The Everly Brothers: The Rolling Stone Interview

Thirty years of heart-melting music and heart-wrenching sadness

The Everly Brothers
Ebet Roberts/Redferns
May 8, 1986 12:00 AM ET

Of the ten acts inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, three are deceased, one's virtually forsaken rock for religion, and most of the rest seem comfortably settled into legend, far from the madding charts, champions to be cherished in dignified repose. With the exception of James Brown – recently back in the pop Top Ten – only the Everly Brothers, out of this galaxy of pioneering stars, glow on at something close to their original artistic voltage.

Phil Everly, Everly Brothers Vocal Legend, Dead at 74

This is ironic, because the Everlys, with their clean-cut looks, pristine country harmonies and string of early teen hits largely written to order by Nashville tunesmiths, have in the past seemed to some the embodiment of domesticated white-boy rock – well-mannered worlds away from the rowdier stance of Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis, the lunatic rumpus of Little Richard, the raw soul of Ray Charles. And yet, here they are, twenty-nine years after their first hit, "Bye Bye Love," creating whole new worlds for those heart-melting harmonies to inhabit. Their voices are richer now, and more complexly intertwined. Their songs no longer celebrate the bird dogs and little Susies of their original success, but neither do they first with the musical middle of the road. Although they have always been nonpareil balladeers, the Everlys remain, at heart, root-level rock & rollers. Their "comeback" – the 1983 reunion concerts at London's Royal Albert Hall and the two extraordinary studio albums they've released in their wake-has escaped all suggestions of a "rock revival." (As Don says, explaining why he and Phil have never played an oldies show, "Rock & roll should never have to make a comeback,")

The Everlys have actually been making records for thirty years, if one counts their first effort, a quickie single called "Keep A'Lovin' Me," which was released and forgotten in February 1956. They have seen rock & roll evolve from a despised pop cult into the American musical mainstream – in which, after years of tears and trials, they are once again aswim. In late February, the Everlys got together in Los Angeles – where Phil has lived since 1960 and where Don was visiting, from his home in Nashville – to savor the critical response to the second album of their revitalized career, the recently released Born Yesterday. Interviews with the brothers were conducted separately, which seemed appropriate, for they are very different men. Donald (as his brother and friends call him), now forty-nine, is the darker-haired and bulkier of the two: rootless, restless, mercurial, a lover of good food, fine Beaujolais and beautiful women. Phil, a slender and weathered forty-seven, is diffident, reclusive, a homebody happiest away from the stage in his San Fernando Valley digs. Both are courteous and unaffected in a way that's more common among country performers than rock & rollers. In the beginning, with their crisply thrumming guitars and vibrant harmonies, the Everlys conjured a world of shimmering innocence eternally on the verge of experience, of First Love forever. By now, between them, they have notched up five divorces and can testify to the chillier realities of love's long later seasons. When Don sings, in the superb title song he wrote for the new LP, "He lost his mind today/She threw his clothes away/A love they thought would last/Just flew away," the new lyrics' import is perhaps as intimately pertinent to the Everlys' original audience, now deep in middle age, as were the dewier odes of their common, now-vanishing youth. In this new land of lengthening shadows, innocence is an ancient memory.

The Everly Brothers: 12 Essential Tracks

"It's hard to get fluffed up about love anymore," says Phil. "I've lived it. I try to avoid it. If I'm extremely fond of a woman, if I think I might really wind up walking down the aisle again … I go in another direction."

The women have come and gone; so have the drugs that disrupted their lives in the early Sixties. They've survived the years of endless gigs, the long dead nights on the road, the claustrophobic togetherness. Through it all, the wheel of musical fad and fortune spun on, oblivious to their art, to the beauty of two voices chiming as one, clicking on through Beatlemania, acid rock, the disco of the wretched Seventies. And through it all, they remained the Everlys – until one bottomed-out night in Southern California, after which they were lost even to each other for ten blood-denying years. Now they're back, older, maybe wiser, trying once again to hold the craziness at bay and to sing their song for a new generation.

