Once upon a time, induction into Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame meant something. When choosing the first inductees into the Hall, the administrators had to decide which artists constituted the foundation. It speaks to the legacy of Don and Phil Everly that they were among those deemed to have played a part in laying the groundwork of rock & roll. While induction into the Hall may carry the same intangible and debatable weight as a Grammy win, I think we can agree it is significant that the Everly Brothers were included in this group of pioneers.
Ike Everly was a coal miner. His nephew – the Everly Brothers’ cousin – was actor James Best (Roscoe P. Coltrane). When Ike was 26, he married 15 year-old Margaret Embry and their young family – Don was born in 1937, Phil in ’39 – eventually settled in Iowa. Ike and Margaret were both singers and had a radio show on which the infant Everly brothers would also appear. The family then made the move to be closer to the heart of country music and they relocated to Knoxville and later Nashville. Once Phil finished high school, the Everly Brothers began to sing professionally.
The boys caught the attention of the legendary Chet Atkins who introduced them to Wesley Rose, an influential record industry figure who agreed to take the boys on providing they would sign up with Rose’s music publishing company, Acuff-Rose, as songwriters. The boys agreed and they were taken to Cadence Records where Archie Bleyer – who had recently shepherded the early recordings of Andy Williams – was put in charge of the duo. We’ve seen in recent entries here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure that sometimes an artist can catch fire with their very first recording (see Ricky Nelson, Sam Cooke) and the Everly Brothers are no different. “Bye Bye Love” – with its distinctive guitar intro played by Don – was issued on Cadence in March of 1957 and quickly became a hit. It reached #2 on the pop charts and it was the #1 country record in the land in the spring of ’57. “Bye Bye Love” would remain one of the boys’ biggest hits and one of their most cherished recordings. It was the first song that Sir Paul McCartney ever performed live and it has been covered many times, making it a standard. Today it remains a classic of the golden era but the Everly Brothers were just getting started.
Their debut hit was written by the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, formidable songwriters who would go on to pen many hits for the Everly Brothers and others. Working with the Bryants, the Everlys would begin a run on the charts that is equal to almost any other performer from this era. Their distinctive close harmony vocals and their ringing acoustic guitar sound was an ear-pleasing blend of country & western and pop that was sometimes rockabilly and sometimes sweet and tender ballad singing. The Bryants provided the Everlys with their next single and another smash. “Wake Up, Little Susie” was issued in the spring of ’57 and rocketed to the top of the charts, becoming the first of the boys’ three Pop chart-toppers. In addition to their lovely voices, these first two hits bear distinctive guitar riffs provided by Don. On “Bye Bye Love”, the chopping opening riff was an afterthought, tacked on after the song had been recorded. The low rumbling beginning of “Wake Up” actually provided Don with an award years later. In 2019, the Musicians Hall of Fame gave Don the very first “Iconic Riff” award for his work on this song. Quite something when you consider that mediocre guitarist Chuck Berry is legendary for his distinctive guitar riffs.
The Everly Brothers continued in this successful vein giving life to the wonderful compositions of the Bryants, writers of the brothers’ first five hits. “All I Have to Do is Dream” started 1958 off in fine form. Recorded live in just two takes, the song remains the only track ever to be #1 on all of Billboard’s singles charts simultaneously. It topped the Pop, Country and R&B charts in addition to reaching the top in Canada and the UK. And consider this; these first three hits for the Everly Brothers all appear on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time. Chet Atkins plays guitar on “All I Have to Do is Dream” and the B side was “Claudette”, the first songwriting success for Roy Orbison. The fun tune “Bird Dog” was also issued in ’58 reaching #2 Pop, #1 country and it was backed with the gentle “Devoted to You” that, while it was a B side, reached the Top Ten. “Problems” rounded things out for 1958 by hitting #2 Pop. Eight months later, in the summer of ’59, “‘Til I Kissed You” was a Top Ten Pop and Country song that was the first hit that Don Everly wrote for the boys.
