Phil Everly, the youngest Everly Brother, passed away on Friday, January 3, due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD what happens when you slowly suffocate to death after a lifetime of smoking. It’s a cruel way for anyone to die, but particularly so here since it literally silenced one of the most heartfelt, deeply rooted voices in American music history. The two brothers were individually superior singers — Don lead, Phil high harmony — but the combination of their two voices was the key. The Everly harmonic was like an impeccable, uniquely soulful third voice and the pinnacle of close harmony singing. They were also a brother act bridge between the Delmores and Louvins on one side and the Wilsons (Beach Boys) and McDonalds (Redd Kross) on the other. I’m working on a separate post (or two) about the Everlys as a recording unit, but until then let’s watch this video produced by the BBC in 1984. Though flawed — I’ll get to that below — it provides the best overview of the Everly Brothers’ life and career. As always, my annotations are below.
The Everly Brothers – Songs of Innocence and Experience (1984)
:12 – As the Everlys cross the Cumberland River into Nashville, their cover of “Love Is Strange” kicks in. The leadoff track from 1965’s Beat & Soul LP, “Love” was a single that went nowhere in the US, but was a #11 hit in the UK. The song was originally a smash for Mickey & Sylvia in 1956-57, but was also an unexpected return to the Everlys’ rock ‘n’ roll beginnings. “Love Is Strange” was written and first recorded by Bo Diddley, whose rhythm guitar genius was refracted through big brother Don’s intro riff on “Bye Bye Love.”
The brothers cut “Love Is Strange” on June 7, 1965, in Hollywood and while Beat & Soul was hit-and-miss, you certainly can’t blame the band, which was basically an offshoot of The Wrecking Crew and the Shindig! house band, The Shindogs:
Everly Brothers – vocals, guitar
James Burton (Wrecking Crew, Shindig!) – guitar
Glen Campbell (Wrecking Crew, Shindig!) – guitar
Sonny Curtis (The Crickets) – guitar
Billy Preston (Shindig!) – keyboards
Larry Knechtel (Wrecking Crew, Shindig!) – bass
Jim Gordon (Wrecking Crew) – drums
2:14 – “It’s good to be back.” Phil then Don, appropriately in harmony, regarding being on stage together for the first time in 10 years. The reunion was held September 23, 1983, at Royal Albert Hall in London.
2:22 – “Bye, Bye Love.” That opening riff is so simple, yet there’s Don Everly playing it, and there’s anyone else playing it. He was such a great rhythm guitarist with a heavy, secretly funky right hand. He wasn’t a flashy soloist or anything, but Don was one of the most underrated guitarists of his era, like a rock ‘n’ roll Jimmy Martin. This 1983 comeback performance is noteworthy now because Albert Lee was guitarist and bandleader, but I think bassist Mark Griffiths is the secret weapon on “Bye Bye Love.” His thumping bass syncopates perfectly with Don’s guitar, providing a musical harmony underneath the brothers’ vocal harmony.
3:03 – Cut to 1957 performance of “Bye Bye Love.” Don was 20 and Phil was 18 when the song was released and boy do they look it. Amazing that this was their very first single on tiny Cadence Records and it immediately became a gigantic hit in both pop and country. And so began a virtually uninterrupted 5-year hot streak for the brothers. Interesting that the studio band chimes in on horns and strings and even though the song doesn’t necessarily need the sweetening, it works. Sign of a great song, but also sign of things to come.
3:46 – Cut back to 1983 concert.
4:15 – Ike Everly introduces the family on a 1952 radio appearance.
5:02 – Ike Everly covers “Blue Smoke,” a song written by his friend and fellow guitar picker, Merle Travis. If you wonder how Don Everly became a great guitarist, it sure didn’t hurt that his dad helped develop the three-finger, thumb-centric guitar picking style that came to be known as “Travis picking.” Though popularized by Travis and later Chet Atkins, Ike Everly was one of a handful of guitarists who taught a young Merle how to fingerpick, using the thumb to drive the beat. Of course, Ike and these other white boys learned that technique from a black musician who we’ll meet later.
5:39 – Don discusses the early morning radio shows from back when he and Phil were part of dad’s radio programs.
6:12 – Phil Everly: “Dad played all the time and we would go down to the radio station and watch him performing. He taught you everything you knew, but it wasn’t like at 3:00 come in and learn to play the guitar. It’s the same way I taught my boys. You show ’em and they must go forth.”
