Appreciation: Bee Gees golden harmonies silenced with Robin Gibb's death


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In any given year, the history of popular music seems to be on parade, from '50s doo-wop and '60s Motown groups filling in with young replacements, to '70s and '80s rock bands hanging on, even if it means rib festivals and county fairs.

Sadly missing from the pop rainbow, for many years, has been the Bee Gees, a group made up of brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb that started with folk-rock in the '60s and found a second groove during the disco era.

One of the No. 1 hits during their late '70s heyday was "Tragedy," which would become the fate of the Gibb Brothers.

First, youngest brother Andy, a faded teen star and solo act, died at 30 of a viral infection in 1988. In January 2003, Maurice (Robin's fraternal twin) died of a heart attack at 53 awaiting surgery for an twisted intestine. On Sunday, we lost Robin to cancer at 62, leaving Barry as the only survivor of the group and forever silencing another set of golden harmonies.

The brothers were born on the Isle of Man in the late '40s, moved to Manchester, England, in the early '50s, when they started singing together, and then to Australia, where they had a mid-'60s hit with "Spicks and Specks." Back in England, they were signed to a record deal, under the wing of impresario Robert Stigwood, and at first, DJs mistakenly thought their 1967 breakout hit, "New York Mining Disaster 1941," was a new Beatles single when it was issued to them with a blank label.

Barry's sweet vocal on "To Love Somebody" made it a second Top 20 hit and a song that has endured through the ages. For the next few years, the Bee Gees charted with "I've Gotta Get a Message to You" and "I Started a Joke." Robin, in a losing battle with heartthrob Barry for lead singer, left briefly to test a solo career in 1969 with the album "Robin's Reign." He returned for 1971's "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," the group's first chart topper and one of the all-time great bleeding-heart pop ballads. Robin sang the quivering first verse -- "I can think of younger days when living for my life/Was everything a man could want to do/I could never see tomorrow/I was never told about the sorrow" -- before giving way to Barry and the full sibling treatment.

The Bee Gees paid Pittsburgh a visit on Feb. 8 and 10, 1974, at the Syria Mosque, backed by an orchestra, in what Post-Gazette critic Mike Kalina called "about the most pleasant montage of sounds I've ever heard at a pop concert here."

The Bee Gees were in a career lull at the time, but with the '70s getting funkier, they were ready to strike.

During that '74 visit, promoter Rich Engler recalls being invited with his wife to the band's hotel in Green Tree. "They had written songs for their departure from the typical Bee Gees to the disco sound. They were real nervous about that transition."

They had a demo for the song that would become "Jive Talkin'."

"They asked us if we'd like to listen to it," Mr. Engler says. "Robert Stigwood hadn't even heard it yet. They played it on a little casette player. It was nothing like we were expecting."

"Jive Talkin'" went to No. 1 in June 1975, the same month the Gibb brothers bumped up to the Civic Arena. That was a bit of a disaster, as only 4,000 people showed up to see them. Mr. Kalina concluded that the Bee Gees were an act meant for smaller halls like the Mosque.

What he didn't see coming was a thing called "Saturday Night Fever" in 1977. Disco was already hot, but now the mirror ball was about to explode. The Bee Gees scored an unprecedented string of six consecutive No. 1 hits, starting with "How Deep Is Your Love," "Stayin' Alive" and "Night Fever." The soundtrack -- which also included "Jive Talkin'" and early No. 1 "You Should Be Dancing" -- impacted the culture like few others and became the biggest-selling album of all time at 15 million sales (until "Thriller" came along in 1982).

Despite the misstep of taking part in the "Sgt. Pepper" movie with Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees stayed very much alive for "Spirits Having Flown," which completed that six-pack of No. 1s with "Too Much Heaven," "Tragedy" and "Love You Inside Out."

The Bee Gees returned to the Arena triumphantly for two sold-out nights on Sept. 4-5, 1979. Along with their great voices and more than a decade of hits, it was a state-of-the-art production -- "a package the likes of which few contemporary acts can match," according to the PG review.

Two years later, disco was dead, and the Bee Gees had peaked. Starting with 1981's "Living Eyes," the group's albums landed lower and lower on the charts.

The Bee Gees never came back to Pittsburgh. They played some stadium dates in Europe after the comeback album, "Still Waters," in 1997, the year they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and played their final full concert on Dec. 31, 1999.

From that point on, Robin and Barry mostly worked on solo material, the biggest success being Barry's duet with Barbra Streisand on "Guilty," but did come back together for a concert in 2006. Robin, a friend of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was a supporter of the Labour Party and performed a number of charity concerts over the past decade. In 2010, he suffered an intestinal disorder similar to Maurice's and last November was diagnosed with liver cancer.

He and his twin brother leave behind a catalog that's respected by critics and fellow musicians. The early stuff is classic, and while much of the disco music from the '70s has been rendered to the trash heap, the Bee Gees, because they were rooted in '60s pop and because of those wonderful harmonies, were always a cut above.

music

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576; Twitter: @scottmervis_pg; Blog: www.post-gazette.com/popnoise.


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