By Gillian G. Gaar
In the spring of 1957, the irresistible harmonizing of the Everly Brothers broke through in a big way, when “Bye Bye Love” soared to #2 on the pop charts, topped the country charts, and even managed to reach #5 on the R&B charts. It was the first of 15 Top 10 hits Don and Phil Everly would enjoy over the next five years, including the #1 singles “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” “Bird Dog,” and “Cathy’s Clown.” They still hold the record for the most Top 100 singles by a duo (35). In 1986, they deservedly became among the first inductees into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
While much has been said about the influence of rhythm & blues in rock ‘n’ roll, country & western is an equally important element in the equation. Don and Phil Everly, who came from country music, took that influence and melded it with pop and a bit of rock ‘n’ roll swagger, while adding the kind of harmonies for which the word “mellifluous” was created. It was a sound quickly picked up by groups that followed, from the Beach Boys and the Beatles to the Bee Gees and Simon & Garfunkel.
Isaac Donald Everly and Phillip Everly, born in 1937 and 1939, respectively, were raised in a musical family and began singing as children. Their father, Ike, worked in radio, and, with his wife Margaret and two sons, headed up The Everly Family Show. The Family Show performed at venues around the Midwest and South as well as on the radio, and by the time the brothers were teens they were showbiz veterans.
As the brothers grew older, they decided to split off from the family and form a duo. They relocated to Nashville, where a friend of their father’s, guitarist Chet Atkins, helped them secure a deal with Columbia, also producing their sole session for the label in November 1955. Four songs were recorded, with “Keep A’ Lovin’ Me” b/w “The Sun Keeps Shining” chosen for release. But the single failed to chart, and the brothers were dropped.
In 1956, they secured a songwriting deal with music publishers Acuff-Rose, after meeting Wesley Rose, Don having a minor hit when Kitty Wells recorded his song “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” Rose also introduced them to Archie Bleyer, who was then looking for acts for his new label, Cadence Records. The Everlys were promptly signed.
Though the brothers were eager to promote their own work, the key song at their first Cadence session in early 1957 (with Atkins again producing) was by the husband and wife team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. The couple had tried to place “Bye Bye Love” with other artists, but only the Everlys grasped what could be done with it, matching the song’s country feel with a Bo Diddley-esque beat that made it jump and swing. More hits followed in the wake of “Bye Bye Love” in addition to their #1’s, the next few years saw the release of such classics as “(‘Til) I Kissed You,” “Let It Be Me,” and “When Will I Be Loved.” The parallel third harmonies of the duo (with each line being an equally strong melody line, as opposed to a melody line with a harmony line that highlights or complements the melody) became their trademark sound.
After a royalty dispute, the Everlys signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1960, and enjoyed their biggest hit with “Cathy's Clown” (written by Don), which sold eight million copies. It was the high water mark of their career, and their last #1. Though there were further hits like “Walk Right Back” and “Crying In The Rain,” there were also setbacks, when a dispute with their publisher denied them access to Acuff-Rose songs. A six month stint in the Marines also curtailed their career momentum. Their last Top 10 hit was “That's Old Fashioned” in 1962; their last Top 40 hit came in 1967 with “Bowling Green.”
The duo also grappled with personal difficulties culminating in a dramatic break up when Phil smashed his guitar and stalked off stage during a 1973 performance. The brothers eventually reconciled, with a reunion concert held at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1983. They also briefly resumed recording (their last album being 1989’s “Some Hearts”) and occasionally work with other performers. And they continue to reap awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. All fitting honors for what “The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock” called “the most important vocal duo in rock.”