Thirty years of heart-melting music and heart-wrenching sadness
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
With the rise of records and television over the next ten years, live radio music began dying out. The family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where they had found another gig, but Ike Everly saw the handwriting on the wall. He held on to his musical dreams but began to accept the fact that they might have to be realized vicariously. As a guitarist, he much admired Chet Atkins, the Tennessee picker who had risen as an accompanist for the Carter Family to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville – the ultimate live-radio gig – and, on the side, a hotshot session guitarist for RCA Records' C&W outpost in Music City. Ike had been writing admiring letters to Atkins, and in 1954, when the gutarist paid a visit to Knoxville, they had actually gotten to talke Ike had played up the talents of his teenage sons, who were starting to write songs. Atkins expressed interest. Don and Phil visited Atkins and ran through their tunes, and Atkins became very interested. He placed Don's Thou Shalt Not Steal" with Kitty Wells, a major country star since she'd scored with "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" two years earlier. In 1955, Anita Carter cut another of Don's songs, "Here We Are Again." Don Everly, still in high school, was suddenly showered with more money – from royalties – than either he or his parents had ever seen all in one piece.
Nineteen fifty-five was the year of "Maybellene" and "Bo Diddley," 'Rebel Without a Cause' and 'The Blackboard Jungle,' featuring Bill Haley's epochal "Rock Around the Clock." Times were changing fast, and the Everly Family was working what turned out to be its last gig, its radio show in Knoxville. By the time that petered out, Ike Everly, in need of a new trade, was studying to be a barber; Margaret was studying to be a beautician. Their son Don, a high-school senior with new dreams of his own, decided to pursue them.
Don: I was never really good at school, and here I had made a thousand-some dollars in royalties from my songs. So as soon as I graduated from high school, we packed the car up and high-tailed it for Nashville.
The Everlys and their mother moved into a little house in Madison, outside of Nashville, and Phil, who was sixteen, enrolled in the private Peabody Demonstration School. (Later, when the hits started coming, he would finish his education via a correspondence course.) Ike Everly joined the family a short while later but eventually had to move north to find work. Meanwhile, Don signed as a songwriter with the music-publishing company Hill and Range, from whom he obtained a much-needed advance, and the Everly Brothers began auditioning around town as an act. Don Law, an A&R man at the local Columbia Records branch, gave them a silver of studio time at the end of somebody else's session, and the brothers, backed by country star Carl Smith's band, laid down four tunes in record time. Two of them, "Keep A' Lovin' Me" and "The Sun Keeps Shining," credited as joint compositions by Don and Phil, were released on a single on February 6th, 1956, and promptly went nowhere. The Everlys continued auditioning. After being turned down by about ten execs, they finally encountered Wesley Rose.
A college-trained former oil-industry accountant, Rose was the president of Acuff-Rose, a C&W publishing company founded in the Forties by his father, Fred, and country star Roy Acuff. The firm had prospered publishing material by Acuff and Hank Williams, and Wesley Rose had been instrumental in promoting hit pop covers of Williams's tunes by such mainstream singers as Tony Bennett and Joni James. When Elvis Presley erupted out of Memphis and rock & roll began making inroads into the country market, Rose decided to get a piece of the new action. By the time the Everlys met him, he was busily putting together a stable of hot new songwriters – a group that would come to include John D. Loudermilk, Roy Orbison and Marty Robbins. Rose told the Everlys he would get them a recording contract if they would sign with him as songwriters. Don didn't mention his tie to Hill and Range, but he quietly slipped out of it, and soon the brothers signed with A cuff-Rose.
The record contract Rose had mentioned turned out to be with Archie Bleyer, proprietor of a New York City label called Cadence. Bleyer was seeking to branch out into the country field, and the Everlys eagerly ran off to record a demo tape for him.
PHIL: We were friendly with this one girl, and she arranged for us to make a tape in a little audition studio at this hotel. But we didn't have the money to do it, so after we finished, she had to talk the guy who owned the place into giving us the tape without paying. He said, "Yeah, go ahead." And then when we went downstairs, we found the police had towed away our car. So we had to go back in the studio, and the girl talked the guy into lending us enough money – which was twelve dollars – to get the car out of the pound.
