RIP Don Everly: Life Wasn’t Always Heavenly, But the Music Was Always Angelic
If Chuck Berry’s guitar and Elvis Presley’s hips propelled rock ’n’ roll off the launching pad in the middle of the 1950s, that wild and dangerous new sound was powered no less by the sweet vocal harmonies of Don and Phil Everly.
They played lively guitars, but what was most striking about their records was the voices, evoking a timeless swirl of love, loss, heartbreak, adoration, kindness, cruelty, rejection and hope.
They sang stories that could be as stunning as a fatal airplane crash or as simple as getting home late from a date because a dull movie put you to sleep.
The common thread was those angelic voices. “When you talk about [pop] harmony in rock ’n’ roll,” Peter Asher of Peter & Gordon said last year, “you start with the Everly Brothers. It all flows from there.”
That doesn’t change with the death of Don Everly, who died of yet-undisclosed causes Saturday at his Nashville area home. He was 84.
Phil died in January 2014, two weeks shy of his 75th birthday, and while the Everlys had a tense relationship for decades, Don told interviewers in 2016 that he missed Phil every day.
Simply stated, the Everlys were early rock ’n’ roll royalty from the time “Bye Bye Love” reached №2 on the charts in the summer of 1957. They were close with the likes of Buddy Holly, and it’s almost impossible to overstate their influence on the rock ’n’ roll generation that turned their music into a multibillion-dollar industry in the 1960s.
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel were only some of the most successful among the acts who went to school on Everly Brothers records like “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Til I Kissed You,” “Cathy’s Clown,” “Walk Right Back,” “So Sad,” “Problems,” “Take a Message to Mary,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and “When Will I Be Loved?” Several written, it should be noted, by another A-list team: Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.
It was no accident, Asher said, that John Lennon and Paul McCartney modeled Beatles harmonies on the Everlys, or that the early ’60s featured a fistful of duet artists, from Americans like Paul & Paula to British invasion teams like Peter & Gordon or Chad & Jeremy.
While Don sang baritone and Phil sang tenor, their signature was harmonies so interwoven that Asher said it often was almost impossible to separate them
“There’s something basic and pure about the human voice,” said Asher. “It connects.”
In a June 1986 interview, Don Everly made that same point, while noting that the harmonies he and Phil turned into seminal rock ’n’ roll had roots back to the beginning of civilization, running parallel to the equally rich and influential black harmony quartet and choir tradition.
“We sing in the style of the Delmore Brothers and the Monroe Brothers,” said Don, referencing two popular country and bluegrass harmony groups of the 1930s and 1940s.
“Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell were big influences on us, too,” he said, alongside their musician father Ike. At one point they recorded an album of traditional country and folk ballads titled Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.
They were particularly drawn, Don said, to the harmonies in Western music. “Western is the part of country music that gets overlooked,” he said. “We listened to Merle Travis, Rex Allen, Spade Cooley. I think I have all the Sons of the Pioneers records. We did a rock version of [their hit] ‘Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds’ that I really liked.“
Not unlike many other artists over the years, the Everlys were not treated as kindly by the music business as their popularity might suggest. They argued over song selections, royalties, publishing rights and songwriting credits with music business executives and also with each other. After Phil’s death, Don sued his estate over the songwriting credits for “Cathy’s Clown.”
In 1986 Don still resented the music business for the brothers’ falloff in popularity after 1962, when they had their last top-10 hit.
“When we started, the charts decided what was a hit,” he said. “If the audience liked a record, you couldn’t kill it with a stick. But then it wasn’t that way any more, and it was disconcerting.”
The brothers kept recording through the 1960s, remaining modestly popular in the U.K. and Ireland while becoming virtually invisible in the U.S. Probably not coincidentally, they both developed drug dependencies in those years, and in 1973 it all imploded.
On July 14, 1973, in one of rock ’n’ roll’s most memorable breakups, Phil smashed his guitar on stage at Knott’s Berry Farm — not in a Jimi Hendrix or Pete Townshend way — and walked offstage, leaving Don to finish the show himself. Awkward.
After years of low-profile solo work, they got back together in 1984 with the album EB84, for which McCartney — who had meanwhile shouted the Everlys out in his 1976 hit “Let ’Em In” — wrote the song “Wings of a Nightingale.”
This sparked one of rock ’n’ roll’s most unlikely comebacks, as they followed EB84 with the even better album Born Yesterday, which includes Don’s title song and material from, among others, Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan.
“I think someday people will look back on this and our later 1960s work and say it’s as good as anything we ever did,” Don said in 1986. “We never followed trends. In the ’60s we couldn’t become Buffalo Springfield. We had to be who we were.
“The difference in our music today is that our voices are more mature. We were very young back then. Now I think we have more range, more depth, more feeling. We enjoy it more than ever. We’re recording songs the way we like.
“The criterion to us has always been what a song says. I believe people of our generation paid more attention to lyrics. I think we’ve created a group of characters that you can envision in your mind.”
He mentioned “Always Drive a Cadillac,” a song in which a young man tracks his high school girlfriend as she heads out into the world and seems to conquer it, but then maybe doesn’t.
Asked if this character could be Susie, who nodded off at the movies in 1957, Don thought for a moment and said yeah, it could be. They liked characters with ongoing stories.
“We didn’t have any idea how the audience in the ’80s would respond to us,” don said in 1986. “It was very rewarding” when they did.
He added he hoped the brothers would continue to perform “as long as there’s an audience,” and for years there was. They toured selectively on their own and at one point they toured with Simon and Garfunkel, a show where all four came on stage to sing “Bye Bye Love.”
The road wasn’t all smooth. Phil and Don still had conflicts, some of which Don attributed to Phil having a more conservative view of politics and the world. But they always, Don said, had the music in common.
While Don joked in 1986 about being in “the twilight” of a popular music career, he also acknowledged that honors like being tapped for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class reflected a level of reverence among rock ’n’ roll fans.
“Being the Everly Brothers gives you visibility,” he said. “But I have to say, it feels strange to be a ‘walking legend.’ It’s funny. It’s amusing.”
He laughed. “I’m so . . . respectable. I get a lot of ‘Mr. Everly.’ ”
Let’s assume he also gets forgiven for bringing Susie home late.