The main influences on post-war popular music are Elvis Presley and the Beatles, but the Everly Brothers are not too far behind. Many have tried to emulate their soaring harmonies, which they had brought from country music to rock’n’roll, but they were never bettered. With “Bye Bye Love”, “Cathy’s Clown”, “All I Have To Do Is Dream” and several others, they created perfect pop, perfect country and perfect rock’n’roll records. As Phil Everly, who has died aged 74, said: “We were the best there was and we were right at the front for a long time. Everybody told us that rock’n’roll would die but it didn’t happen. I haven’t had to work at the car-wash.”
The Everly brothers’ parents, Ike and Margaret, were country musicians who entertained listeners to regional radio stations with songs and homespun stories. Don was born in Brownie, Kentucky in 1937 and Phil followed in 1939, born in Chicago where his father was working. Their brothers’ first appearance was as children on their parents’ show from Shenandoah, Iowa in 1945. They went to school in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The boys’ parents knew Chet Atkins, who produced a session by Don and Phil for Columbia Records in Nashville in 1956. Columbia let them go but Atkins realised the brothers had something special. He told the music publisher Wesley Rose about them and he in turn recommended Archie Bleyer with his own label, Cadence. Cadence was having hits with Andy Williams and the Chordettes, which featured Bleyer’s wife, Janet Ertel. A husband-and-wife songwriting team, Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, had been trying to place “Bye Bye Love” but had found no takers. Rose and Bleyer thought it would suit the Everlys, and it became their first million-seller, soaring up the charts in Britain and America.
The Everly Brothers acknowledged their influences – the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers and the Louvin Brothers – but as these groups were unknown outside the southern states, what the Everly Brothers were presenting was new and different. And how different it was. The country bands hadn’t been singing about teenage problems. Their second hit and first US chart-topper, “Wake Up Little Susie”, again written by the Bryants, was about falling asleep with your girlfriend at the movies and everyone wondering what they’d been doing.
The Everly Brothers always looked right – immaculately groomed with magnificent, Brylcreemed quiffs – and they took their friend Buddy Holly shopping for clothes to strengthen his image. Phil was a pallbearer at Holly’s funeral after his death in a plane crash in 1959.
Don and Phil became famous for their black acoustic J-200 Gibson guitars. Being brothers helped their harmonies and they took great pride in getting everything right. Typically Don took the lead and Phil sang harmony; as time progressed and Don’s phrasing became less predictable, Phil watched carefully to ensure they were spot-on. It was a beautiful sound in the raucous world of rock’n’roll, their defining moment being Boudleaux Bryant’s plaintive “All I Have To Do Is Dream”, a No 1 in Britain and America and among the biggest-selling records of all time. The B-side, “Claudette”, had been given to them by Roy Orbison and could have been a hit in its own right, but their records frequently had two good sides.
The B-side of the jokey “Bird Dog”, was the dreamy “Devoted To You”, in which they continuously swapped lead and harmony vocals in a seamless performance. Don wrote several songs including “(Til) I Kissed You”, and Phil wrote “When Will I Be Loved” – later a million-seller for Linda Ronstadt – as well as Pat Boone’s “Gee But It’s Lonely” (1958). Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (1958) was an acoustic album paying tribute to the mournful country songs of their youth. In 2014 the album was re-recorded by Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones as Foreverly.
Phil Everly married the Bleyers’ daughter, Jackie, but this wasn’t enough to keep them at Cadence. They received such a large offer from Warner Brothers that Cadence couldn’t compete. They hoped it would lead to appearances in Warner films, preferably westerns, but nothing happened. Their first record for Warner was another transatlantic No 1, “Cathy’s Clown”, written, it was said, by Don Everly, but Phil later took legal action to establish his rights to half of the royalties. They followed it with the melancholic “So Sad” and the classic double-sider, “Walk Right Back’” (written by their guitarist Sonny Curtis) and the “death disc”, “Ebony Eyes”.
In 1961 they recorded a barnstorming version of Bing Crosby’s “Temptation” which topped the UK charts. It displeased their manager Wesley Rose, who favoured Acuff-Rose songs for their singles. They fell out with him and as a result could no longer record the Bryants’ songs. They turned to the Brill Building and sang the exquisite “Crying In The Rain”, written by Carole King and Howard Greenfield. Their last US Top 10 hit was with “That’s Old-Fashioned” in 1962.
Their military services in the Marines had a negative effect as they came into contact with amphetamines. Don tried to commit suicide on the eve of a UK tour in 1962. Phil continued on his own and was well received. In 1963 they returned to the UK for arguably the strongest touring package ever – the Everlys, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and the Rolling Stones. Their harmonies influenced the British beat groups, notably the Beatles, whose “Please Please Me” owes something to “Cathy’s Clown”. The Hollies wrote an album for the Everly Brothers, Two Yanks In England (1966), and Graham Nash said singing on stage with them was the high point of his life. Bob Dylan (who recorded “Let It Be Me” and “Take A Message To Mary”), Simon and Garfunkel (“Bye Bye Love”), the Beach Boys and the Byrds regarded the Everlys as a paradigm.
In 1965 they had a UK No 2 with “The Price Of Love”, their own song about the perils of addiction. They recorded the ferocious “Man With Money”, which was covered by the Who and is a proto-punk classic. By then, they had become famous for their disharmony although their British publicist, Tony Barrow, recalls that “they could set aside their personal differences at the drop of a hat and they always presented a positive image of themselves to the public.”
In 1968 they released Roots, a personal album which looked back on their childhood, but a double album, The Everly Brothers Show (1970), revealed their tensions as Don, following his parents’ radio show, called him “baby boy Phil” and said he played with his plastic duck in the bath. In 1973 at the John Wayne Theatre in Buena Park, California, Don showed up drunk; Phil threw his guitar down and stormed off. Don said, “The Everly Brothers finished 10 years ago” and played the week without him.
Both had active solo careers. Phil played on albums by Roy Wood, JD Souther and Warren Zevon, whom he had discovered. He sang in the Clint Eastwood films Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and Any Which Way You Can (1980). He recorded the original version of “The Air That I Breathe” and the outstanding “Snowflake Bombardier” on Star Spangled Springer (1973). He made Phil Everly (1983) with the British producer Stuart Colman, which included the UK Top 10 single with Cliff Richard, “She Means Nothing To Me” .
They knew the big money lay in being Brothers again. In 1983 they reformed, agreeing on the Royal Albert Hall for their reunion and forming a superb band led by the guitarist Albert Lee. Several years of touring and three new albums followed; Paul McCartney wrote “On The Wings Of A Nightingale” and Andrew Lloyd-Webber “Cold”, which was played in the musical Whistle Down The Wind. Around 2000 they finished touring, although they never announced a split. Phil commented, “I think we’ve done enough, but you never know.”
In 2003 they toured with Simon and Garfunkel, Paul Simon calling the tour “a collective history of squabbling”. Since then Phil had been working on new songs, often with his son Jason. He and Jason sang “Rave On” for a tribute album with Buddy Holly’s Crickets while Phil sang with Vince Gill on “Sweet Little Corrina”. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant revived their “Gone Gone Gone” and last year Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie “Prince” Billy recorded lesser-known Everly gems for What The Brothers Sang.
Phillip Everly, singer and songwriter: born Chicago 19 January 1939; married three times (two sons); died Burbank, California 3 January 2014.