Before the Bee Gees spread disco fever across radio waves, dance floors and movie screens, they were somewhat less known for their exquisite pop ballads. And they had a different lead singer: Robin Gibb, who died at the age of 62 on May 20, 2012. Unlike big brother Barry Gibb’s smooth, seductive falsetto – which propelled Seventies strobe-light classics like “Stayin’ Alive,” “Jive Talkin’,” and “Night Fever” — Robin’s lead vocals were warbly, yet soulful, elevating woeful anthems of sinking ships, collapsing caves and lovers strolling to the electric chair. Morrissey fans, recognize!
Aside from providing the Bee Gees his signature lead and harmony vocals for five decades, Robin served as a key songwriting partner for bandleader Barry and — albeit to a lesser extent than his twin brother and gifted musician Maurice – a multi-instrumentalist, chipping in on guitar, organ and harmonica.
Here are some of Robin Gibb’s most transcendent moments from his reign as Bee Gees lead singer.
“New York Mining Disaster 1941”
The Bee Gees’ first U.S. hit. This 1967 tearjerker – with the catchy refrain “Have you seen my wife, Mr. Jones?” – sounded so much like the Beatles that rumors spread that it actually was the Fab Four performing under a cryptic name meaning “Beatles Group.” As for the song title, nope, this disaster never happened. Robin plucked the date and locale out of the air to give the song added substance.
The Bee Gees were a three-man songwriting factory (Frankie Valli’s title track from the movie Grease, Dionne Warwick’s “Heartbreaker,” and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream” were but three of their later exports). The brothers penned this ode to homesickness – no, they’d never even been to Massachusetts, just liked how it rolled off Robin’s tongue – for fellow Australians the Seekers. The Seekers passed, and the Bee Gees got their first U.K. Number One.
“I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You”
In just over two minutes, the Bee Gees encapsulate the history of rock & roll – from Hank Williams’ doomed heartache to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production to James Brown’s sweet soul – and might have accidentally invented emo. If this death-row march doesn’t move you, check your own pulse.
“I Started a Joke”
In this maudlin ballad, Robin created a world where humor is a weapon, tears ensue, and the protagonist imagines his own death in a sea of dramatic wails and strums. See “Smiths, The.”
“Odessa (City on the Black Sea)”
Like any late Sixtiess band worth its salt, the Bee Gees needed a majestic concept album. Originally conceived as Masterpeace, the 1969 double album Odessa wasn’t the commercial success of the Bee Gees’ mid-Sixties or Seventies output, but, artistically, it still lives up to its early billing. On this, the seven-minute opening track, a shipwrecked Robin tries to sail home to his love, who may have run off with a member of the clergy, on an iceberg he may have sculpted into a ship. There’s Bee Gees vocal swells bigger than any Black Sea waves, Maurice’s nifty flamenco guitar and, naturally, geographic and historic lyrical references that match no map or calendar.
This is the song that temporarily split the Bee Gees. When Barry relegated this luminous piece of Robin longing to the B-side of his own “First of May,” Robin quit the band. Odessa never yielded another single and remains one of rock’s under-discovered treasures.
“Saved by the Bell”
On the single from his ironically titled solo album Robin’s Reign (it would tank on both sides of the Atlantic), Robin croons, “I cried for two.” The song didn’t exactly yield Robin’s desired answer to his “Who needs the other Brothers Gibb?” question, but this story would end happily with Robin returning to the group to begin the Seventies.
“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”
With his brief solo career behind him, Robin would use the new decade to transition into one of the world’s most successful backing vocalists (and songwriting team members). But, before he did, he gave the mic all he had on this soul classic, which was cool enough for Al Green.
[Editor’s Note: A version of this list was originally published May 2012]