Bleyer liked the Everlys' songs but also wanted them to try a tune that he and Rose had been holding for some time. It had been written by two of Acuff-Rose's most prized staffers – the team of Boudleaux Bryant, a Georgia songwriter who'd started out as a classical violinist, and his wife, Felice, a former Milwaukee elevator operator. The Bryants had crafted numerous hits for Carl Smith and Eddy Arnold, but the song now proffered to the Everlys had been turned down by just about every other artist in Nashville. It was called "Bye Bye Love."
Don: Archie Bleyer and Wesley Rose and Boudleaux were there, and they sort of sang the song to us, a rendition of it, and we learned it right away – just like that. I had an arrangement of one of our songs, called "Give Me a Future," and it had this guitar riff in it. Archie said, "Why don't you put that to this," you know? And it worked.
"Bye Bye Love" was recorded and released in March 1957. It was the beginning of the Everly Sound, created in RCA's Studio B by guitarists Chet Atkins, Ray Edenton, Hank Garland (composer of "Sugarfoot Rag") and Don himself, pianist Floyd Cramer, drummer Buddy Harmon and bassist Floyd "Lightning" Chance, among others.
Having cut the record, the Everlys, still on a tight budget, signed up for a tent-show tour of Mississippi and Louisiana with bluegrass king Bill Monroe (whose "Blue Moon of Kentucky" had been transformed three years before by Presley). On the bill with the Everlys were two Cajuns, singer Jimmy C. Newman and fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux, and Florida songwriter Mel Tillis, whose career as a singer was stalled in the shadow of Opry star Webb Pierce, who kept covering Tillis's songs out from under him and having hits with them. For the Everlys, touring with Monroe – whose own Opry connections assured maximum turnout – signified their arrival in the big time. They would perform straight country for the crowds that packed in under the canvas – Delmore Brothers hits, radio stuff – then be featured in a mini-rock & roll show (attendance fifty cents extra), during which they'd belt out such current rock and R&B hits as Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and Ray Charles's "Leave My Woman Alone."
Phil: It was so crazy. We all rode in Bill's limo – thirteen people in this big old Cadillac. The stage was just a wood platform, and the tent cut it in half, so "backstage" was actually outside, in the dark, and there was a slit where you would step through to go on.
Don: It was a wonderful experience, that tour with Bill Monroe. Jimmy C. Newman and Rufus Thibodeaux took me to my first shrimp boil; I got my first beer down there, saw the Gulf of Mexico for the first time. I remember in Gulfport, Mississippi, we arrived late at night and stayed in one of these wooden shingled places right on the beach. I got up the next morning and walked down to the ocean – I had never seen it before in my life. A wonderful thing. We got ninety dollars a week apiece and we were in hog heaven.
The record came out while we were on the road down there. Then one day Mel Tillis came up to us and said, "Hoss, I got some bad news for you. Webb Pierce has covered your song."
Phil: Mel just looked down and shook his head, like, "It's all over boys, forget it." It was like, Jesus, such bad luck, you know?
Don: Disaster. I almost fainted. I called Archie Bleyer up in New York. I said, "Something terrible's happened." He said, "What?" I said, "Webb Pierce has covered our record." And he said – I'll never forget this – he said, "Webb who?" He didn't even know who Webb Pierce was! He said, "Forget about that – the record's hittin' pop." I didn't have a clue what he was talking about.
Phil: Driving back to Nashville, when we got within radio distance, they had this pop station on in the car – and it was playing our record. That was, like, big juju. It really was.
Don: Then we became members of the Grand Ole Opry for about a year. We were hot then. The audience loved our music; we got an encore every time. There were no barriers between country and rock, you know? Nobody thought about it. It was the first time I felt appreciated as a musician.
Phil and I bought our first car then – a brand-new blue 98 Olds – and we drove it to Chicago. Dad was working up around there. They had just opened the first freeway to Chicago, and there was no speed limit on it yet, so we barreled up there at 100 miles an hour. That Olds would fly, boy. We picked Dad up and we said, "You don't have to do this anymore. Come on back to Nashville."
