In 1957, the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant wrote a simple, catchy little tune called “Bye Bye Love” that they thought had “hit” written all over it. Curiously, although they pitched the song to several dozen country and pop singers, they were unable to find any takers.
Then they were introduced to a new singing duo who were hoping for their first big break — The Everly Brothers. Don and his younger brother Phil, who had been harmonizing together since they were in grade school, had mastered an uncanny vocal blend that sounded like it was coming from one person instead of two. They jumped at the opportunity to record the Bryants’ new song, and within a few weeks, “Bye Bye Love” was the #2 song in the nation, and suddenly everybody was talking about The Everly Brothers.
“Coming out of Don’s and Phil’s mouths, our song was pure honey,” said Felice Bryant. “Their voices seemed to mix like smooth custard. I think they could sing the telephone book to me. Their blend was unbelievable.”
High-energy rock and roll was on the rise in 1957, with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis vying for supremacy of the charts, but in the midst of all that, The Everly Brothers offered something else: a startling fusion of Appalachian-based close harmonies with rock and roll rhythms and a gentle sadness in many of the lyrics.
Don Everly died last weekend at age 84. Since brother Phil died in 2014 at age 74, that brings the story of the Everly Brothers to a close.
I can’t say I’m an avid fan of the Everlys’ catalog. Much of the material they chose to record (“Let It Be Me,” “Take a Message to Mary,” “Ebony Eyes”) was just a tad too corny for my tastes. Like Buddy Holly’s repertoire, The Everly Brothers leaned too much toward country music to suit a blues rock fan like me. But even on songs I didn’t much care for, the amazing harmonies couldn’t be denied. More important, I fully recognize and respect the influence they had on many of the biggest artists of the ’60s and ’70s, especially The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and The Eagles, who all made Everly-like tight harmonies an integral component of their musical output.
Said Paul McCartney recently about his songwriting partnership with John Lennon, “When John and I first started to write songs together, I was Phil and he was Don. John would sing the melody and I’d come in above him with a harmony. We learned that mostly from listening to, and mimicking, the Everly Brothers.” You can hear it, with a third harmony part sometimes added by George Harrison, on Beatles tracks like “This Boy,” “If I Fell” and “Yes It Is.”
The Everlys’ influence on Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel was even greater. Their first fleeting flirt with fame — a 1957 single called “Hey Schoolgirl” that peaked at #49 when they were barely 16 years old and went by Tom and Jerry — brazenly copied the tight harmonies of The Everly Brothers. Seven years later, Simon and Garfunkel’s debut LP included folk standards and Simon originals on which they refined that same close-harmony style, especially on their first hit singles, “The Sound of Silence,” “Homeward Bound” and “I Am a Rock.”
Simon and Garfunkel ended up paying tribute to the Everlys by including a live performance of “Bye Bye Love” on the massively popular 1970 LP, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” More than 30 years later, for their “Old Friends: Live on Stage” album and concert DVD in 2004, Simon and Garfunkel took the extraordinary step of inviting Don and Phil to share the stage with them, letting them do two numbers and then joining them for “Bye Bye Love,” thereby reviving and exposing The Everly Brothers’ music to a new, younger audience. “Both of their voices were so pristine and soulful,” said Simon.
Don Everly was born in Kentucky, his brother in Chicago, and they were raised in the small town of Shenandoah, Iowa. The boys’ father, Ike Everly, was a modest guitar player and singer who had a radio show there in the mid-1940s, and he eventually got the whole family involved, with the boys singing as “Little Donnie and Baby Boy Phil,” then only 8 and 6. The boys sang together every chance they could, honing their rare ability to sense what the other was doing regarding timing and volume. As Phil put it many years later, “Don did the melody, and in concert, I would watch him like a hawk to make sure my harmony came in precisely and at the right level. It may have looked seamless, but we had to work at it.”
In 1953, they moved to Knoxville and later to Nashville, where they met the great Chet Atkins, the influential guitarist whose connections with songwriters and recording studios proved invaluable to the up and coming Everlys. The Bryants in particular were a great match for the brothers, and their songs ended up as the biggest hits in their career. The whimsical rocker “Wake Up Little Susie,” with its quintessential story of teenage angst, was their first #1, followed by their third Bryants-penned hit, “All I Have to Do is Dream,” which still holds the record as the only song in pop history to simultaneously hold the #1 position on the pop, country and R&B charts.
The hits continued pretty much non-stop from 1957 through 1962, including these tunes that all reached the Top Ten: the annoying novelty tune “Bird Dog”; the Don Everly originals, “Till I Kissed You,” “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” and “Cathy’s Clown,” another #1; Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved,” also a big hit for Linda Ronstadt two decades later; a Carole King song, “Crying in the Rain”; and “Walk Right Back” and the presciently titled “That’s Old Fashioned” (That’s the Way Love Should Be).” Their last song to reach the Top 30 came in 1964 with “Gone, Gone Gone,” which the Everlys wrote and later became a Grammy winner for Robert Plant and Alison Kraus in 2007.
Like Presley before them, they served in the military, which hurt their career momentum (although they did appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in military uniforms during their stint). Both Everlys had problems with amphetamines, prescribed to combat exhaustion from touring, but Don’s addiction became severe as he fought depression and a suicide attempt, which curtailed a British tour in 1962.
Like many acts of rock and roll’s early period, The Everly Brothers’ success on the US charts began to wane with the arrival of The Beatles and the counterculture. The innocence of Don and Phil singing tortured love songs seemed outdated as protest songs, experimental recording techniques and psychedelia took hold. They remained more popular in England and Canada through the ’60s, which was a bitter pill for them as they found themselves relegated to the oldies circuits for US appearances. Indeed, Don’s dark, temperamental side came out overtly when he wrote “I’m Tired of Singing My Song in Las Vegas” in 1972 about their frustrations in that regard.
Their catalog is sprinkled with noteworthy cover versions of many rock classics like Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Creedence’s “Green River” and Mitch Ryder’s “See See Rider,” but no one seemed to notice. In late 1968, The Everly Brothers released the country rock LP “Roots,” on which they assembled the best Nashville studio musicians to record songs by Merle Haggard, Jimmie Rodgers, Glen Campbell and George Jones. Critics raved about it and hold it up today as a fine early example of the country rock genre that became so popular in the early ’70s.
They had a rather embarrassing public meltdown at a show in California in 1973, when Don appeared to be drunk, forgetting words and chords, causing Phil to throw down his guitar and walk off stage. The duo didn’t perform, record or even speak to each other for nearly a decade after that.
After a decade of inactivity, the brothers reunited to perform a comeback TV special in London before recording “EB 84” with singer-producer Dave Edmunds, which featured songs by pop rockers like Jeff Lynne, Nick Lowe and McCartney, who wrote “On the Wings of a Nightingale,” a vibrant throwback rocker, expressly for the Everlys project.
Their early stardom proved to be both a blessing and a curse for them. Don, in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, felt they had been victims of bad timing. “When Phil and I started out, most people hated rock & roll. The record companies didn’t like it at all. They felt it was an unnecessary evil. And the press, man, these interviewers were always older than us, and they let you know they didn’t like your music. Then along came the Sixties, and everyone suddenly got real young, and if you were over 30, they didn’t trust you.”
Still, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted its first class of pioneering stars in 1986, The Everly Brothers were right in there with Buddy Holly, Presley and the other early titans of rock and roll. Their stature and reputation remain intact.
Below is a Spotify playlist I compiled based on The Everly Brothers’ big and more modest chart hits, and a few recommended by music publications and fellow musicians.