The recent death of Phil Everly reminds us of the artistic legacy the Everly Brothers left behind. Don and Phil were born in 1937 and 1939 respectively, to a musical family with working-class roots. Their father, Ike, was a coalminer in Kentucky who dreamed of providing for his family through guitar and song. In 1939 he and his wife, Margaret, moved the family to Chicago, where Ike hoped to score big in the music business. But work was scarce and the environment harsh, so the Everlys relocated again, this time to Iowa.
Ike landed a job at the local radio station, singing country tunes and entertaining his audiences with wry humor. His wife and sons often joined in, with the highlight being a Christmas special, when Don and Phil stole the show, including a performance by seven-year-old Phil singing “Silent Night.”
The family soon earned a name for themselves and began touring the region. By the early 1950s, however, with the record industry booming and demand for live entertainment declining, work for the Everlys began to dry up. Ike took a job in construction and Margaret became a beautician. But their sons, determined to keep the family dream alive, set out to Nashville with their guitars and a few original songs, hoping to score a record deal.
Don sang the lead and Phil sang the harmony. They spent days on end in the alleyway of the Grand Ole Opry, waiting for someoneanyoneto offer them an audition. Nothing came of it. Don and Phil may have given up right then, but the acclaimed country singer Chet Atkins was able to get them a modest record deal, leading to another, which is when their legend began.
Cadence Records signed the Everlys, but didn’t realize what they had until they paired them with Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, a talented husband and wife songwriting team. One of their songs, “Bye, Bye Love,” had been rejected by thirty artists, but the Everlys saw potential in it, reworking the song until they found just the right chords. Listening to the finished product, the Bryants knew they had something special: a southern duo who could combine country flavor with the new sound of rock. Felice Bryant recalled the moment well:
Boudleaux loved the sound that the Everly’s got. It was such a tight, clean, pure harmony. And it had an innocence about it. It was so fresh. It was just like slicing a spring tomato, you know? It was beautiful.
Beautiful, and wildly successful. “Bye Bye Love” became an instant sensation, selling over a million copies. It was followed by a string of other smash hits, including “Wake up Little Susie,” “Bird Dog,” “Problems,” and “All I Have to Do is Dream,” all penned by the Bryants. The brothers also proved they could write songs themselves, co-writing “Cathy’s Clown,” an intricately structured ballad about romance and rejection which sold eight million copies.
It wasn’t just the excellence of these songs that made the Everlys great; it was their delivery. Perhaps because they were siblings and had similar timbre and inflection, they sang with an astonishing fluidity and harmony. From the late 1950s until the early 1960s, Don and Phil were in such demand, that even while serving in the marines, they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Showin full uniformsinging “Crying in the Rain,” another hit.
At that point, the Everlys signed a lucrative new deal with Warner Bros. Records, and began touring the world to packed audiences. After working so hard, they achieved everything they had desired, but fame and fortune eventually consumed them. They experienced difficulties in their personal lives and no longer found their records consistently topping the charts. The pressures of the industry and their off-stage feuds began to weigh heavily upon them, until everything spilled over one summer day in California.
In 1973, the Everlys gave a performance at Knott’s Berry Farm, outside Los Angeles. Don and others members of the band had partied much too hard the night before. By the third song, Don’s usually flawless voice gave out. A frustrated and furious Phil raised his guitar high in the air, and smashed it on the ground, before exiting the stage. A stunned Don was left to finish the concert, excruciatingly, by himself. When a spectator cried out, “Where’s Phil?” Don was heard to say “the Everly Brothers died ten years ago.”
The two barely spoke for the next decade. They went on to have solo careers, but everywhere they travelled, fans kept asking, begging, for a reunion. The outpouring of requests finally had an effect. In 1983, Don phoned Phil, who had been thinking about doing the same from his end, and it was decided they would sing again.
A concert was set for Royal Albert Hall in London, the scene of some of their greatest performances, and where their father, Ike, had once joined them and brought down the House. The only time the Brothers had spoken during their estrangement had been at Ike’s funeral, in 1975. The reunion concert would be performed in his honor.
The result, as fans and critics attested, was magic. Though older and a little untested, their dual voices were clear and strong, and their distinctive sound and classic songs as good as ever. A new record deal was signed and Paul McCartney, a long-time admirer, wrote the song “On the Wings of a Nightingale,” which the Everly’s sang beautifully, generating a new hit for them at middle age.
Another song, “Born Yesterday,” about the importance of overcoming a family crisis, followed and quickly climbed the charts. In 1986, the Everlys were part of the first class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1994 the disc boxed set Heartaches and Harmonies was released covering forty years of their work. Bill Inglot, the musical engineer who produced the set, expressed his admiration for the Everlys in an interview with me: “What they gave us is unique. It was a gift. It can’t be learned, and it is timeless.”
In his later years, Phil suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary illness, the result of many years of smoking (which never, amazingly, affected his voice). But even as he did, he left one last present for his fans, a heartfelt rendition of “Silent Night”just as he sang it as a seven year old over sixty years before, on the faint town radio in Shenandoah, Iowa.
When he died on January 3rd, there were conflicting reports about the state of his relationship with Don, with some suggesting the two may have drifted apart yet again. After a time of mourning, Don released a statement, setting the record straight:
I loved my brother very much. I always thought I’d be the one to go first. I was listening to one of my favorite songs that Phil wrote and had an extreme emotional moment just before I got the news of his passing. I took that as a special spiritual message from Phil saying goodbye. Our love was and will always be deeper than any earthly differences we might have had.
It was a simple and beautiful statementjust like their musicand one that summed up their relationship, fittingly, on the perfect note.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.