In August 1957, the Everly Brothers cut their second single: the Bryants' "Wake Up Little Susie" (Boudleaux had dreamed it up on the way to a meeting with the brothers), backed with a song Don and Phil had written, the hauntingly beautiful "Maybe Tomorrow." Like its predecessor, it would quickly capture the Number One spot on the country chart and also go top pop ("Bye Bye Love" had made it to Number Two). On September 6th, the Everlys embarked on an eleven-week, seventy-eight-city U.S. tour mounted by promoter Irvin Feld – a classic rock & roll roadshow that also featured Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Crickets (fronted by the as-yet-unbilled Buddy Holly), the Drifters, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, Eddie Cochran, Paul Anka and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, all backed by a hot black orchestra from New York led by Paul Williams. It was an unforgettable trek.
Phil: We rode in buses – not like today's tour buses, with the microwaves and videocassette players – just regular buses. Paul Anka and Frankie Lymon used to sleep up in the luggage racks, you know? And LaVern Baker stretched out across the aisle with suitcases in between the seats. Now, LaVern was as sweet as anybody could be – she'd sew buttons on for us and things. But nobody would ever wake LaVern if she was sleeping, because she got …. well, a little cranky. I remember once, we were crossing the border into Canada and everybody stepped over her real gingerly to get out at the customs station. The customs officer said she had to get out too. He went on to wake her up, and she called him words – combinations of words – I'd never heard.
Don: We also played for Alan Freed at the Paramount Theatre in New York, and boy, it was hysterical. Five shows a day, and everybody was on them: Jerry Lee, Fats, Buddy. We got to be very close friends with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, because we all had the same kind of country-blues background. He wrote a couple of things for us – "Love's Made a Fool of You" might have been one of them, I forget now. We had a little problem with things like that, because we were signed to Acuff-Rose. But we did give Buddy "Raining in My Heart," which Boudleaux had written for us, but we didn't think was right. And we took him and the Crickets down to our clothes stores in New York, too: Phil's Men's Shop, Lefcourt's for shoes. We had just learned to dress a little sharper ourselves, and they noticed it, so we took them to all the places. If you look at pictures from back then, you'll see all of us in the same jackets – Ivy League, like. Same photographer, too: Bruno of Hollywood.
Phil: They were good buddies, the Crickets. The last time I was really with Buddy was at the Park Sheraton in New York – that was the hot hotel, where all the rock & rollers used to stay. Eddie Cochran was in town, and we were all up at his room there. Buddy was having a drink, and he asked me to make sure he got home that night, and I did. We used to do that kind of thing. I don't mean to make it sound like we were a bunch of drunks – that wasn't anywhere near the case. But once in a while you'd go out and tie one on, you know – always knowing what you were doing, though. In the Fifties, we were all pretty sane, compared to the Sixties. And New York was great then, too. I remember walking through Times Square with Chuck Berry, and him buying us our first cheesecake at Lindy's.
When Buddy died, I flew down to Lubbock for the funeral. Went down and sat with his parents and Maria Elena. I wasn't a pallbearer, though. I didn't want to see him put down in the earth.
Don: I didn't go. I wouldn't go. It just freaked me right out when Buddy died. I took to my bed. Quit riding planes for a while, too.
From their first hit on, the touring never stopped for the Everlys, because the hits kept coming: "All I Have to Do Is Dream" (with Chet Atkins's then-novel tremolo guitar chording), "Claudette" (donated by Roy Orbison between shows one night), "Bird Dog," "Devoted to You" and "Problems," in 1958 (the year they first went to Europe); "Take a Message to Mary," "Poor Jenny" and "('Til) I Kissed You" in 1959. By this time, Don was married, to a girl named Sue Ingraham, his first sweetheart, and Phil was going with Archie Bleyer's stepdaughter, Jackie Ertel, who would later become his first wife. But the farther away their touring took them, the more strain was put on their relationships.
Don: I wrote "('Til) I Kissed You" about a girl I met in Australia. Her name was Lilian, and she was very, very inspirational. I was married, but … I wrote the song about her on the way back home.
Phil: The first time we flew to Australia was by prop, and it took thirty-two hours. You shaved twice, it was ridiculous. Eddie Cochran got laid on one of our Australian flights. Only person I ever knew that knock stewardess off. Got her in the back of the plane. The flight was so damn long, they got well acquainted.