6:28 – From 1951, audio of Ike introducing the Everly brothers (though not yet The Everly Brothers). Phil then intros “Don’t Let Our Love Die,” a song very much in the Hank Williams mold because why wouldn’t you wanna write a Hank song in ’51?
7:35 – Cut to Phil and Don in 1983 finishing “Don’t Let Our Love Die.” Then, Don reflects on the early radio days when he was “Little Donnie” at KMA Radio in Shenandoah, Iowa.
9:09 – Ike Everly picking an instrumental probably from The Everly Brothers Show, a one-hour variety program that ABC ran for 10 episodes in the summer of 1970. Ike and the boys then goof a bit before Phil and Ike have a poem contest.
10:51 – Don expounds on his dad for awhile, including how much he loved the blues. Cut to Don picking the blues in a simplified, Travis/Everly picking style. Don also references Arnold Schultz, the black guitarist who not only taught a handful of white kids, including Ike Everly and Bill Monroe, how to thumb-pick the blues. Though mostly a historical footnote, Schultz is one of the most important southern musicians of the first half of the 20th century. Because of his influence on men who later made substantial contributions to country, country-blues, and in Monroe’s case invented bluegrass, Schultz is an unsung linchpin of the roots of rock ‘n’ roll.
12:28 – BBC: What kind of place is (Muhlenberg County, Kentucky)?
Don: Well, it’s a coalmining area and it seems to me coalminers sing. There’s areas in the United States that (create) a lot of music. West Texas, in particular. I don’t know, they’re not miners there, but there’s something, a little pocket of music. No telling what it would be, but a lot of music came out of there.
12:55 – BBC: How much did the style changed from when you were kids to when you were successful?
Phil: I wouldn’t say any. I think it just comes from having sung all those years together, the fact that we’re brothers, the fact that we were being influenced by too many things and we could pretty well sing almost anything. We had heard a lot of Bailes Brothers — we dealt in a very close harmony — and York Brothers, Delmore Brothers, and these major kind of country acts.
13:58 – After discussing his father’s pre-war country band with younger brothers, Leonard and Chuck, we’re treated to the great “Kentucky,” a centerpiece of their shows for years because it would just be Don on acoustic guitar and vocals and Phil on harmony. Nothing else. Perfection.
15:45 – Let’s visit the Lighthouse Baptist Church in rural Drakesboro, Kentucky, where we make the secular humanists uncomfortable. We witness Cousin Ted Everly at the pulpit getting sanctified, but if you look at a preacher as a kind of entertainer, you can see the familial charisma at play. The Everly family takes a turn through the Joel Hemphill gospel number, “He’s Still Working On Me.”
18:42 – We hear “All I Have To Do Is Dream” underneath as Uncle Roland and Aunt Margaret are introduced at church. Then, Don talks about how Ike and Roland once hand-loaded 18 tons of coal by hand. Wait, what??? EIGHTEEN TONS! OF COAL! BY HAND! We’re pussies.
19:25 – Cut to Phil and Don singing “All I Have To Do Is Dream” in the living room to Aunt Margaret. It’s a sweet, heartfelt moment and at this point I have to say that if you don’t like the Everly Brothers there is something wrong with you. You have no excuses.
22:39 – I have to commend the director for having Don ask Uncle Roland about how Ike and the brothers used to win talent contests by having all three brothers play a single guitar, then follow with Phil and Don pulling that same trick with Tennessee Ernie Ford on the April 13, 1961 Ford Show. I’ve seen The Reverend Horton Heat do this, although it was the Rev and whoever was on standup bass, and The Sadies’ wiki page has this as the main picture. That The Sadies are also a brother act a couple generations removed from the Everlys is not lost on me. Dig “Rattlesnake Blues.”
24:25 – Don: “Wherever we would live, every summer we would be back in Kentucky. All Kentuckians kept the road hot between Chicago and Kentucky. I mean, they lived in Chicago, but they’re Kentuckians, they would go back. There still is a tradition in the neighborhoods in Chicago of people — Kentuckians or Tennesseans or West Virginians — that have gone there for work. But, (dad) would go back and we’d go to these small towns and the guitar would be there and we’d pass the guitar to this fella, he’d sing awhile, then pass it over. It was constant.”
24:57 – Historical Preservation Alert! Moses Rager sings Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues,” the kind of country blues that integrated white and blacks on an important cultural level in those years before the civil rights movement took hold. Moses Rager is doubly important because he wasn’t just a “retired coalminer,” he was one of those white Kentucky kids, like his buddy, Ike Everly, who developed the Travis picking style. In fact, Merle Travis said on more than one occasion that Travis picking should be called Rager picking. Sadly, Moses died 2-3 years after this footage was shot.
