, he neglected his marriage. He also took refuge in amphetamines: “I took the pills to stay up all night and make records. You had to work through the night because studio time was expensive. I never took serious drugs like LSD or cocaine — I was scared stiff of them.”
The divorce was acrimonious. Molly was granted custody of their two children (when they were six and four) and refused to allow their father to see them. Gibb went to court, but was unsuccessful; he did not see his children for six years.
“It was akin to bereavement,” he said later. “I felt as though I was on the verge of madness. There was no response to my calls, no acknowledgement of my gifts, no letters. Nobody would tell me anything. All the professional achievements, they mean nothing if your kids are taken away.” Subsequently he was allowed to re-establish contact with the children: “Then it got to the stage where they would just arrive unannounced, that was the best moment.”
After Saturday Night Fever the Bee Gees had a further success with the title track for the film Grease (1978), performed by Frankie Valli; but as the popularity of disco waned so did that of the group which had come to be defined by it. The Bee Gees fell out with Stigwood, and in 1988 their younger brother Andy (a successful singer in his own right) died from myocarditis aged 30.
The group came back in 1987 with You Win Again (their fifth British No 1) and wrote Islands in the Stream and Chain Reaction, respectively hits for Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton and Diana Ross. They continued to record, releasing albums such as Still Waters (1997) and This is Where I Came In (2001), and continued to attract large audiences at live performances.
Increasingly, however, the Bee Gees became noted for their wider influence on the music industry. Throughout their careers, the brothers were known for their talent in composition, arrangement and production, and their songs have been covered by countless artists, from Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin to Boyzone and Destiny’s Child.
Robin Gibb actively pursued his solo career, with albums including How Old Are You? (1983), Secret Agent (1984), Walls Have Eyes (1985), Magnet (2002) and My Favourite Christmas Carols (2006).
In 2004 he toured Germany, Russia and Asia and Europe, and recorded with both Barbra Streisand and Cliff Richard. In 2006 he performed with Barry at a charity concert in Miami, and later that year the two brothers teamed up again for the Prince’s Trust Concert in Britain.
Gibb returned to the top of the UK charts in 2009 when he collaborated with Ruth Jones, Rob Brydon, and Tom Jones on a new version of Islands in the Stream for Comic Relief.
In 2002 all three Gibb brothers were appointed CBE.
Gibb had recently been campaigning for the building of a national memorial to the members of RAF Bomber Command who gave their lives during the last war: “It’s just something I feel strongly about. I wasn’t even alive when these guys did what they did, but I know they deserve a monument to their sacrifice.”
Robin Gibb lived in a rambling 12th-century former monastery, set in 100 acres of gardens, in Oxfordshire. The tennis court was transformed into a Druidical stone circle — a gesture to his second wife, Dwina, a bisexual former Druid priestess whom he married in 1985.
Robin had suffered for years from crippling stomach pains, and in 2010 underwent surgery for a blocked intestine — the same condition which led to the death of his twin brother Maurice in 2003, a blow which Robin felt deeply. “I think about Maurice at unpredictable times,” he said in 2008. “I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about him. One is a twin for life. I can be sitting here talking normally about how he is dead and then I can be sitting in the bath and it hits me. And I find it incredible that he’s no longer alive.”
In April 2011 Gibb was forced to cancel a series of concerts in Brazil after suffering severe abdominal pains. He was again taken ill in October . He had recently been undergoing treatment for liver cancer, but on February 13 returned to the stage to perform at a charity concert at the London Palladium, receiving a standing ovation.
He is survived by his wife Dwina, with whom he had a son. He had a son and a daughter by his first wife, Molly; and in 2008 his housekeeper, Claire Yang, gave birth to his daughter.
The only surviving Bee Gee is Barry, now 65.
I don't take things for granted, because everything feels more fragile. It's made me wonder about mortality and how long you've got somebody in the world. I'm more fearful than I used to be. -Robin Gibb