"Let It Be Me," released in December 1959, reached the Top Ten, but the Everly Brothers were feeling artistically stifled at Cadence, so the duo left Archie Bleyer's label and signed with Warner Bros. Records. Their contract was, at the time, the fattest ever offered a rock act: $1 million guaranteed, to be paid out over ten years. Their first Warners single was Don's "Cathy's Clown." It turned out to be their biggest hit.
Don: Part of the inspiration for "Cathy's Clown" was the Grand Canyon Suite: domp-de-domp-de-da-da-da, boom-chaka-boom. And then I had this girlfriend called Catherine. That was the formula for that one.
On signing with their new label, the Everlys – feeling increasingly out of place in the antirock environs of Nashville – moved to Los Angeles. There, the brothers briefly took acting lessons, but they turned down, in disgust, the rock-exploitation films they were subsequently offered. They busied themselves helping their pals (passing on 'Let's Think About Living," a song written for them by Boudleaux, to singer Bob Luman, who had a 1960 hit with it) and launching side projects such as their own Calliope label (on which Don and arranger Neal Hefti scored in 1961 with an orchestral update of "Pomp and Circumstance" – credited to "Adrian Kimberly").
They soon became preoccupied with the deteriorating state of their relationship with Wesley Rose, who had become their manager in the Cadence years. They say that, in poring over their Warners contract, they were surprised to discover that Rose – who had helped them negotiate it, ostensibly in order to protect their songwriting interests – had written himself into the deal, complete with veto power over the songs they could release. As the conflict with Rose escalated, the Everlys found themselves cut of from the Bryants' material. (Rose, while acknowledging that his name was included in the contract, denies that he had veto power over the Everlys' releases but allows that they did part company with him in a disagreement over the suitability of the song "Temptation," which the brothers were determined to release.)
Fortunately, the Everlys had their own resources, and they proceeded conclusively to prove themselves superb songwriters, not mere puppets of the pop production line. Their last Top Ten hit for Cadence, "When Will I Be Loved," released in May 1960, after their departure from the label, had been written by Phil in a car parked outside an A&W root-beer stand. And their second Warners single, another Top Ten entry, was Don's "So Sad (to Watch Good Love Go Bad)." Still, the brothers began casting about for outside tunes. "Walk Right Back," written by early Buddy Holly guitarist Sonny Curtis, and "Ebony Eyes," written by John D. Loudermilk, continued the string of hits into 1961.
It was around this time that Don, depleted by years of constant touring, became involved with Ritalin therapy – essentially a program that mixed an amphetaminelike stimulant and vitamins to restore a patient's general perkiness. There was nothing illicit about Ritalin at the time – John Kennedy, then president, reportedly saw the same doctor for a similar treatment. But in short order, Don became addicted.
Don: People didn't understand drugs that well then. They didn't know what they were messing with. It wasn't against the law: I saw a picture of my doctor with the president, you know? But it got out of hand, naturally. It was a real disaster for a lot of people, and it was a disaster for me. Ritalin made you feel energized. You could stay up for days. It just got me strung out. I got so far out there, I didn't know what I was doing.
Don's first wife divorced him in 1961, by which time he was consorting with Venetia Stevenson, a model he'd met on the Ed Sullivan TV show. In 1962, to avoid the draft, the Everlys enlisted together in the Marine Corps reserves, doing six months with a howitzer unit at Camp Pendleton. Don emerged from this drugless stint considerably strengthened. He married Venetia, a new beginning. But soon he was back on Ritalin. (Phil, meanwhile, had been briefly involved with a different program of drug treatments.) And, increasingly, the brothers were at each other's throats.
Phil: What we needed was to take a long vacation, to get off the merry-go-round. There were too many people making too much money off us, keeping us going. Things were too confused. We should have taken a long rest. But in those days we couldn't. The tensions between Don and I … well, we're just a family that is like that, I guess. Everything that was happening then contributed to it. But you could just as easily say that the tension between us existed from day one, from birth. And will go on forever.
