The Everly Brothers' Phil and Don Everly pose for a portrait at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London circa 1958.
The Everly Brothers are the most important vocal duo in rock. The enduring influence of their close, expressive harmonies is evident in the work of British Invasion bands like the Beatles and the Hollies, and of folk-oriented acts such as Simon and Garfunkel, not to mention countless solo artists, among them Dave Edmunds, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt. Most of the Everlys' hit singles — "Bye Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Susie," "All I Have to Do Is Dream" — merged Nashville's clean instrumental country style with innocuous teenage themes, and were smoother than other contemporary country-rock hybrids like rockabilly. Their mastery is revealed in their ballads, among them "Let It Be Me."
Don Everly was born on February 1, 1937; his brother Phil arrived almost two years later, on January 19, 1939. They were the children of Midwestern country stars Ike and Margaret Everly of Shenandoah, Iowa. The boys toured with their parents around the South and Midwest and performed on the family radio show (a taped sample of which appears on Roots) throughout their childhoods. In the summer of 1955, still teenagers, they left for Nashville, where they were soon hired by Roy Acuff's publishing company as songwriters. Don had a minor success when his "Thou Shalt Not Steal" became a hit for Kitty Wells. The brothers also recorded a country single entitled "Keep On Loving Me" for Columbia before signing with Cadence in 1957. Songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant gave them "Bye Bye Love," which 30 acts had previously rejected. It was an international hit (Number Two U.S., 1957), topped the country chart, and established the Everly Brothers' style of close country harmonies over a rocking beat.
The Everlys toured internationally with a small combo over the next few years, sporting matching suits and haircuts and leaving fans to identify each brother by the color of his hair (Don's was darker). Their heyday lasted through 1962, by which time they were at Warner Bros., with cumulative record sales of $35 million. In their three years with Cadence (which they left in a dispute over royalties) they averaged a Top 10 hit every four months, including four Number One hits: "Wake Up Little Susie," "All I Have to Do Is Dream," "Cathy's Clown," and "Bird Dog."
Some of their most successful records — "Till I Kissed You" (Number Four, 1959), "When Will I Be Loved" (Number Eight, 1960) — were written by Don or Phil Everly. Their best-selling single, "Cathy's Clown" (sales of which exceeded 2 million), came after their switch to Warner Bros., but their success with the new label was short-lived. In June 1962 the Everlys' string of hits ended with "That's Old-Fashioned" (Number Nine, 1962). They remained major stars in England, but their careers slowed markedly in the U.S. despite continued releases on Warner Bros. ("Bowling Green," Number 40, 1967) and RCA (where they moved in the early Seventies, shortly after hosting a summer TV series on CBS). Their latter-day backup band was led by keyboardist Warren Zevon and included future L.A. studio guitarist Waddy Wachtel.
By then the brothers' personal lives had gone through serious upheavals. Both were addicted to speed for a while, and Don was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. Their relationship became increasingly acrimonious until it blew up at the John Wayne Theater at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, on July 14, 1973. Phil smashed his guitar and stalked off stage, leaving Don to announce the duo's obvious breakup. Subsequent solo attempts by both were largely unsuccessful.
In 1983 the Everlys returned to the spotlight. Phil's duet with Cliff Richard, "She Means Nothing to Me," reached the British Top 10 in the spring. That September the brothers reunited onstage at London's Royal Albert Hall for a triumphant concert that was chronicled on Reunion Concert and in a video documentary that was widely aired. In 1984 they released EB 84 (Number 38, 1984), produced by longtime fan Dave Edmunds. "On the Wings of a Nightingale," penned by another admirer, Paul McCartney (who'd mentioned the pair in his "Let 'Em In"), went to Number 50 in the U.S. and Number 41 in England. Edmunds also produced 1986's Born Yesterday, which came out the same month that the duo was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Everlys continued to perform well into 2000s, and Phil resurfaced on a recording in 2006, singing a duet with Vince Gill on his album These Days. The Everly Brothers have inspired several musicals, including 1998's biographical Bye Bye Love: The Everly Brothers Musical, which ran in Nashville, and 2000's Dream, Dream, Dream, which played Atlantic City.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.