By Rush Evans
“I remember flying into New York on Pan Am, and just seeing the skyline. I’d never seen anything like it. I think I might have burst into tears, because I thought,‘That’s it; you’ve made it now, mate.’”
— The Hollies’ Terry Sylvester
Some 40 years later, almost to the day, Terry Sylvester, who replaced Graham Nash in The Hollies, will make a similarly emotional flight to New York City to be inducted, along with his bandmates, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Sylvester’s realization in March 1970 that he had made it came several years after The Hollies had already established a very real and memorable place in rock and roll.
There were other fantastic British Invasion bands that rocked through the gates of the West first opened by The Beatles, but none were so melodically and harmonically gifted as the lads from Manchester. With “Carrie-Anne,” “Stop Stop Stop,” “Pay You Back with Interest,” “Look Through Any Window” and “On a Carousel,” The Hollies had established themselves as a singles band, with infectious melodies to support the jangly sound that rang clear across the pond. Theirs was a power-pop sound before the term was coined, and their vocal harmonies evoked the same soaring magic produced by the Everly Brothers.
To this day, the Liverpool kid who lived a block from the McCartneys is more awestruck by his encounter with the Everlys than by his early brushes with The Beatles. When The Hollies were first gaining fame, Sylvester was a fan and friend of the group, as well as musical peer, being a member of The Escorts. One day, several of The Hollies, including lead singer Allan Clarke, harmony vocalist/guitarist Graham Nash and guitarist Tony Hicks, whisked away their Escort pal to a surprise London encounter with the American act for whom they were writing a number of songs.
“We went to the Savoy Hotel in London, knocked on the door, Don Everly opened the door and said, ‘Come in lads.’ Phil was there,” remembers Sylvester. “You have your idols, don’t you? The Everly Brothers were my idols. That two-part harmony was just outrageously beautiful. All The Hollies were Everly fans.”
You can hear it right there in the songs. What the Everlys brought to the new musical form in the 1950s, The Hollies advanced it in the ’60s in even more of a rock-and-roll context.
Clarke was a more muscular singer, and Nash’s voice on top took their sound into the stratosphere. The sound was exhilarating and unforgettable.
When Nash was ready to move on into a more serious musical setting, he would take that sense of harmony with him, and the story of rock and roll evolved even further with the innovations made by Crosby, Stills and Nash, the first super group, each member being a veteran of a different groundbreaking band (Crosby was a Byrd, Stills was in Buffalo Springfield).
A new decade was approaching, and the first British wave was long over, but The Hollies wanted to continue on. They felt certain there was still a place for their sound, and to fill Nash’s shoes, they looked no further than their old Escort friend, Terry Sylvester, who by now was a Swinging Blue Jean. As a kid, Sylvester walked past McCartney’s house to get to the bus stop. Now, he would be singing “Bus Stop” with one of the most Beatlesque-yet-original groups in the world.
It would seem that the band’s heyday was over without Nash and without the wave that had originally carried them; yet, their three greatest hits lay ahead. The first of those songs was gathering dust in a publisher’s office when The Hollies found it, and the title alone evoked imagery that was impossible to separate from the controversial war that had so confounded the world and devastated a generation.
The song was more contemplative, more touching, more profound than the pop chestnuts to date, and it was perhaps time for a stylistic change anyway.
“We did move in a different direction a little bit, because ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ was a ballad,” says Sylvester. “We’d never really done a big ballad, because we were more ‘Sorry, Suzanne,’ ‘Carrie-Anne,’ ‘Bus Stop,’ and ‘Look Through Any Window.’ It’s more the song than anything else that changed our direction. The song ‘He Ain’t Heavy’ opened a lot of doors for The Hollies that had previously been closed, because it had strings on it and Elton John playing the piano. We started getting invited to do really class TV shows in England, Germany and everywhere — and then eventually America. It was a direction that just happened because of ‘He Ain’t Heavy.’ And maybe the music was changing anyway. We had moved into the 1970s from the ’60s as well.”
The timelessness of the song goes beyond Vietnam, and yet, the tie remains powerful for so many. “People come up to me after shows nowadays and say, ‘They played “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” at my brother’s funeral as the casket came in,’” says Sylvester. “What a song. It sends shivers. I always sing it last, because you know what? You can’t follow it.”
As the decade ended, so did The Beatles, and rock-and-roll music had splintered into territories inconceivable before Sgt. Pepper. But one American band had stuck stubbornly to the Chuck Berry spirit of riff-based rock and roll. The Hollies happened to have recorded a song that sounded like it could have been made by Creedence Clearwater Revival. It didn’t sound too much like any Hollies song that had preceded it, as it featured just a single voice in a group known for its harmonies.
“We recorded ‘Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress’ as an album track,” says Sylvester. “Allan wrote it with Roger Cook. What happened was, it was put on the B-side of a song that we released in Germany. And late one night, a deejay just flipped over the side and played ‘Long Cool Woman.’ The phone started ringing. The deejay thankfully called the record company in Germany and said, ‘Hey, I think you got to flip it over, because everybody’s going wild!’”
The song’s lead singer and co-writer had just left the band, unaware (along with everyone else) that the song would shoot quickly to #1. Sylvester stepped in to sing the lead on tour and on television, but Clarke was back in the fold a few years later, when the sweeping “The Air That I Breathe” became one of the group’s grandest musical statements. In another serendipitous connection to the Everlys and The Beatles, that song had been recorded by Phil Everly in 1973, when Beatles producer George Martin’s secretary heard it and suggested that it would sound great in the hands of The Hollies.
A phone call and six months later, The Hollies’ version was in the Top Ten. It would be their last major hit, but not the end of the band.
The Hollies never died, and neither have their songs. The passage of time has only affirmed this, as a dozen Hollies classics remain cornerstones of classic hits radio.