The Everlys' 1962 hits, "Crying in the Rain," a Brill Building song written by Carole King and Howard Greenfield, and "That's Old Fashioned (That's the Way Love Should Be)," were to be their last two to reach the Top Ten. Don was by then obsessed with Ritalin – and, in his growing paranoia, feeling smothered as an individual artist within that fading entiry called the Everly Brothers. One crazed day in a London hotel room, during a fall tour of England, he attempted to kill himself by taking an overdose of barbiturates. Venetia got him to a hospital, where his stomach was pumped. Released, he returned to his hotel and tried again, gulping more pills. This time, his rescuers put him on a plane back to the States, where he was committed to the mental ward of a New York City hospital and given electroshock therapy.
Don: They say shock therapy is good for some things, but it didn't do me any good. It was a pretty primitive treatment at the time – once they gave it to you, you couldn't remember how long you'd been there. It knocked me back for a long time. I thought I'd never write again.
With the help of a psychiatrist, Don slowly conquered his addiction to Ritalin over the ensuing months. But it was too late to halt the slide of the Everlys' career. They only made the Top Forty two more times: with "Gone, Gone, Gone" in 1964 and "Bowling Green" in 1967. Suddenly, all in a rush, it seemed, there was Beatlemania, the British Invasion, Vietnam, psychedelia, hippies, Nixon. The new youth music was outspoken, engaged, acknowledged as art. There was no place in it for the sweet sound of the Everly Brothers. They didn't starve – "There was always some place in the world where we were hot," says Phil – but they did play Las Vegas a lot. Don began to feel shut out of the new scene.
Don: When Phil and I started out, everyone hated rock & roll. The record companies didn't like it at all – felt it was an unnecessary evil. And the press: interviewers were always older than us, and they let you know they didn't like your music, they were just doing the interview because it was their job. Then along came the Sixties, and everyone suddenly got real young, and if you were over thirty, they didn't trust you.
The Sixties, boy. I remember meeting Jimi Hendrix one night at the Scene, Steve Paul's club in New York. I was working the Latin Quarter at the time, right? And I had never been to Greenwich Village before, so Steve and Jimi took me on a tour. Here we were, Steve wearing a bathrobe, the three of us smoking a joint in the back seat of his limo. I was still worried about getting busted, but they didn't seem to be. We went to the Bitter End, and there was Joni Mitchell, whom I had already fallen in love with via records. My life changed. I wanted to play these places, too. I wanted to be a part of this music scene. I became friends with Jimi, liked him a lot. He invited me to sessions, even came around to the Latin Quarter to see me, can you believe it?
It was all very strange. I took LSD – the best, Owsley's orange sunshine – but I was wearing tuxedos at the same time. We'd be playing a country show one night, then the Fillmore West the next, with the Sons of Champlin or somebody. Played the Bitter End, too, finally. Met Bob Dylan there one night. We were looking for songs, and he was writing "Lay Lady Lay" at the time. He sang parts of it, and we weren't quite sure whether he was offering it to us or not. It was one of those awestruck moments. We wound up cutting the song about fifteen years later.
We played Saigon once, a benefit for the Tan Son Nhut orphanage. That night we sat on the roof of this house and watched them napalming stuff outside the city. We played a lot of hospitals in the Philippines, too, full of Vietnam casualties. That's when it began to dawn on me that something was dreadfully wrong with that war. I became very political in my mind, totally anti-Nixon, but there didn't seem to be much I could do about it. We were working nine, ten months out of the year; we were really out of touch with what was going on in the world.
Phil: The Sixties weren't my cup of tea. I never bought that philosophy that, you know, we're all brothers and that'll solve everything. And I never believed that music dictated the times. I always thought it reflected them. We were against the grain in that period, and there was a lot of confusion about our direction. Maybe we were just losing the freshness of it all, losing interest.
Adrift in the Sixties, the Everlys released, among other records, an album of country hits, two albums of rock oldies, a Merseyish LP called 'Two Yanks in England' (which featured a stirring version of Manfred Mann's "Pretty Flamingo") and, in 1968, the extraordinary 'Roots,' a harbinger of a country-rock explosion to come. In 1970, there was a live LP recorded at the Grand Hotel in Anaheim. That summer, they hosted a ten-week variety series on ABC, replacing 'The Johnny Cash Show.' The series was loaded with hot guest stars – Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt, Ike and Tina Turner, even their dad, harmonizing with his sons – but when it ended in September, the network didn't renew it. In December came the release of 'Don Everly,' the first solo album by one of the brothers. Perhaps reflecting Don's state of mind at that point, it was a somewhat woozy effort, recorded with the assistance of much booze and reefer.
