When Don Everly died in August 2020 I put together a set of videos with previous reflections on the music of the Everly Brothers. This is the season of their birthdays — Don was born on February 1, 1937, and Phil on January 19, 1939. I thought I would use the occasion to revise it slightly and replay it one more time in the hope that it might capture the interest of readers who may have missed it before.
In Cosmic American Music, the Everly Brothers have a constellation all to themselves. They brought the close harmony singing of traditional country music into mainstream American popular music. The beauty of their music is uplifting.
More than a few great musicians learned harmony singing by listening to their records. In his multimedia “memory show,” Peter Asher recalls how he and Gordon Waller taught themselves harmony singing by imitating the Everly Brothers. Paul McCartney acknowledged his debt to the Everlys in “Let ‘Em In” and wrote “On the Wings of a Nightingale” for their first post-reunion recording in 1984.
The brothers started performing professionally as kids but entered the scene on the Cadence label with a succession of memorable pop songs written for them by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant at the end of the 1950s. “Wake Up Little Susie” was a number 1 hit in 1957.
“All I Have To Do Is Dream,” written by Boudleaux Bryant without the missus, was a number 1 hit for them the following year.
In 1958 the Everlys also released the lesser-known Songs Our Daddy Taught Us — not a hit in sight, but a key document to understand where they came from. It was only their second album. Below is the traditional “Barbara Allen.”
“Kentucky” is also from Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.
“Let It Be Me” was a hit for the Everly Brothers in 1959. This one wasn’t written by the Bryants. It was adapted from a French pop song. The Everly Brothers put their stamp on it in a big way.
The Everly Brothers moved from Cadence to Warner Bros. in 1960. Some of their most brilliant work followed, including their 1960 Warner Bros. hit “Cathy’s Clown.” Don wrote “Cathy’s Clown” himself.
“Love Hurts” was also written by Boudleaux Bryant without the missus. The Everly Brothers’ version was never released as a single, though it has had a big impact over the years.
“Walk Right Back” was written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets. The Everly Brothers worked out the harmony and recorded it before Curtis wrote the second verse.
By 1967 the Everly Brothers had mostly lost their audience. They were struggling to be heard. Their career moved inversely with the British Invasion. I think their recording of “Sea of Heartbreak” on The Hit Sound of the Everly Brothers (1967) is nevertheless a perfect track to give us a clue about what we were missing.
Even as their audience in the United States dwindled in the wake of the British Invasion, they sought to deepen and update their work on albums such as The Everly Brothers Sing (1967) and Roots (1968). (The links are to Richie Unterberger’s perceptive liner notes on the reissues.) Roots in particular is another lesser-known album that is key to understanding the Everlys.
“Bowling Green” is from The Everly Brothers Sing and was their last top-10 hit.
This version of “I Wonder If I Care As Much” is from Roots. Don had written it and the brothers had originally recorded it in 1958’s The Everly Brothers. Ten years later they had lived it.
Although it has been credited to Venetia Stevenson and Terry Slater, I think Don Everly wrote: “I’m On My Way Home Again.” With Clarence White on lead guitar, it was released as a single by Warner Bros. in 1969 and is included in the two-CD collection Walk Right Back: The Everly Brothers On Warner Bros. I first heard it on the fantastic Warner Bros. loss leader The Big Ball in 1970. By the way, Don Everly was married to Venetia Stevenson from 1962-1970. I’m pretty sure she didn’t write the song.
“Stories We Could Tell” was written by John Sebastian and produced by Paul Rothchild for the album of that title in 1972.
Pass the Chicken & Listen was produced by Chet Atkins and released by Warner Bros. shortly before the brothers’ bitter split. Kris Kristofferson had written and recently released “Somebody Nobody Knows.” Although the song verges on or crosses the line over into bathos, it still sounds timely to me.
Their American fans had mostly moved on, but their British fans never really left them. After performing together with their faces a few inches apart from each other for 20 years, the brothers famously broke up in public onstage at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, in 1973. When they reunited ten years later, they repaid their debt to their British fans by debuting the reunion in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
The video above captures Don and Phil in a beautiful performance of “Take a Message To Mary/Maybe Tomorrow” at the Christmas 1983 BBC concert following their reunion concert that fall. It’s a medley that harked back to their Cadence recordings of the 1950s. “Take a Message to Mary” was written by the Bryants, and “Maybe Tomorrow” by Don Everly. Ten years later, the Everly Brothers sounded better than ever.
We saw the Everly Brothers at the University of Minnesota when their reunion tour brought them through Minneapolis in June 1984 and again in St. Paul in the fall of 2003 when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel — two of their most diligent students — incorporated them into their version of a reunion tour. Seeing them all together prompted me to meditate on the emotional attraction of the brothers’ close harmony singing.
Simon and Garfunkel explicitly acknowledged the Everly Brothers as their heroes; they began singing together as teenagers trying to imitate the harmonies of the Everlys. On the 2003 tour Simon, Garfunkel, and the brothers all joined in the song that might be deemed the proximate cause of the festivities, “Bye Bye Love.”
It was an emotional occasion. The emotion triggered by the show could be written off as self-indulgent nostalgia. However, I wonder if it didn’t touch a deeper and more authentic feeling represented by the presence of the Everly Brothers.
The Everly Brothers brought the close harmony singing of the recorded country tradition into popular music. That style of singing originates in the music of the Carter Family and runs preeminently from the Carter Family through the succeeding “Brothers” acts that deepened and perfected it — the Monroe Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Stanley Brothers.
As Richie Unterberger writes in his outstanding essay on country duos, “The Everlys could…be seen as the link in the chain that finally brought the magic of country harmony singing to a wide international pop audience. In the process, they weren’t playing country music anymore, although you could hardly say they sold out, given that they made some of the finest rock and pop records of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Their influence was immense on the Beatles, the Hollies, Simon & Garfunkel, and many other rock and pop acts of the last several decades that built their sound around close harmonies.”
The demands of the form place a premium on the conformity of timing, pronunciation, intonation, and pitch that contribute to the difficulty of the style and the tradition of blood relationships among its practitioners. The inherent stress of show business combined with the addition of the family element to the equation must make the form extraordinarily intense. The Everly Brothers’ 1973 on-stage breakup was followed by a ten-year estrangement.
When the Everlys reunited, we understood at some level how their show replayed the family romance of love and death that holds us all. As with our family reunions, we seized the moment to cherish the harmony for its beauty and evanescence. Simon says it so nakedly in “Homeward Bound” — “Like emptiness in harmony I need someone to comfort me.”