For nearly a half-century, he was one of the truly unique voices and people in the history of popular music, a special spirit whose life and art remind us that time and place do matter.
If Robin Gibb had been born in Italy in the 19th century, he probably would have been an opera star. Of course, as he made his ‘live’ debut on the Isle of Man on December 22, 1949 (born just a half-minute or so before his fraternal twin Maurice), Robin’s musical life took a different route.
And so, while he never sang on the stage at La Scala in Milan or at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, when he did open his mouth to sing, what came out was a voice probably every bit as timeless, classic and legendary as Caruso’s. Or, let’s reflect on his sound through the more measured tone of British music historian Paul Gambaccini who noted after Robin’s passing in 2012, that Robin was “one of the best white soul voices ever.” A soul singer indeed.
“One of the best white soul voices ever”
Paul Gambaccini, Music Historian
As one of the three brothers who founded the Bee Gees over fifty years ago, Robin Gibb’s voice, even at an early age, seemed to come for a special soul, one who touched us instantly. From the moment the world first heard his voice, singing in unison with eldest brother Barry on the Bee Gees first worldwide hit, 1967’s New York Mining Disaster, 1941, we knew we were being introduced to something completely new and special.
Quickly, with solo turns on such ‘60s era Bee Gees classics as: I Can’t See Nobody; I’ve Gotta Getta A Message To You; Holiday; and Massachusetts, Robin Gibb became one of the most original pop voices of the 20th Century. For those of us who came of age musically in the 1960s, that worldwide explosion of Bee Gees music was a landmark moment, and the harmony-drenched Bee Gees records of that era were immediately powerful; even today, those vocals can bring goose bumps, and will touch the stoniest heart.
The harmony-drenched Bee Gees records of the ’60s can still bring goose bumps
In the 1970s, who can forget the image of Robin, his right hand cupping his ear, as he described the pain of separation in How Can You Mend A Broken Heart or pleaded with the object of his passion in Run To Me. The Bee Gees dance era comeback included such memorable vocal turns as Robin’s plaintive solo on Nights On Broadway, and of course, the Bee Gees landmark songs for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (one of the biggest and most influential movie soundtracks of all-time) and it’s hugely successful, multi-million selling follow-up, Spirits Having Flown.
Of course, the world best knows Robin as one of the three brothers of the UK’s biggest family band ever, the Bee Gees... for their decades of hits, their hundreds of millions of records sold and the enormous impact they had on popular music. With the Bee Gees, among countless awards and honors (including the CBE), Robin earned musical immortality with induction into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame.
With the Bee Gees, Robin has been immortalised in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame.
And it all started on the Isle of Man, less than 500 kilometers and a million light years from London.
The three oldest Gibb brothers, born to Hugh and Barbara Gibb (who were both musical), moved to England circa 1952, settling in Manchester (where they began singing at home and at the neighborhood cinema). In 1959, after the family emigrated to Australia, the brothers Gibb began singing at a local racetrack where they eagerly picked up the coins that were thrown their way; soon discovered by a local record man with a very good ear, the Bee Gees were on the brink of a career.
Nurtured first as miniature Mills Brothers, the Bee Gees were successful in Australia, cut dozens of what were called “sides” and were young pop stars down under. But the so-called British Invasion of 1963/1964 caught their eye and ear, and they eventually decided that if they were going to become part of this world of self-contained rock groups, England was where they needed to be.
Back at home in Britain in early 1967, they were quickly signed by the legendary impresario Robert Stigwood who groomed the Gibbs as his Beatles. The rest is music history.
“Bodding”, as his family called him, started his solo journey with Robin’s Reign in 1970
Robin, or “Bodding” as his family called him, shared the family passion for making music. And while he was always tied to the brothers Gibb, he made his own journey as a solo artist too. Starting with Robin’s Reign in 1970, Gibb created a distinctive body of work separate from the Bee Gees recordings, although with solo hits like Saved By The Bell (which reached number two in the UK in ‘69), Robin proved there would always be a place for his voice.
In the early 1980s, when the Bee Gees took a well-earned hiatus from group activity, Robin and Barry frequently collaborated, writing hits for other artists (like Barbara Streisand) and Robin pursued his solo work with three more albums (How Old Are You? in 1983, Secret Agent in 1984 and Walls Have Eyes in 1985) Among the highlights from those records were songs such as Juliet and Boys Do Fall In Love. In 2003 Robin released Magnet, and in 2006 a Christmas album, My Favourite Christmas Carols.
In the wake of baby brother Andy Gibb’s death, when the Bee Gees got back to work, striking worldwide success with You Win Again, reaffirming their Immortality, every album featured at least one showcase song on which Robin would shine, be it Irresistible Force on 1997’s Still Waters or Wedding Day on 2001’s This Is Where I Came In.
In 2000, the Bee Gees made a film of their career that would accompany what would become their recording swan sang, the truly terrific album, This Is Where I Came In.
The Gibbs’ youngest brother, Andy, had died in 1988. And Robin’s twin Maurice passed tragically in 2003.
In 2011/12 Robin collaborated with his son Robin-John on his last musical effort The Titanic Requiem. It was one worthy of his legend, and it included Robin’s last recorded vocal, Don’t Cry Alone, which showed his artistic powers had not diminished. At the time no one knew that it was probably Robin’s goodbye... the heartbreaking sound and message. When Robin passed away in May 2012, his millions of fans didn’t cry alone; the entire world shook with tears.
Those who knew Robin remember his immense determination, personal strength, courage and the spirit of sweetness and love
But while his voice has been stilled, it lives forever, on Bee Gees records, of course, and Robin’s reign continues on the solo records he made and the posthumous one that he recorded in 2008/9. The soon-to-be released disc is titled 50 St. Catherine's Drive. Robin named it that to commemorate his first home, the Gibbs childhood home on the Isle of Man.
Robin Gibb will be remembered as a songwriter, a singer, and an artist. Those who knew him, will also remember that he was a man who possessed immense determination, personal strength, courage and the spirit of sweetness and love.
Robin’s voice was so unlike anything else that graced the radio, timeless and yet somehow, decade after decade, in tune with the times so that he made anything he sang sound contemporary, classic, legendary and now, sadly, mythic. There was never any question about the immortality of his art, both on his own and with his brothers.
© 2013 David Leaf