The brothers toured with Buddy Holly in 1959 and Holly was inspired by the Everlys’ sharp way of dressing. When Holly died, Don and Phil were devastated. Phil sat with the Holly family at the funeral but Don could not attend; “I couldn’t go anywhere. I just took to my bed”. The new decade saw the Everlys continuing their hit-making ways. They moved from Cadence to Warner Bros. Records and hit immediately with their own composition, “Cathy’s Clown”. Amazingly, this tune was recorded live in one take and it eventually rose to #1 on the Pop and R&B charts Stateside and it was also a #1 song in the UK. They followed this up with consecutive Top Ten songs “When Will I Be Loved” and “So Sad (to Watch Good Love Go Bad)”; the former had been written by Phil and recorded when the duo was still with Cadence while the latter was penned by Don and was eventually covered by several artists. 1961 and ’62 saw the boys hit the Top 40 six more times and the highlights include the double-sided hit “Walk Right Back” (#7, #1 UK) backed with the devastating “Ebony Eyes” (#8). A “death rock” song that tells the heartbreaking story of a young man who loses his fiancée in a plane crash, “Ebony Eyes” was a #1 song in the UK despite initially being banned by the BBC for its depressing subject matter. Throw in 1962’s Top Ten songs “Crying in the Rain” and “That’s Old Fashioned (That’s the Way Love Should Be)” and the Everly Brothers can boast an impressive chart run.
The Everlys ran afoul of the dastardly business side of the record industry when they recorded the standard “Temptation” in 1961. Wesley Rose, who was still shepherding the boys’ career, was unhappy that the Everlys were recording a song from which Rose would receive no royalties. As a result, the Everly Brothers were banned from using songwriters from the Acuff-Rose publishing stable, owned by Rose. This included the Bryants and, actually, the Everlys themselves. This combined with Don and Phil entering the United States Marine Corps Reserve and, in 1964, the onslaught of British Rock, spelled the end of the Everly Brothers’ constant presence on the charts.
Making matters worse was the fact that, by the mid-1960’s, both brothers were battling amphetamine addiction and each other; in later years Don would say that he and his brother would often fight due to their differing ideas about politics and life. Despite all this, the boys would hit the Top 40 one last time in 1967 with the song “Bowling Green”. During what was billed as their final performance on July 14, 1973 at Knott’s Berry Farm in California, Phil became enraged, smashed his guitar and walked off stage. The two would go their separate ways, each releasing sporadic and unsuccessful solo work, for ten years.
By 1984, the Everly Brothers’ legacy was already intact as many artists were vocal about the influence of the boys’ close harmony singing and R&B-meets-country sound. The duo counted the Beatles among their fans and Paul McCartney wrote “On the Wings of a Nightingale” for the Everlys and it became their last chart entry peaking at #50 Pop and #9 Adult Contemporary. Sadly, Phil Everly passed away from lung disease on the third day of 2014 at age 74. Don was interviewed shortly afterwards and admitted that life had been tough for the two owing to their vast personal differences. However, Don added, they were totally in sync with each other when they sang and the music had kept them together.
By the numbers, Don and Phil Everly certainly rank with the best artists of the golden era that existed between 1954 and 1963. Between “Bye Bye Love” in 1957 and “Ebony Eyes” in 1961, the Everly Brothers enjoyed three Number One songs and placed a total of 15 in the Top Ten. Their 25 Top 40 singles place them behind only Hall and Oates as the most successful duo in this respect and no duo has charted more total singles than the Everlys. They appeared on the charts with 38 singles between ’54 and ’63 and these excellent numbers include the charting of 16 B sides. Certainly, they are the original hit-making twosome and paved the way for acts like Simon & Garfunkel. Their close harmony singing was copied by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Bee Gees, the Hollies and others. The unique vocal blend and excellent songcraft of the Everly Brothers make them true pioneers and legends of very rare stock in the annals of rock & roll.
10 from the Everlys
- Bye Bye Love
- Wake Up, Little Susie
- All I Have to Do is Dream
- Bird Dog
- ‘Til I Kissed You
- Cathy’s Clown
- When Will I Be Loved
- Walk Right Back
- Ebony Eyes