Robin Gibb died yesterday, aged 62, following a long battle with colon and liver cancer. Or as the subject line of the email sent from his official website read: “Our sweet hero has gone to heaven to sing with the angels…”
I don’t know when I first heard a Bee Gees song. I only know that when I was about eight or nine, I received Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on VHS for Christmas and then made it my business to know and love the Bee Gees as fervently as the Beatles. (It was my sister’s business to know and love Peter Frampton. I used to catch her watching Sgt. Pepper without me, repeatedly rewinding Frampton’s entrance as Billy Shears and salivating.)
As many times as my sister and I watched that film, it is amazing that the tape still survives. (Finally upgraded to a DVD copy last year for $4.75. I call that a bargain. The best I ever had. The best I ever haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!) Young and uninfluenced by pompous critics who panned the film upon its release, we loved the whimsical and ridiculous story of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and their quest to save their beloved Heartland from a certain evil Mr. Mustard–a threadbare plot, held together only by an eclectic collection of equally eclectic interpretations of Beatles classics. We lovingly referred to Barry as “Wolfman” and Robin as “Gappy.” We thought Barry and Maurice were twins and were shocked to learn that Maurice and Robin were, in fact, “the twins.”
The Gibb Family, backstage at Top of the Pops, circa 1967. Back row: Maurice (who died from a twisted intestine, aged, 53, in 2003), Barry, Robin. Front row: father Hugh (who died from internal bleeding, aged 76, in 1992–on Andy’s birthday), younger brother Andy (who died of myocarditis, aged 30, in 1988), mother Barbara.
And that may be why Robin was always my favorite Bee Gee. He never quite looked like the others, let alone a pop star. He never quite acted like a pop star either. He was outspoken, but not rude or crass. He was proud of his achievements as part of the Bee Gees and as a successful songwriter not only for the Bee Gees but for a gamut of other singers (Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton…), yet he was also incredibly humble and modest. He was a history fanatic. He was different. He did, however, have a voice that rivaled any other singer in the history of the music. His voice was delicate, impassioned, ethereal–in short, his voice was beautiful. And that vibrato! Truly one of a kind.
Speaking to journalist Keith Atham in 1969, following the Bee Gees’ (temporary) split, Robin remarked: “I sing how I feel. I know I haven’t got a great voice, but I manage to touch something inside other people that they understand…Dylan sings in the same way as me. He uses his heart as an instrument. Even I can’t understand completely why this works but it does. It’s not possible for any artist to jump outside themselves and see themselves for what they are. Even when you look in a mirror you get a reversed image!”
Some people will likely always associate the Bee Gees with disco (which was a natural progression from their love of soul and R&B rather than a “sell-out”), white suits, and oversized gold medallions, no matter how many times they are told that they were, in fact, onetime peers of the Beatles, successful songwriters before, after, and during disco, and unmatched vocalists whose gifts transcend genres and labels. I will always remember Robin, sitting at a piano in a pastel yellow shirt and vest, singing “Oh! Darling” so tenderly, singing with his heart. And making me forget that it was ever a Beatles song. And making me–and the rest of the world–fall in love with that beautiful voice.
This is what the e-mail meant by “gone to heaven to sing with the angels,” right? Right.