On Friday night, the music world lost a giant with the death of the Everly Brothers’ Phil Everly. Tributes have poured in over the last few days, and in this exclusive conversation, Rolling Stone‘s Patrick Doyle speaks with Phil Everly’s son, Jason, about his father’s legacy and the humble attitude he carried from his early years as a budding rock musician to one of his greatest joys in being a grandfather.
My father was a regular guy – the guy hanging down at the Home Depot or Walmart. In his older days, he was down at the local high school football game, hanging out with the local judge. He’s just a big goof and one of the funniest individuals you’d ever meet. The real rock stars don’t act like real rock stars.
When I was in grade school, kids were saying, “What’s your dad do?” and I was like, “Oh, he’s a singer,” but nobody had ever heard of him, obviously. I didn’t really understand what he did. When I was 10 or 11, they played the Philippines. We were way up in the nosebleeds. They were just two little guys onstage and even I had to go, “I’ll be damned, is that dad? Is that what he does? I guess I didn’t get it.” To me, he was just the guy who shot hoops with me, played Horse, taught me how to sing and play guitar and spanked me when I didn’t do my homework. He was the guy I didn’t want to make mad. You know, the guy that sat there when it was thunder and lightning and would make up something so it wasn’t scary.
He was gracious, and ridiculously humble. “I’m just a guy. I’m Phil. How are you?” The last big tour that they did, I was the brothers’ agent for a while, and then my dad’s agent after that. We’d come out and there’d be 200 people waiting to mob him. He was also a closet inventor. He was always trying to invent stuff. When I was a little kid in the Seventies, he wanted to make a guitar with a speaker in it. It was heavy and it didn’t really work and had tons of feedback. He had a record player with two needles so it would play real stereo. That’s what he was trying to invent: “What can we do? How can we make this better?”
They had Southern roots; My dad always said “gi-tar” instead of “guitar.” They grew up really poor. And I think the most valuable thing they owned was my grandfather’s guitar. Their album [1958’s] Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is the quintessential Everly Brothers. That’s how they grew up, singing these stories. They talked like that. My dad told me people were trying to stick them in the country mold, but they wanted to play 4-4, which they heard in the R&B clubs. So you take a little bit of country, these sort of Appalachian songs, some pop sensibilities, some of my uncle’s good guitar work, and you’ve got yourself something different. There’s some wonderful stuff going every direction.
In ’55, ’56, ’57, rock & roll was getting its feet under it, but sticking those guitar riffs into “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love,” which came out in January of ’57, was the final piece of the puzzle, in my opinion. My dad was 17 when they had their first hit.
My dad always said, “When we went to Nashville, we had about two weeks left of money before we had to go get real jobs, and that would have been it.” And then they became world famous and wealthy and all the things that go with that. Everybody gets their own agent, their own lawyer, accountant and managers, and bad things happen. When you add in the professional side, you have room for gossip like crazy, from bandmembers or hangers-on. But at the end of the day, you’ve walked the same path, and so you know there’s no one you love more. That’s how they work. You can run into a lot of problems with that, but at the end of the day there’s zero question they loved each other. Zero.
You couldn’t get in between them. If you were going to say something bad about my uncle Don in front of my father, you were in for it. When Paul Simon asked to bring them on tour for the “Old Friends” tour, I said, “Paul, you know them. They’re brothers. If they’re getting along, then the answer is yes. If they’re not getting along, then the answer is no.” I can’t tell you the amount of phone calls we had. Five years ago, the Grammys brought over, they had everybody – Little Richard and Chuck Berry – and they wanted the Everly Brothers badly. The guy was begging me. Everybody wanted them to go on tour again. But you can’t tell guys that have helped invent rock & roll and toured the world for 50 years on every continent over and over again what to do.
I don’t remember the last time the brothers actually saw each other. We finished the last tour in 2006 or so. I don’t think they hung out that much. It’s possible they had a meeting here or there in a mall in Nashville or something. There’s always some business stuff to chat about, and their mom’s still alive. Periodically, you know, birthdays, holidays, they would chat. Don would be like, “You look grayer now.” “Ah, you too.” The two of them were both blessed with some real good hair, by the way. It’s been years since I’ve hung out with my Uncle Don. But on tour, it was fun seeing the other half of my dad, because they’re so alike in so many ways – they have a similar sense of humor, just two Kentucky boys that did well.
I have two little girls who are six and nine, and all my dad really wanted to do is sit with a glass of wine and play with his grandkids. He was in his 70s, he’s like, “I got nothing to prove. I’m totally at peace with my life.” He was a smoker, like a lot of people from that generation, and he quit 10 years ago, but it still chased him down. But he said he had a lot of good cards: “I can’t complain. I had a really good life.” We have a little video studio and we’ve been recording my dad the last couple years. You know, stories, and he would sing old songs and talk about everybody. But he never told dirt on anybody.
My dad loved to come to his grandkids’ soccer games. He’d watch me be the coach and scream and yell – “Oh you’re one of those coaches.” And I said, “When I played soccer, the refs threatened to throw you out because you were yelling so much.” He goes, “That’s true.” He’d be there at every soccer game and screaming and yelling at everybody. He’s just an awesome dad that just happened to be a rock star.