28:36 – Moses Rager – “Cannonball Rag.”
29:40 – After Rager talks about working in the mines with Ike Everly, we hear Merle Travis performing his mining anthem “Nine Pound Hammer.” Well, one of them. Hard to say if this or “Dark As A Dungeon” is the more definitive Merle Travis coalmining song.
31:08 – We learn that No. 9 Coal is a thing. We also hear about unionizing coal miners getting shot at by machine guns. I repeat … we’re pussies.
35:02 – The Everly Brothers sing John Prine‘s “Paradise,” which they cut for 1973’s Pass The Chicken & Listen. “Paradise” is one of the standout tracks on Prine’s self-titled debut and a song that feels like he was commissioned to write specifically for the Everlys … though I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case.
37:03 – Phil and Cousin Ted.
38:32 – Phil: “I think it’s a basic truth. Life is full of both happy and sad events. Love and death and losing and winning. This area and this music, people are very honest about it. When you’re happy you sing a happy song, when you’re sad you sing it sad, and you allow yourself to feel.”
41:25 – The Everlys on moving to Nashville in 1956 so they get on records and appear on the Grand Ole Opry. Says Don, “Hank Williams to me was the first real rock ‘n’ roll star, the way I would call a rock ‘n’ roll star. He wasn’t real, pure country, a downhome musician. He was out there, he was chugging along, man, and it was dancing and stuff. I think it was a combination of that and black R&B that made rock ‘n’ roll.”
42:23 – Hank Williams – “Hey, Good Lookin'”
44:00 – Don on how he and Phil would hang outside the Opry and pitch songs.
45:42 – Chet Atkins picking guitar with the brothers looking on in amazement.
46:27 – Chet Atkins: “There used to be stories that Ike and Moses used to go down to this Arnold Schultz, is that his name? They’d go down to his house and crawl in under the porch and listen to him pick at night. Then they’d go home and try to imitate what he was doing. I don’t know if it’s true.”
Don [laughing]: “Dad said he followed him around everywhere.”
47:02 – Chet Atkins: “Country folks they’d go to town and buy Blind Lemon Jefferson and “Big Boy” Crudup and all those people. The lyrics were about the same problems — love and infidelity and everything. I was the same way. The first tune I learned to play were like “Matchbox Blues” by Blind Lemon (Atkins mistakenly says Johnson). Most white southerners do that, or did that. They bought a lot of black blues.”
48:31 – Chet Atkins: “They (the Everly Brothers) were into Bo Diddley and people like that. And that I think helped them get a contemporary sound because the first thing they did when they got in the studio, they started playing that Bo Diddley lick that we’d listened to so much.”
49:26 – Brief excerpt from The Legend Of Bo Diddley, a 20-minute short film that Chess Records financed in 1966. We see Bo recording “We’re Gonna Get Married,” which also includes footage of Chess’ female backup singers, The Gems. If I’m not mistaken, the girl on the far right is Minnie Riperton, who was 18 years old when this footage was shot.
50:17 – Cut to Don on guitar splitting the difference between Bo Diddley and “Bye Bye Love” while Chet Atkins hambones.
51:11 – We finally meet Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, the husband and wife songwriting team who composed several Everlys hits between 1957-61. Which songs, you ask? How about this murderer’s row of classics:
Bye Bye, Love
Wake Up, Little Susie
All I Have To Do Is Dream
Brand New Heartache
Take A Message To Mary
Devoted To You
52:00 – Felice: “Boudleaux would know what would sound good and he would know how high Phil could sing. He would put him up there because Phil to Boudleaux sounded like a Stradivarius (violin) when he’d hit those high notes. Boudleaux just loved that.” “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?” is perfect bed music. You can find this traditional number on the aforementioned Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (1958).
53:01 – Archie Bleyer, founder of Cadence Records: “A man from Nashville gave me a call one day and suggested I listen to a demo he’d made with two young boys who he thought had great potential. They were The Everly Brothers. Well, listening to the record that was sent to me, I was really not that impressed with them. In the course of a phone conversation with a music publisher from Nashville, whose name is Wesley Rose, Wesley suggested that he’d make a demo with them and that I listen again because he felt sure that these boys could be successful. So, he made a new demo and I listened to it and this time I was very much impressed. And I signed them.”