By 1971, Phil's first and Don's second marriages had ended. Phil took a new wife, Patricia Mickey; Don met his third-wife-to-be, Karen Prettyman, the following year. In June 1973, Phil released his first solo album, 'Star Spangled Springer,' with his wife joining in on two songs.
The split came one month later – inevitable but nonetheless ugly. Don gave Phil two weeks' notice: the Everly Brothers' show at the John Wayne Theatre at Knott's Berry Farm near Los Angeles on July 14th would be their last. "It's over," he told a reporter on the eve of the gig. "I'm tired of being an Everly Brother." The next night, Don got so drunk that a Knott's manager stopped the show midway through the second of three scheduled sets. Phil, furious, stormed offstage, smashing his guitar to the floor before disappearing. Don carried on alone for the third set. When a spectator asked, "Where's Phil?" he replied, "The Everly Brothers died ten years ago."
'Ritalin made you feel energized,' says Don. 'You could stay up for days. It just got me strung out. I was so far out there, I didn't know what I was doing. It got out of hand, and it was a real disaster.'
Don: It was a flip statement. I was a half in the bag that evening – the only time I've ever been drunk onstage in my life. I knew it was the last night, and on the way out I drank some tequila, drank some champagne – started celebrating the demise. It was really a funeral. People thought that night was just some brouhaha between Phil and me. They didn't realize we had been working our buns off for years. We had never been anywhere without working; had never known any freedom. We were just strapped together like a team of horses. It's funny, the press hadn't paid any attention to us in ten years, but they jumped on that. It was one of the saddest days of my life.
Phil: It was silly, you know? But Donald had decided. It was a dark day.
For the next ten years, apart from seeing each other at their father's funeral in 1975, the Everlys basically didn't speak. Don eventually moved back to Nashville, went fishing, practiced his pasta cookery, joined Les Amis du Vin and generally kicked back. He and his mother didn't speak much (she recently sued him to acquire full title to a house Don partially owned), but otherwise the Nashville years were a time of healing; Don had a new, stabilizing romantic relationship, with a woman named Diane Craig. By 1983, he was ready to consider the prospect of a rapprochement with Phil, who, like Don, had continued to release solo LPs, with only moderate success. Their reunion concerts in London, filmed for a TV special and recorded for a double album, were hailed as a triumph of undimmed talent. Dave Edmunds, the British guitarist and rock scholar, was chosen to produce their comeback album. Searching for some hitworthy material, and realizing that the Beatles had been major Everly Brothers fans in their youth, Edmunds rang up Paul McCartney to ask for a song.
Don: Dave said it was the hardest phone call he ever made, because McCartney is always being asked for something. Paul said if he could come up with anything, he'd give a call. Dave forgot about it, but about six weeks later, the phone rang, and it was McCartney. He said, "I think I've got one."
McCartney's contribution, "On the Wings of a Nightingale," was the center-piece of the ensuing album, 'EB' 84.' The Everlys set off on a world tour and were received with great enthusiasm. With the release of 'Born Yesterday,' it looks like the brothers are back for good. In an era of rampant gimmickry, they sound as fresh and up-to-date as ever. There are still minor problems, such as record-company-selected album covers so tackily unimaginative that some retailers have unthinkingly filed their recent LPs in the reissue bins. And on the domestic front, while both brothers dote on their children (Phil's two sons, Don's son and three daughters – one of whom, under the professional name Penelope, is a high-fashion model with the Wilhelmina agency in New York), complications persist for the ever-restless elder brother.
Don: My personal life now is sort of strange. I really don't know what to say about it, hardly. I guess I'm with a girl called Victoria right now – but I'm still with Diane, too. I don't know how to describe this situation. You get your career straightened out, and all of a sudden your personal life goes.
But he is an artist, that's the main thing. And the Everly Brothers are an American institution, oblivious to musical fads and fashion.
Don: We just open our mouths and we sing. I figure we've got another few years at that. We're not going to work ourselves into a frenzy this time … but we're gonna take it as far as we can.