Before anyone ever heard his brother Barry’s famous falsetto, Robin Gibb put the Bee Gees on the charts with his trembling lead vocal in late-1960s hits such as “Massachusetts” and “I Started a Joke.” By that time, the trio had come a long way from their start, lip-syncing hits during reel changes at a suburban cinema in England. They would go on to become one of the defining groups of the 1970s disco era.
Robin, like his twin Maurice and older bother Barry, was born on Britain’s Isle of Man, said The Guardian (U.K.), but the family soon moved to a suburb of Manchester and, in 1958, to Australia, where the boys began singing on local TV shows. In 1966, “well aware of the pop music boom happening in Britain,” they moved back to the U.K. and scored their first big hit, “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” Soon after, “the trio went off the rails,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). The brothers began taking drugs and drinking heavily, and Robin became addicted to amphetamines. After fighting with Barry over “who was the true star of the band,” Robin quit in 1969 to record a solo album, Robin’s Reign. It flopped and the Bee Gees re-formed, but until the mid-1970s they “struggled to find a formula for consistent success.”
That came with the birth of the disco era, said the Los Angeles Times. The Bee Gees began experimenting with a new, Latin-infused sound in 1975, and Barry’s adenoidal falsetto became the group’s trademark. They were invited to contribute songs to the soundtrack for the John Travolta movie Saturday Night Fever; the resulting album, including the hits “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Stayin’ Alive,” was among the biggest-selling records of all time. With their “open-chested leisure suits and gold medallions,” the Gibb brothers became “disco’s ambassadors to Middle America,” said The New York Times. But as Robin later explained, they never thought of themselves as disco musicians at all. “We just wrote groove songs we could harmonize strongly to, and with great melodies,” he said in 2010. “The fact you could dance to them, we never thought about.”
By the end of the 1970s, said The Washington Post, there was a “critical and popular backlash” against disco and the band that had come to represent it. Rock stations advertised Bee Gees–free days, and a group called the Hee Bee Gee Bees released a parody record titled Meaningless Songs (In Very High Voices). The band began focusing on production, writing songs for Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Kenny Rogers during the 1980s.
Despite their feuds, Robin always credited his success as a musician to his bond with his brothers. “I feel blessed I was born into a family that had Barry and Maurice in it,” he once said. “On a creative level, it’s like winning the lottery. You can’t choose that.”