LOS ANGELES — Their hits could fill an entire Saturday night, last until the first church bell rang on Sunday morning and provide a sweat-drenched workout on the dance floor that broke only for the slow numbers. Even more remarkable was that each classic gem of the Bee Gees, whose co-founder Robin Gibb died Sunday after a long battle with cancer, would be packed with feeling.
There’s “Jive Talkin’,” the group’s frenetic ode to a lying lover, which highlights a skeptical Gibb’s sweet tenor. “How Deep Is Your Love” finds Gibb, who co-founded the Bee Gees in 1958 with brothers Barry and Maurice (Robin’s fraternal twin), describing him and his lover “living in a world of fools breaking us down,” when they should really just leave them alone. That song alone was responsible for countless dark-corner slow dances.
The climax, of course, would hit with the first few notes of “Staying Alive” from “Saturday Night Fever,” the 1977 double-album soundtrack that made Robin and his brothers Barry and Maurice international superstars and helped define disco — and the 1970s.
The song, with its heaving R&B rhythm, captured the spirit of 1977, when the dance music born in New York, Philadelphia and Miami was being translated by poppier groups such as the Bee Gees and dipping into the mainstream. Younger brother Robin’s midrange tone tethered Barry’s wild falsetto, and they combined to create one of most instantly recognizable vocal teams in pop music.
Studio 54’s cocaine-fueled evenings became “Today” show fodder and the Bee Gees’ feathered hair a look half the planet strove for. “Night Fever,” “More Than a Woman,” “Nights on Broadway” and “You Should Be Dancing” all became songs that could pack the dance floor.
But the group’s sound was more than just “disco.” There’s a misconception that the Bee Gees made their move into music with “Saturday Night Fever,” but it’s more accurate to say that disco became a name for the style of music the band had been migrating toward for half a decade.
Long before a white-suited John Travolta shuffle-stepped his way across a lighted dance floor, Robin, Barry and Maurice were experimenting with the R&B sounds coming out of the gay and straight discotheques in urban centers and combining it with rhythms so far removed from the group’s earlier hits that it might as well have been different bands.
In a sense, it was different bands. After a successful career in the ‘60s rising alongside the British Invasion acts and finding success, Robin left the Bee Gees late in the decade, a symptom of a sibling rivalry that would drive their energy for the rest of the 1970s and ‘80s. He pursued a solo career, one that yielded the baroque pop gem “Robin’s Reign” in 1969.
He returned to the Bee Gees in 1970, but while many of their post-British Invasion contemporaries continued along predictable paths, following the Beatles’ lead in the late ‘60s, then moving into harder rock or country rock, the Bee Gees in the early 1970s, under the guidance of influential British music impresario and film producer Robert Stigwood, dived into the dance floor sounds being born in America. Recording at Criteria Studios in Miami, the band stitched complicated Caribbean rhythms — and cowbell — into its innate pop sensibilities and the soul and funk of Curtis Mayfield, the O’Jays, MFSB and James Brown.
It was this distillation that half a decade later resulted in “Saturday Night Fever,” the double album released in November 1977 that went on to generate at least 10 disco classics, sell more than 15 million albums and transform the entire pop landscape. Working with those joyous, exuberant harmonies in service of long, life-affirming grooves like on “You Should Be Dancing,” the trio became the voice of Saturday night.
That influence continues. No matter how hard critics and the rock establishment tried to kill disco, after the Bee Gees’ peak success — shattered by the debacle that was their film version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” and too many cheesy Rod Stewart crossover songs — the music went back underground, rising from time to time as a reminder of its spirit. In 2012, the beat-driven genre is cited by artists as an influence just as often as punk rock, which supposedly “killed” disco.
It didn’t. The evidence lies within the grooves that Robin and his brothers created, as vital, life affirming and human as ever.