Their 'Saturday Night Fever' soundtrack defined era

Robin Gibb, whose tremulous voice graced pop and disco hits he co-wrote for his family trio the Bee Gees, died Sunday in London. He was 62 and had battled colon cancer that had spread to the liver; more recently, he had contracted pneumonia in the wake of abdominal surgery and fell into a coma but awoke.

“The family of Robin Gibb, of the Bee Gees, announce with great sadness that Robin passed away today following his long battle with cancer and intestinal surgery,” said a statement from the Gibb family spokesman. “The family have asked that their privacy is respected at this very difficult time.”

With older brother Barry, with whom he shared lead vocals, and twin brother Maurice, Robin Gibb rose to popularity during the ’60s with the harmonizing pop group, cast by manager Robert Stigwood as a successor to the Beatles.

After a hitmaking but often stormy early career, which saw Robin’s brief departure from the group due to rivalry over the lead singer slot with Barry, the Bee Gees finally attained Beatles-level success with a move into disco in the mid-’70s.

The crowning achievement of their career was 1977′s “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, the summarizing artifact of the disco epoch. Three of the group’s songs for director John Badham’s smash John Travolta vehicle reached No. 1 in the U.S., and the album sold an estimated 40 million copies worldwide. It remains the second-bestselling soundtrack package of all time, after Whitney Houston’s “The Bodyguard” set.

Though the Bee Gees cooled as a chart act as the disco era waned, the Gibbs wrote profitably for others and continued to place hits through the late ’90s. Their performing career ended with Maurice’s death in 2003, but Robin Gibb worked as a solo concert performer through the new millennium.

Born on the Isle of Man and raised near Manchester, England, the three Gibbs — along with their much younger brother Andy, who enjoyed his own career as a teen idol before his death in 1988 — emigrated with their family to Australia in 1958.

The elder three Gibbs began their professional career Down Under in 1960, but, achieving only moderate success, they returned to England in 1967. Under the guidance of Stigwood, a protege of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, they swiftly began etching their name on the international charts.

The brothers logged several top 10 U.S. hits, all in a ballad vein, on Atlantic’s Atco subsidiary in 1967-69, including “New York Mining Disaster 1941″ (No. 14), “To Love Somebody” (No. 17), “Massachusetts” (No. 11), “Words” (No. 15), “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (No. 8) and “I Started a Joke” (No. 6).

However, Robin’s dissatisfaction with his diminishing role as lead vocalist led him to bolt the group in 1969. “Robin’s Reign,” the first of six solo albums, was issued in 1970; it garnered only modest sales.

The Bee Gees disbanded completely after Robin’s exit, but the three siblings reunited after just eight months. Two of their biggest pre-disco hits quickly followed: “Lonely Days” (No. 3, 1970) and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (No. 1, 1971).

The act’s career soon sagged but gained renewed steam when they moved into R&B and disco. Relocating to Miami at the suggestion of a fellow Stigwood client, Eric Clapton, they recorded at the city’s Criteria Studios with Atlantic staff producer Arif Mardin. The sessions produced their first No. 1 single, the disco hit “Jive Talkin’,” and the No. 7 follow-up “Nights on Broadway” in 1975.

Another No. 1 disco smash, 1976′s “You Should Be Dancing,” won a Grammy as best pop vocal performance and prefaced “Saturday Night Fever.” The soundtrack, issued by Stigwood’s RSO Records, spawned a trio of chart-toppers – the ballad “How Deep is Your Love,” the disco anthem “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever” — and propelled the RSO album to No. 1, where it spent 24 weeks of its 120-week chart run. The album reaped four Grammys, including album of the year; the Gibbs shared producer of the year honors with Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson.

The Bee Gees’ career was slowed only slightly by their participation in Stigwood’s catastrophic 1978 movie adaptation of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; though copies of the album soon flooded cut-out bins, Robin notched a No. 15 single with a cover of “Oh! Darling.”

The group topped the U.S. chart in 1979 with three more singles, “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy” and “Love You Inside Out,” which pushed the album “Spirits Having Flown” to No. 1.

In the wake of “Fever,” the Bee Gees’ soundtrack for the belated 1983 sequel “Stayin’ Alive” reached No. 6 but the Gibbs found greater success crafting hits for others. In 1980, Robin and Barry were the main contributors to Barbra Streisand’s No. 1 album “Guilty.” All three Gibbs penned Dionne Warwick’s 1982 comeback “Heartbreaker,” wrote the No. 1 1983 Dolly Parton-Kenny Rogers collaboration “Islands in the Stream” and authored tunes for Diana Ross’ 1985 album “Eaten Alive.”

Perhaps understanding that the disco boom was over, Robin increasingly concentrated on recording on his own in the ’80s, releasing the solo projects “How Old Are You?” (1983), “Secret Agent” (1984) and “Walls Have Eyes” (1985). The Bee Gees reached the top 10 for the last time in 1989 with “One,” which peaked at No. 7.

The Bee Gees recorded with decreasing but still platinum-level success for Warner Bros., Polydor and Universal, with their biggest latter-day album “Still Waters” rising to No. 11 in 1997. They issued their last collection, “This Is Where I Came In,” in 2001.

Robin released what proved to be his last album of original solo material, “Magnet,” on the eve of Maurice’s death in January 2003. He went on to tour solo, and reunited with brother Barry at a Prince’s Trust performance in 2006; some TV guest shots, including one on “American Idol,” followed. Though Robin said in 2009 that the surviving brothers were plotting a reunion tour, it never materialized.

The London premiere of Robin’s first classical work, “The Titanic Requiem,” was held April 11, but Gibb was already too ill to attend. He had written the work with son Robin-John, in honor of the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic. The singer was also to perform “Don’t Cry Alone,” a new song, at the concert.

As a member of the Bee Gees, Robin Gibb received a 2000 Lifetime Achievement Award and a 2003 Legend Award from the Recording Academy; the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. He became a Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee in 1994.

In addition to son Robin-John, Gibb is survived by his wife, Dwina; son Spencer and daughter Melissa, from a previous marriage; toddler daughter Snow Robin Gibb, whose mother is Claire Yang, the Gibbs’ housekeeper; his mother, Barbara; and brother Barry.

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