As my friend Pam Grossman put it, "Yes, universe, I know. I know too well that time passes and we are all going to die, sooner or hopefully later. I also know that cancer sucks. You do not need to drive these points home by killing off musicians I love every other day." This was prompted by the passing of Robin Gibb just after we lost Donna Summer and several other greats. Meanwhile, my friend Davie Kaufman, the biggest Flying Burrito Brothers fan I know, was disappointed that I hadn't yet marked the passing of Chris Ethridge, an original member of the Burritos, also taken from us by cancer.
Chris Ethridge was born in Mississippi in 1947 and moved to California when he was 17. In 1967 he joined Gram Parsons in the International Submarine Band in time to play bass on the group's only LP, Safe at Home. Though its release was delayed, in combination with Parsons's appearances on the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, recorded later but released sooner, it was seen by many as one of the cornerstones of country rock.
After Parsons's short tenure in the Byrds had come to a close, he and Ethridge came together again in the Flying Burrito Brothers. On their first and greatest album, The Gilded Palace of Sin -- the greatest country-rock album ever -- Ethridge played bass and piano and co-wrote "Hot Burrito #1 (I'm Your Toy)" and "Hot Burrito #2" with Parsons. In this mimed, goofy promo video, he and drummer Michael Clarke joke around -- that's Mike on the bass, and Chris seated behind the kit!
We are also able to hear Ethridge on the Avalon Ballroom tapes from April 1969 that Amoeba Records released in 2007, but he left before the band's sophomore LP. He got together with old friend Joel Scott Hill and Turtles/Airplane/CSNY drummer John Barbata for a 1971 LP, L.A. Getaway.
By then Ethridge had become an in-demand L.A. session musician; his credits include albums by Phil Ochs, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, Graham Nash, Gene Clark (the great so-called White Light LP), Willie Nelson (including Stardust -- and he toured in Willie's band for eight years), Dave Mason, Arlo Guthrie, the Doors, and many others. He gigged with Parsons, and though he didn't play on any of Gram's solo albums, he co-wrote GP's "She." After Parsons's death, Ethridge co-formed a new version of the Flying Burrito Brothers that he played with in 1975-76, results included the studio album Flying Again and a number of concert recordings that have appeared in haphazard fashion in the years since.
Ethridge died of pancreatic cancer on April 23 in a hospital in his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi.
Robin Gibb and twin brother Maurice were born on the Isle of Man in 1949. Their family moved to Australia in 1958, and Robin, Maurice, and older brother Barry formed their band soon after. After they became world-famous, they were compared to the Beatles, but their early recordings show their distinctive sound coming together before the brother had heard the Beatles. That said, they did quickly form an affinity for the Beatles, covering Fab Four songs. After a hit single in Australia, "Spicks and Specks," they emigrated to England in 1966. Brian Epstein associate Robert Stigwood soon signed them and their first internationally distributed LP, Bee Gees 1st (after two LPs made in Australia that received only limited distribution), made them stars, with singles "New York Mining Disaster 1941," "To Love Somebody," and "Holiday" all charting high. Robin's heavy vibrato made his lead vocals immediately distinctive.
After 1969's double-LP Odessa, group tensions led Robin to go solo, missing the Cucumber Castle album. He was the only Bee Gee to have a substantial solo career, releasing five albums under his name: Robin's Reign (1969), How Old are You (1983), Secret Agent (1984), Walls Have Eyes (1984), and Magnet (2003). In 2008 he completed a sixth, 50 St. Catherine's Drive, which was never released.
By the end of 1970 he was back in the fold, though, and band legend says that the three co-wrote both "Lonely Nights" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" the night they reunited. The latter, with Robin taking the lead on the first verse, would become their first U.S. #1 single.
Then came another crisis. The band's Life in a Tin Can album sold poorly, and their follow-up, A Kick in the Head Is Worth Eight in the Pants, was rejected by their label (one doubts, had it been released, that the provisional title would've been retained!). Stigwood, seeing a need for them to change direction, hooked them up with producer Arif Mardin. After one transitional album, the result was 1975's Main Course LP, which found them recording in Florida and moving into disco. It proved an extremely smart move commercially and artistically; on their 13th LP, they'd found their second wind. Barry's more R&B-friendly falsetto began to dominate, but Robin's unique voice still flavored the music, and he was still co-writing everything with Barry (with Maurice often contributing as well).
Main Course eventually made it all the way to #14 on the U.S. LP chart, their best showing here since 1968's Horizontal with the exception of 1969's Best of. The follow-up, Children of the World, did even better, hitting #8, as did their 1977 live album. Then came their commercial apex, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in 1978 and Spirits Having Flown in 1979, both topping the LP chart. In the five-year span from 1975 through 1979, they'd had eight #1 singles -- and that's not even counting their production work for other charting artists then, including little brother Andy Gibb. They were so ubiquitous that an anti-disco reaction set in, but they'd made their mark and become cultural icons. Though they never again dominated the charts, their albums in subsequent decades still sold respectably and still charted in the U.K.
On Sunday, May 20, Robin Gibb lost his long battle with colorectal cancer. Just a month prior, he had recovered from a pneumonia-caused coma. It's comforting at least to think that he had a month, after that, to say his goodbyes. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. Early this month he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, which can be heard here.