Isaac Donald Everly was born on February 1st, 1937, in Brownie, Kentucky, the son of a coal miner, Ike Everly, and his wife, Margaret. Ike, who was himself a coal miner's son and was determined not to end his days in the mines, had picked up the rudiments of a hot thumb-picking guitar style (one he would later pass on to the celebrated Merle Travis) from a local black guitarist by the unlikely name of Arnold Schultz, and polished it after work and on weekends with his two musically inclined brothers, Chuck and Len. Like other white country musicians, from Bill Monroe (also tutord by Schultz) to Hank Williams, Ike Everly was inspired as much by black traditions as by the enveloping hillbilly idiom.

Phil Everly's Life in Photos

Don: Country's not the right word for what he played. It was more uptown, more honky-tonk. I'll tell you the right word for it: blues. White blues.

Before Don was two, the Everlys relocated to Chicago, to a teeming Italian neighborhood on Adams Street, where Ike obtained employment with the Works Progress Adminstration and by night set out with his guitar – now equipped with a De Armond electrical pickup and cabled to an amplifier – to play the workingmen's bars along Madison Street. It was in Chicago, on January 19th, 1939, that Phillip Everly was born. Before long, lke was appearing with a country group, the North Carolina Boys, on KXEL radio.

Don: He loved black music, too. We'd go down to Maxwell Street and listen to all the blues singers down there. Dad also had one of the first amplifiers on Madison Street. I remember he played this Greekowned white club that catered to migrant workers from Kentucky, Tennessee, all those places. They had pool tables in the front and then the club in the back, with a little stage. And they would open the club door, put the amplifier in the doorway and fill the place up. One time around Halloween I went down there with him, and we took along this little papier-mâché pumpkin I had, and he put a sign on it, and that was the kitty, where you'd put the money for requests. People would walk in off the street and just ask for whatever was on their mind, and Dad and the band would try to play it. I was just amazed, seeing my little Halloween pumpkin up there on the stage.

Paul Simon on the Everly Brothers

Dad wouldn't let me fool with his guitar much, because I'm left-handed, and I'd pick it up upside down. But I remember learning to sing "Paper Doll," the Mills Brothers song – this was during the war – and I remember my dad taking me down to one of those little record booths where you could make spoken letters to send home. He took me down there with his guitar, and we recorded that song: "I'm goin' to buy a paper doll that I can call my own…." A little after that, we moved to Iowa.

It was the radio age, and broadcast musicians were in demand. Seasoned by his stint on KXEL – and budding as an amateur songwriter – Ike Everly decided to pursue his radio career in Iowa, first at a station in Waterloo, then at KMA in Shenandoah. A welcoming notice in the KMA program guide in the fall of 1945 announced that Ike had written a "hillbilly lyric" called "Have You Forgot Your Joe?" It also took note of the Everly siblings: "When he grows up, Donald, 8, wants to be an entertainer like his dad so they can form a vocal and musical team. Phillip, 6, hasn't decided on his future yet."

Shortly thereafter, at a KMA Christmas party, it was learned that young Donald actually could sing. Soon he was given his own spot: "The Little Donnie Show."

Don: It was just a ten- or fifteen-minute show, part of another show, actually. I had a little theme song: "Free As a Little Bird As I Can Be." Dad had all these songs in the back of his mind – he was the instigator behind it all. He and a fellow on accordion and another on clarinet would back me up. I'd sing three or four songs, read a commercial and go home. I remember I had a picture taken, too, for promotion: "Sincerely, Little Donnie, KMA Radio." I don't know how long that lasted – long enough to make an impression on me. Then we started working as the Everly Family in the early mornings, and that lasted for a long time. We brought Phil in. He was too young to sing harmonies at first, so he just sang lead and I sang harmony until he learned how. Dad did it. He sat us down every day, and we would rehearse and practice all day long. We also played a local barn dance on Saturday nights, and occasionally we'd get up on the back of a flatbed or pickup truck with speakers and go play for various little harvest-jubilee-type things. We never made a lot of money at it, but enough to get through, to get by.

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