He was the band's frontman in its early, Beatles-loving phase, a sideman in its Saturday Night Fever era, and a talented songwriter for musicians outside the group.
It's natural to pair Robin Gibb's death with Donna Summer's. She was 63; he was 62. Each died of cancer within three days of the other; each was a titan of the disco era, a period not well liked at the time but grown ever more glorious in retrospect.
But if it weren't for the fact that he formed the front line of one of the most successful vocal groups in history, we might instead think of Robin Gibb today as an early progenitor of a hardy music-biz archetype: the young star turned old, backroom pro. Gibb, who died on Sunday, was essentially the Bee Gees' front man in their early years. Considering the success he would have co-writing hits not just for the group but others (Yvonne Elliman's "If I Can't Have You," younger brother Andy Gibb's "Shadow Dancing"), he could have become someone like Linda Perry, who had a few hits with 4 Non Blondes in the alt-'90s before finding new life as a songwriter for Pink; or Dan Wilson, former frontman of Semisonic ("Closing Time"), and now co-author of Grammy winners for others, such as the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice" and Adele's "Someone Like You."
The brothers had Andy Williams in mind when they wrote "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" but what they delivered was correctly heard as a soul record.
Yes, the Bee Gees were a trio—oldest brother Barry Gibb and the younger fraternal twins, Maurice (who died in 2003 while in surgery for the same colon cancer that killed his brother) and Robin. (Younger still was Andy Gibb, who enjoyed solo success in the late '70s and died of heart failure in 1988, at age 30.) But the group had two distinct eras, each dominated by a different brother. The Bee Gees we know best is the second, with Barry taking the lead more often than not, in every way. He had a big, outgoing personality, and that seemed to suit Robin and Maurice fine. They could stay in back, cracking wise, pushing, and knowing full well how much they each put in, which by all accounts was a considerable amount.
Before that, though, the Bee Gees went after the baroque possibilities the Beatles suggested with "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" with relative gusto, and this was the era with Robin up front more often than not. Barry's falsetto could stop a crowd, no problem, but the late '60s were different times. Disco fit the Bee Gees because they could sound like and blend in with synthesizers, pushing the excitement higher. The Robin-led '60s sides—songs such as "I Started a Joke," "Massachusetts," and "I've Got to Get a Message to You," the latter pair the group's first two No. 1s in England—feature a delicately quavering high tenor. The kind of supernatural effects Barry could manufacture weren't suited to the pastoral, but Robin's natural voice was.
The Bee Gees broke up—sometimes brothers, especially twins, can't stand each other anymore. It happens, especially in music.* It didn't take long for the brothers to get back together, though, and the song they came back with is likely their greatest.