Robin Gibb dies: Former Bee Gees member helped define ’70s disco subculture

Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, a trio that helped define the disco subculture of the 1970s with such hits as “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever” and “How Deep Is Your Love,” died May 20. He was 62.

His death was announced on his Web site. Mr. Gibb reportedly had cancer and pneumonia and had been hospitalized in London.

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The Bee Gees — a play on the “Brothers Gibb” — were formed in 1958 with Mr. Gibb, his twin brother Maurice and their elder brother Barry. The group became one of the most successful pop entertainment acts of its era, winning multiple Grammy Awards, selling more than 110 million albums and putting 23 songs in the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot 100 charts from 1967 to 1979.

With a Beatles-influenced pop style, they had an initial run of success in Australia in the 1960s with songs that included “Spicks and Specks.” They later brought disco music into the pop mainstream and set fashion trends with their polyester suits, open collars and flowing hairstyles.

During their 1997 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Bee Gees were described as “pop’s ultimate chameleons” because of their work in several musical genres.

On recordings such as “New York Mining Disaster 1941” (1967), a song inspired by a Welsh mine cave-in, and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (1968), in which a convict awaits his execution, the Bee Gees combined somber, melodramatic storylines with lush orchestral accompaniments.

Mr. Gibb’s signature song, “I Started a Joke” (1969), dealt with the embarrassment of someone who has said something horribly wrong. The quavering vibrato in his voice helped underscore the song’s neurotic, self-conscious lyrics.

Other performers took notice of their songwriting. “To Love Somebody” (1967), co-written by Mr. Gibb and his brother Barry and originally intended for soul singer Otis Redding, became one of the era’s most recorded love ballads.

Although Redding died before he could record it, the song was covered by such performers as Janis Joplin, Tom Jones, Dusty Springfield and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Disputes between Mr. Gibb and his brother Barry over who should sing lead culminated with Mr. Gibb’s departure from the group in 1969 to pursue a short-lived solo career. The other brothers split up shortly after the filming of a television special, “Cucumber Castle,” which aired in 1970.

“I think it was partly the fact that we’d always lived with our mother and father and we were just becoming adults and looking to be free of each other,” Mr. Gibb told Billboard magazine in 2001.

The group reemerged with a ballad reportedly inspired by their reconciliation, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (1971).

Within a few years, the Bee Gees found a new, highly profitable direction. Producer Arif Mardin pushed Barry Gibb to sing in a piercing, falsetto style — the group’s new trademark — with the song “Jive Talkin’ ” (1975), a breakthrough hit in the disco market. The soundtrack to the movie “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) followed and was estimated to have sold 40 million copies worldwide.

By the end of the decade, there was a critical and popular backlash against the Bee Gees — a result of their domination of the airwaves and a reaction against the disco subculture.

Their starring roles in a disastrous 1978 movie inspired by the Beatles’ album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” further alienated rock fans. Rock stations advertised Bee Gees-free days. A parody record by the Hee Bee Gee Bees was titled “Meaningless Songs (in Very High Voices).”

Turning their attention to songwriting and production, the Gibbs opened a Miami recording studio, Middle Ear, and produced successful recordings by their younger brother, Andy Gibb. They were prolific tunesmiths, penning songs for Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick and Kenny Rogers throughout the 1980s.

The Bee Gees’s last top 10 hit was the single “One” in 1989. They released their last album, “This Is Where I Came In,” in 2001. That same year, the Bee Gees were knighted as Commanders of the British Empire.

Robin Hugh Gibb was born Dec. 22, 1949, in Douglas, on the Isle of Man. His father, Hugh, led a dance band on ferry boats. His mother, Barbara, was the band’s singer. The family moved to Manchester, England, where Mr. Gibb and his two brothers made their debut at a movie theater.

With the addition of a couple of friends, the brothers formed a skiffle group, the Rattlesnakes. However, Mr. Gibb and his brother Barry were repeatedly in trouble with the police for truancy, break-ins and fire setting.

“One day I was walking home,” Maurice Gibb once said, “and all the billboards on the main street in Chorlton [their Manchester neighborhood] were blazing away, firemen and police running around everywhere. That was Robin, the family arsonist.”

The family packed up for Australia in 1958 when the brothers were threatened with jail time.

Andy Gibb, who also had a successful singing career, died in 1988 of myocarditis. Maurice Gibb, Mr. Gibb’s twin, died in 2003 of a heart attack after surgery on an obstructed colon. Mr. Gibb’s cancer was disclosed shortly after he underwent the same procedure in 2011.

He struggled with substance abuse and said he was addicted to amphetamines for many years.

Mr. Gibb said in interviews that he and his wife, Dwina Murphy-Gibb, who has been described as an ordained druid priestess, believed in open marriage. In 2008, he had a daughter by his housekeeper, Claire Yang, according to British media reports.

His first marriage, to Molly Hullis, ended in divorce.

In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include two children from his first marriage; a son from his second marriage; his mother; and his brother Barry.

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