With their boyish good looks, energetic and hummable tunes, and perfectly-matched voices, the Everly Brothers enraptured the American public and the world. While they were at it, they turned the concept of vocal harmony in pop music permanently on its head and spearheaded a new genre that blended elements of rock and roll, country, bluegrass, and folk.
Phil Everly, born in 1939, was two years younger than his brother Don. Their parents performed as a country-western act, just as their grandparents had. Once both boys were born (Don in Kentucky and Phil in Chicago), the family moved to Iowa. At the station KMA in Shenandoah, their dad, Ike Everly, worked as a staff artist, playing guitar with a unique thumb-picking technique that would influence Merle Travis and Mark Knopfler.
The whole Everly family took a regular radio gig in Tennessee in 1953; when that ended, Don and Phil made their way to Nashville. But even their dad’s friend Chet Atkins couldn’t land them a record deal. Their sound just wasn’t quite country enough. After a couple of years of getting doors slammed in their faces, the Everly Brothers signed with Cadence Records. Their first single was the monster hit “Bye Bye Love.” You can bet plenty of A&R men were suddenly brimming with regret.
That 1957 debut, The Everly Brothers, also included “Wake Up Little Susie” and “This Little Girl of Mine.” The music-buying public was hooked. But instead of immediately putting out another record of more of the same sugar-sweet pop, they switched gears and released an album of Kentucky folk songs and ballads called Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.
Among its traditional offerings is the slow, eerie murder ballad “Down in the Willow Garden.” The darling, All-American boys who’d sung about Little Susie delivered these grim lines:
I drew a saber through her/It was a bloody night
I threw her in the river/Which was a dreadful sight
But murder ballads aside, Cadence soon had them churning out chart-toppers again, “Bird Dog,” “Devoted to You,” and “Let It Be Me” among them.
Warner Brothers snatched them up in 1960 and quickly put out some of the Everly’s biggest sellers such as “Cathy’s Clown” and “Walk Right Back.” To Warner’s credit, they sank a lot of money into skillful arrangements and top-echelon session musicians to make these songs irresistible.
But the music industry, at a kind of crossroads as rock music was finding its footing, proved disappointingly fickle. Of the Everly’s 14 albums made during the 1960s, only the first two had any impact on the charts: It’s Everly Time and A Date with the Everly Brothers each peaked at the No. 9 spot.
They lost more momentum by enlisting in the Marines. Then a legal dispute made them lose access to the song library of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who had penned “Bye Bye Love,” “All I have to Do Is Dream,” and “Wake Up Little Susie.” The meteoric rise in popularity of the Beatles was a further blow for the already struggling duo.
Warner seemed determined to market the Everlys as straight-up country, in hopes it would keep them afloat. The ploy didn’t really work, although The Everly Brothers Sing Great Country Hits (1963) has some nice tracks. Three of these old-school country songs are by Don Gibson, including “Oh Lonesome Me,” which Gibson had recorded with Chet Atkins in 1957. The Everlys’ version is a hair faster and in a higher key.
Still, the duo would not leave behind their rock and roll roots, which was problematic in terms of trying to market them from both the country and the rock angle. Their interest in preserving a retro style in the middle of the British Invasion made them seem old-fashioned and square. In hindsight, though, these are good albums.
For example, Rock’n Soul (1965) includes the Lieber and Stoller favorite “Kansas City,” which had already enjoyed several high-profile recordings. One, in Little Richard’s medley with “Hey Hey Hey,” had made its way across the Atlantic to knock the socks off Paul McCartney. The Beatles, commercial arch-enemies (and huge fans) of the Everly Brothers, released their version in 1964. So, the song’s appearance on this album was surely no accident.
The relationship between the Everlys and the British Invasion was complicated. Although the two sides were in competition, there was profound mutual admiration. Hence the Everly album Two Yanks in England (1966), featuring an amazing, largely uncredited roster of up-to-the-minute British artists.
Using the pseudonym L. Ransford, Allan Clarke, Tony Hicks and Graham Nash wrote most of the songs on that album, and The Hollies were the backing band for several tracks. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones showed up, too, before they were famous. They all appreciated Don and Phil. As Bob Dylan once said of the Everly Brothers, “We owe these guys everything. They started it all.” The Hicks/Nash number “I’ve Been Wrong Before” is one of the songs written for the duo they so admired, effectively making them part of the British Invasion.
Although the 1968 album Roots didn’t sell very well at first, it’s now considered essential listening by historians of the country rock genre. Some argue that the Everlys invented country rock. The world just wasn’t quite ready.
The track list leans toward country, but the arrangements lean toward rock. Yet, mixed in with numbers by Jimmie Rogers, Glen Campbell, and Merle Haggard is a surprise: “Illinois” by Randy Newman, using piano instead of guitar and a train-like pattern on the snare.
The Everlys kept making music in the 1970s, switching to RCA Records. They also started working in the studio with guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who soon joined their touring band, along with Warren Zevon, who served as music director and keyboardist.
The duo seemed to want to move beyond their signature sound and repertoire, as can be heard in the 1973 album Pass the Chicken and Listen. While they continued honing their country rock sound, they also kept in touch with their bluegrass and mountain music foundation, as in this nostalgic version of John Prine’s “Paradise.”
But being co-workers onstage and real-life brothers offstage was becoming more than they could stand. Phil was having drug problems. They fought constantly. In 1973, having tried to make Los Angeles their base of operations, Don moved back to Nashville, leaving his brother behind.
Both continued their musical careers individually. After 11 years apart, the Everly Brothers got back together in 1983. They started with a TV special in London, for which they convinced an enthusiastic Paul McCartney to write a special song, “On the Wings of a Nightingale.” Then they hit the studio. McCartney’s song opened Side One of Mercury Records’ EB84, the last time the Everly Brothers made the Top 100.
The reunion didn’t last long; they made their final studio album in 1988. But getting back together was worth it for some of the music they created, marked by an appealing roughness that they’d never allowed themselves in the high-polished early decades. One highlight of EB84 is “Danger Danger,” by Scottish rocker Frankie Miller.
Both Everly Brothers are gone: Phil died in 2014 and Don in 2021. Their unique musical contribution lives on in obvious tributes like Simon and Garfunkel, in subtler manifestations like the harmonized choruses of Queen or Van Halen songs, and more recently in the proliferation of vocal-harmony pop groups like Pentatonix.
To think that it all started with those old Kentucky songs their daddy taught them.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/publicity photo, retouched by GDuwen.