Robin Gibb of Bee Gees dies at 62

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Courtesy of The New York Times

Robin Gibb, one of the three singing brothers of the Bee Gees, the long-running Anglo-Australian pop group whose chirping falsettos and hook-laden disco hits like “Jive Talkin’ ” and “You Should Be Dancing”shot them to worldwide fame in the 1970s, died on Sunday in London. He was 62 and lived in Thame, Oxfordshire, England.

The cause was complications of cancer and intestinal surgery, his family said in a statement.

Mr. Gibb had been hospitalized for intestinal problems several times in the last two years. Cancer had spread from his colon to his liver, and in the weeks before his death he had pneumonia and for a while was in a coma.

Mr. Gibb was the second Bee Gee and third Gibb brother to die. His fraternal twin and fellow Bee Gee, Maurice Gibb, died of complications of a twisted intestine in 2003 at 53. The youngest brother, Andy, who had a successful solo career, was 30 when he died of heart failure, in 1988.

With brilliant smiles, polished funk and adenoidal close harmonies, the Bee Gees — Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb — were disco’s ambassadors to Middle America in the 1970s, embodying the peacocked look of the time in their open-chested leisure suits and gold medallions.

They sold well over 100 million albums and had six consecutive No. 1 singles from 1977 to 1979. They were also inextricably tied to the disco era’s defining movie, “Saturday Night Fever,” a showcase for their music that included the hit “Stayin’ Alive,” its propulsive beat in step with the strut of the film’s star, John Travolta.

But the group, whose first record came out in 1963, had a history that preceded its disco hits, starting with upbeat ditties inspired by the Everly Brothers and the Beatles, then with lachrymose ballads like “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”

Barry, the oldest brother, was the dominant Bee Gee for most of the group’s existence. But the lead singer for many of the early hits was Robin, whose breaking voice, gaunt frame and gloomy eyes were well suited to convey adolescent fragility. “I Started a Joke” (with the second line, “Which started the whole world crying”), “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” “Massachusetts” and other heavy-hearted songs brought the Bee Gees to the top of the charts as one of the British Invasion’s most musically conservative groups.

“While other guys, like Ray Davies of the Kinks, were writing about social problems, we were writing about emotions,” Robin Gibb told a British newspaper last year. “They were something boys didn’t write about then because it was seen as a bit soft. But people love songs that melt your heart.”

Robin Hugh Gibb and his twin, Maurice, were born on Dec. 22, 1949, on the Isle of Man, a British dependency in the Irish Sea. (Barry was born there in 1946.) The boys largely grew up in Manchester, England, where the family lived on the edge of poverty. Their father, Hugh, a drummer and bandleader, encouraged his sons to sing. Their mother, Barbara, was also a singer.

According to Bee Gees lore, the boys’ first performance was sometime in the mid-1950s, and unplanned. They had been scheduled to perform as a lip-synching act at a movie theater in Manchester when the record broke, forcing them to sing for real.

The family moved to Australia in 1958, and before long the brothers, performing as the Bee Gees — for Brothers Gibb — began scoring local hits and appearing on television. They left for London in early 1967 and within weeks had signed with Robert Stigwood, the impresario who guided them in their peak years.

The band’s first single in Britain, “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” was released in April 1967 and reached the Top 20.

In performance, Robin and Maurice usually played second fiddle to Barry, and Robin’s taciturn manner was part of his public persona. On “The Barry Gibb Talk Show,” a recurring skit on “Saturday Night Live,” Barry, played by Jimmy Fallon, would repeatedly ask Robin, played by Justin Timberlake, if he had anything to add to his talks with congressmen and Supreme Court justices. “No,” Robin would reply softly. “No, I don’t.”

But in private Robin was far from dull. He and his wife, Dwina Murphy, who survives him, lived in a 12th-century former monastery in Oxfordshire that he had restored and filled with statues of Buddha and suits of armor. In Miami, his mansion was open to celebrities and politicians like Tony Blair.

Robin briefly left the group in 1969 and tried out a solo career. After he rejoined his brothers, they scored their first No. 1 in the United States with “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” in 1971. But with harder rock taking over, the Bee Gees’ popularity ebbed, reaching bottom in 1974 with a series of supper-club gigs in England to pay off tax debts.

At that point their label, Atlantic, sent the brothers to Miami for musical experimentation. There, with the 1975 album “Main Course,” they reinvented the Bee Gees’ sound with Latin and funk rhythms, electronic keyboards and vocals that owed a debt to Philadelphia soul. It brought the band its first hits in years: “Nights on Broadway” and “Jive Talkin’,” which went to No. 1.

From there it moved further toward disco. The soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever,” in 1977 — with “You Should Be Dancing,” “How Deep Is Your Love?,” “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” all No. 1’s — became the biggest-selling album ever. (It was overtaken by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in 1984.)

For many listeners, the Gibbs were the face of disco. Even “Sesame Street” got caught up in the trend, with Robin singing on the disco-themed album “Sesame Street Fever.” It went gold.

The Bee Gees’ 1979 album, “Spirits Having Flown,” produced three more No. 1 singles, “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy” and “Love You Inside Out.” Then, in 1980, the band filed a $200 million lawsuit against Mr. Stigwood, saying he had swindled them out of royalties. Mr. Stigwood countersued for defamation and breach of contract. They settled out of court and publicly reconciled.

In the ’80s the band’s popularity waned in the United States but remained strong abroad. Robin released three solo albums, with limited success. The Bee Gees returned with some moderate hits in the late 1990s and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. With his brothers, Mr. Gibb won six Grammys.

In addition to his wife and his brother Barry, Robin Gibb is survived by his sons, Spencer and Robin-John, known as R J; his daughters, Melissa and Snow; a sister, Lesley; and his mother. An earlier marriage, to Molly Hullis, ended in divorce.

Mr. Gibb had recently been working on a classical piece, “The Titanic Requiem,” with Robin-John. It had its premiere in London on April 10, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, but Robin was too ill to attend.

Despite the Bee Gees’ close association with disco, the Gibb brothers had long insisted that they had no stake in the genre. They had simply written songs that suited their voices and caught their fancy, they said.

“We always thought we were writing R&B grooves, what they called blue-eyed soul,” Robin said in 2010. “We never heard the word disco; we just wrote groove songs we could harmonize strongly to, and with great melodies.”

“The fact you could dance to them,” he added, “we never thought about.”

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