Rock & roll lost one of its supreme harmony singers when Phil Everly, half of the Everly Brothers, died today at the age of 74. According to a report attributed to his wife Patti Everly, the cause was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; Everly was a longtime smoker.
Harmony singing had been key in country and bluegrass, but starting with their first hit, 1957’s “Bye Bye Love,” the Everly Brothers brought the sound of deeply intertwined voices — and more than a hint of Appalachia — to rock & roll. That blend resulted in 15 Top 10 hits between 1957 and 1962, including songs that went on to become rock standards: “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Cathy’s Clown,” “When Will I Be Loved.” The brothers’ close-knit harmonies were also a major influence on rock & roll, impacting on the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas & the Papas, and many others, and they were among the first acts inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
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“The Everly Brothers’ impact exceeds even their fame,” wrote Paul Simon in Rolling Stone in 2004. “They were a big influence on John Lennon and Paul McCartney and, of course, on Simon & Garfunkel. When Artie & I were kids we got our rock & roll chops from the Everlys.” That influence continues to this day: Last fall, Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones recently released an Everly Brothers tribute album. “The Everly brothers go way back as far as I can remember hearing music,” Armstrong said in a statement. “Those harmonies will live on forever.”
“We give one-sixth their worth to those alive; afterward, the other five: Your sound, dear Phil, was my model of beauty and charisma when I was 14,” Art Garfunkel said in a statement. “You guided my musical development, my life. I sought a partner because you showed me what two can do. I always saw you up in Mt Rushmore, next to the other guys — a great hero of American culture.”
The sons of a Kentucky coalminer, the Everlys began entertaining in grade school: When the family relocated to Iowa, the family had a radio show (Ike, their father, was also a singer), and Don and Phil would perform on the daybreak-hour show before heading to school. When they were teenagers the brothers relocated to Nashville. Although Columbia Records took an early interest in them, it wasn’t until they cut “Bye Bye Love” — a song rejected by 30 other acts — for another label, Cadence, that the Everlys’ career took off. “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,” Phil recalled to RS in 1986. “That was, like, big juju. It really was.”
Although many of the British Invasion bands of the ’60s adored the Everlys, the brothers themselves became out of step with the times by the middle of that decade. The Everlys were still capable of superb music (1968’s Roots album was an early country-rock landmark) and never lost their vocal power. “We spent so much time playing music together,” recalls guitarist Waddy Wachtel, a member of the Everlys band in the early ‘70s along with Warren Zevon. “On the Everlys tour, every night we were in the hotel rooms playing music and Don and Phil would be there with us. It was unbelievable. They’d start singing in the rooms and it was like the heavens would open up.”
But by then, the hits dried up, drug use took its toll, and the two brothers, who were increasingly growing apart musically and personally, infamously broke up onstage in 1973. They pursued solo careers with much less success but reunited onstage in 1983 and recorded several studio reunion albums in the ’80s. The first, EB84, featured “On the Wings of a Nightingale,” a song written expressly for them by Paul McCartney.
The brothers rarely performed after the ’90s and long lived on separate coasts — Phil in Los Angeles, Don in Nashville — and also had different personalities. Of the two, Phil tended to be more straight-laced and low-key. As he told RS, “The ’60s 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.”
The brothers’ last high-profile concerts together took place a decade ago, when they reunited to open shows for Simon & Garfunkel on their “Old Friends” tour. “They hadn’t seen each other in about three years,” Simon recalled. “They unpacked their guitars — those famous black guitars — and they opened their mouths and starting to sing. And after all these years, it was still that sound I fell in loved with as a kid. It was still perfect.”