The death of Phil Everly (at his home in Burbank CA yesterday, a couple of weeks short of his 75th birthday) is a large marker along rock'n'roll's lost highway. The Everly Brothers loomed as large in my generation's consciousness as Elvis or Buddy Holly. I suppose, all these decades later, we should be surprised that several of the other giants - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis - are still alive; but Phil Everly's death intensifies my sense of mortality's closeness this morning. I first wrote about the Everly Brothers in Melody Maker over 40 years ago.
Here's my entry on them in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. Of course its purpose here is to look at how stongly they influenced Dylan's own work, but it desribes their more general importance as well as I can:
Everly Brothers, the
The Everly Brothers defined the rock’n’roll duet and the sound of adolescent angst. Their unmistakeable harmonies drew on 700 years of Scottish Borders’ misery, transplanted via the Appalachians, to sing out late 1950s teenage confusion. Like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers blueprinted how things would be, and in later years were bitter at receiving less credit for this than rock’n’roll’s solo giants. It typified their knack of snatching sourness from the jaws of sweetness.
Don, born in Brownie, Kentucky in 1937, and Phil, born in Chicago in 1939, were duetting long before rock’n’roll, on parents Ike and Margaret’s radio show on WKMA in Shenandoah, Ohio. They were seasoned professionals by the time they poured out their magic vocals onto a run of hits that married hillbilly harmonies and Nashville nouse, their full-chorded acoustic guitars embracing Bo Diddley’s exotic rhythms to create the rock’n’roll end of country music’s rich, commercial sounds.
They could not complain at their initial success. After one session for RCA, yielding the rare 1956 single ‘Keep A Lovin’ Me’, they signed with New York label Cadence, later switching to the newly-formed Warner Brothers Records. From 1957 to 1965 they had twenty-eight hits in the British Top 30, and comparable American success, first topping the US charts in 1957 (with ‘Wake Up Little Susie’), and from then till some time in the earlyish ’60s they were constantly having hits, it seemed. ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ was another US no.1, also topping the UK charts. ‘Bye Bye Love’, ‘Bird Dog’ and ‘Problems’ were US no. 2s, and ‘(’Til) I Kissed You’ a UK no. 2. Other hits included ‘Let It Be Me’, ‘Take A Message To Mary’, ‘Like Strangers’, ‘Crying In The Rain’ and the UK no.1 ‘Walk Right Back’. One of the great pop death-records, ‘Ebony Eyes’, was theirs too.
Many of their hits were written by another duo, Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, but the Bryants’ claim that they schooled Don and Phil in their vocal parts was nonsense, and the brothers wrote plenty themselves. Both penned the phenomenally successful début single on Warner Brothers, ‘Cathy’s Clown’, which was another US no.1 and achieved an almost unprecedented nine weeks at no.1 in Britain in 1960. Phil wrote ‘When Will I Be Loved’; Don wrote ‘Since You Broke My Heart’, ‘(’Til) I Kissed You’ and ‘So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)’.
They were very commercial and they were very good. At a time when most people found a sound by accident, they developed one deliberately and intelligently, bridging what gap there was between pop and modern country music. And at a time when pop’s understanding of music was near-retarded, the Everlys were consistently alert and curious. They handled their own arrangements and they had taste.
They had the gravitas to cover other artists’ crucial songs, including black ones, without apology, from Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’, given a keening slow-motion vocal fall, to blues classics like the immortal ‘Trouble In Mind’ and the cheerily inconsequential ‘Step It Up And Go’ (which Dylan recorded for Good As I Been To You, 1992) and Mickey & Sylvia’s ‘Love Is Strange’. Don, taken down Chicago’s Maxwell Street as a young boy by his father, was ever after aware of gospel and blues. And in an era of pretty pop, the Everlys sought a tougher sound on records like ‘The Price Of Love’ and their extraordinary revival of the standard ‘Temptation’, which pre-figured Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’. But like Spector’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, the Everlys’ ‘Temptation’ was (by their standards) a flop in the USA, and ‘The Price Of Love’ a bigger one. Don never forgave the American public.
Then there were the Beatles, whose ‘new’ harmonies made the Everlys old-fashioned overnight. Made redundant before they were thirty, Don and Phil felt (wrongly) that the Beatles had stolen from them without acknowledgment. Sidelined further by Progressive Rock, Don & Phil tried first to sound like Simon & Garfunkel (indeed like anyone but themselves), then responded with more dignity with their influential 1968 album Roots, which, with the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, catalysed the creation of ‘country rock’ in 1969, the year they’re said to have turned down Dylan’s ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’.
Everyone had loved Don & Phil except Phil & Don. Under pressure, they couldn’t stand themselves or each other. The Everly Brothers split up in public acrimony, their last performance together on July 14th, 1973.
It emerged eventually that even at the very height of Dylan’s artistic genius and hipness, the tour of 1966, he could still (off-stage) bear in mind work of Everly Brothers from that most sneered-at period of pop, 1960-62: the semi-documentary film of his tour, Eat The Document - not screened until 1971 (and then but briefly) - catches him in May 1966 performing the Everlys’ 1960 hit ‘When Will I Be Loved?’ in his Glasgow hotel-room. He ‘went public’ on his affection for the Everlys by recording their ‘Let It Be Me’ and ‘Take A Message To Mary’ on his 1970 album Self Portrait (something very badly received by a hip public). The inclusion of Everly Brothers songs was more striking at the time than it is now, since in recent years, through rock 'n’ roll revivals galore, they have been acknowledged as crucial figures in the pre-Dylan era; but when Self Portrait came out, you weren’t supposed to still like or even remember that old stuff: you were supposed to be Progressive and despise the 3-minute single. But Dylan’s ‘Let It Be Me’ is a perfectionist’s re-drafting of the Everlys’ version, in effect; Dylan stays very faithful to their wistful and solid pop world. With ‘Take A Message To Mary’, Dylan does something more, somehow returning the song (in Bill Damon’s phrase) ‘back to the Code of the West’.
By then, Dylan had also written the Everlys a song, ‘The Fugitive’, which the Everlys never recorded. (It turns up in Dylan’s catalogue as ‘Wanted Man’, and has been recorded by Johnny Cash, who brings to it all the animation of a totem pole.) Later, after the Everlys had reluctantly re-formed, they did record the lovely Dylan song ‘Abandoned Love’, a Desire sessions outtake song - and they could have done this song justice, expansively and warmly; unfortunately, and uncharacteristically, a rigid rhythm and uncommitted vocals throw it away.
Harking back not to the Everly Brothers’ version but to the well-known later black cover by Jerry Butler and Betty Everett, Dylan re-recorded ‘Let It Be Me’, with Clydie King as vocal duettist, in 1981, and sang it in three 1981 concerts, this time implying that the ‘you’ the song addresses is Christ rather than woman. He has not revisited ‘Take A Message To Mary’. Yet, by coincidence or not, he does re-meet the Everlys on the long instrumental intro to his great ‘Not Dark Yet’ on 1997’s album Time Out Of Mind. Nineteen seconds in, presaged by a sketch of itself a few seconds earlier, a falling guitar-line arrives, laid across the top of the rest, that is straight out of the distinctive musical introduction to the revisit-version of that great early Everlys song ‘I Wonder If I Care As Much’ - the version we find on their influential Roots album of 1968.
For the Everlys themselves, meanwhile, it had been a further trauma to discover that separately, no-one cared about either of them. On September 23rd, 1983, with Don grown fat but retaining in spades the charisma he must have been born with, they staged an historic and moving Reunion Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. This they seem doomed to repeat forever. In the 1990s, at the age of 60, spurred to a fat-free diet, Don lost a lot of weight, just as Phil was belatedly gaining it: a coincidence typical of their sibling disharmony.
They still sing exquisitely, and a small segment of their shows offer songs learnt from father Ike, whom they worshipped, and mine-worker Mose Rager: authentic old-time country material. Don plays loving, intense guitar, though sparingly in latterday performances. Singing lead, he lives in the spontaneity of the moment, his phrasing inspired, warm and free. He is an artist. But they hardly dare stray now from their teenage hits, first offered to us [over] half a century ago.
[The Everly Brothers: ‘Keep A Lovin’ Me’, Nashville, Nov 1955, Columbia 1956; ‘Wake Up Little Susie’, Nashville, 1957, Cadence 1337, NYC (London American HLA 8498, London), 1957; ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’, Nashville, 6 Mar 1958, Cadence 1348, NYC (London American HLA 8618, London), 1958; ‘Bye Bye Love’, Nashville, Apr 1957, Cadence 1315 (London American HLA 8440), 1957; ‘When Will I Be Loved?’, Nashville, 18 Feb 1960, Cadence 1380 (London American HLA 9157), 1960. ‘Let It Be Me’, Nashville, 15 Dec 1959, Cadence 1376 (London American HLA 9039), 1960; ‘Take A Message To Mary’, Nashville, 2 Mar 1959, Cadence 1364 (London American HLA 8863), 1959; both LP-issued The Fabulous Style Of The Everly Brothers, Cadence CLP 3040, NYC, 1960. ‘Cathy’s Clown’, 18 Mar 1960, Warner Brothers 5151, NYC (Warner Brothers WB 1, London), 1960. ‘Temptation’, Nashville 1 Nov 1960, c/w ‘Stick With Me Baby’, Nashville, 27 Jul 1960, Warner Bros. 5220 (WB 42), 1961. ‘Step It Up & Go’, Nashville, Fall 1961, Instant Party, Warner Bros. W (WS) 1430, 1962. ‘Abandoned Love’, London, 1984/5, Born Yesterday, Mercury CD 826 142-2 (LP MERH 80), Holland & London, 1985; ‘I Wonder If I Care As Much’, Summer 1968, Roots, Warner Bros. W1752, 1968. The Everly Brothers: Reunion Concert London, 23 Sep, 1983, Impression IMDP1, 1984.
Bob Dylan: ‘When Will I Be Loved’, Glasgow, 18-19 May 1966, fragment in Eat The Document, 1971; ‘Let It Be Me’ (with Clydie King), LA, 1 May 1981 (issued in Europe only, as B-side of ‘Heart Of Mine’, CBS A-1406, 1981). Jerry Butler & Betty Everett: ‘Let It Be Me’, Chicago, 1964, Vee-Jay 613, Chicago, 1964. Bill Damon, ‘Herewith, A Second Look At Self Portrait’ in Rolling Stone, Sep 3, 1970.]