54:18 – Everlys on empty stage of the Ryman Auditorium.
Don: “I remember encoring here four times! Coming back and not stopping. They just kept applauding. We’d come back and sing ‘Bye Bye Love,’ maybe half of it three or four times.”
Phil: “It felt like a sea of people, too. It’s different now (that) we’ve played larger audiences, but at that time it looked like an ocean of people. It was something.”
Don: “Our world was a little smaller then.” [both men laugh]
56:51 – The Everlys on The Archie Bleyer Show performing “Problems.” Here’s an interesting series of factoids. At the very beginning of the Bleyer Show opening credits you hear a snippet of “Mr. Sandman,” a #1 hit in 1954 for The Chordettes. While that song is way closer to The Andrews Sisters than it is rock ‘n’ roll, the Andrews, Chordettes, AND Everlys were all close harmony singers. “Mr. Sandman” also came out on Cadence, Bleyer having signed The Chordettes in 1953, then marrying Janet Ertel of The Chordettes the following year. Janet’s daughter, Jackie, is referenced by Bleyer at 57:23 and highlighted at 57:44. Her reaction to songs was kind of a divining rod for Archie in the late ’50s and he makes it pretty clear that it helped him figure out which Everlys songs to release. As it happens, in 1963, Jackie Ertel married none other than Phil Everly. True story.
59:38: Picture showing Phil and Don with Buddy Holly.
1:00:40 – “Walk Right Back.” I’m almost positive this is from that same Tennessee Ernie Ford Show as above (April 13, 1961).
1:02:06 – Don: “We tried to continually introduce new things. We were the first I think in Nashville to have horns on sessions, and harpsichords … and attempting at other sounds other than the same thing every time.”
1:02:40 – Don: “I remember when Chet came along with the volume control and changed it to tonal control, which was one of the first–they called it the ‘wah wah pedal.’ And then he also had taken a tremelo that was really unknown at that point. You couldn’t buy an amplifier with (tremelo) in it. He graciously let us use it for ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream.’ We were into that. We wanted to experiment.”
1:03:06 – Very timely. The Everlys with The Chordettes, undoubtedly from one of Archie Bleyer’s shows. Janet Ertel, Bleyer’s wife, and later Phil’s mother-in-law, is far right.
1:05:45 – Don: “I called Little Richard rock ‘n’ roll. But, I guess I also called what Buddy Holly was doing was rock ‘n’ roll. The basic music that I grew up with and lived all my life will always be with me. I didn’t think because I would settle down and get married and have a house in the suburbs that I would quit liking that music.” Cue Everly Brothers covering “Lucille.”
“Play me a song that everybody knows
And I betcha it belongs to Acuff-Rose.”
–Uncle Tupelo, “Acuff-Rose,” 1993
1:07:50 – Don: “Very few of those rock ‘n’ roll people from our life, in fact, none that I can think of ever had control over anything they did. [Don then segues to the dispute with Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose that ultimately resulted in Rose’s firing as their manager. Unfortunately, that decision cost the brothers their access to key songwriters like the Bryants, but gave them the creative independence they needed.] It wound up that a publishing company had control of what was being released. And we disagreed with that entirely. If your publishing company controls your releases, they’re gonna want their songs released. So, artistic freedom, it came down to that. We had to have it and we got it. In the process, of course, all the people that we were dealing with had to go by the wayside in order for us to pursue, right or wrong, what we wanted to do musically.”
I have a couple of problems with this documentary, the first being that it glosses over arguably the most important episode of the Everlys career. The break with Wesley Rose in 1961 taught the brothers that the music industry, at heart, is a plantation. It’s great when the hits are coming and everyone is doing what they’re told, but artists better not get the crazy idea that they’re human beings with a right to leverage artistic control. Because that’s when the plantation unleashes a legal apparatus that was created to protect vested financial interests.
1:08:37 – “Cathy’s Clown.” This was the Everlys’ first single on Warners in 1960 and it was their last #1 single.
1:10:17 – The brothers join the Marines on November 21, 1961.
1:11:46 – On February 18, 1962, the Everly Brothers appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in their dress blues to perform “Crying In The Rain” and “Jezebel.”
1:14:24 – Don: “The only pressure I felt was everyone saying, ‘The Beatles sound an awful lot like you.’ Well, what do I do?”
1:14:55 – Don: “They (’60s kids) didn’t know what to think of us at all. Not at all. Even if we didn’t wear tuxes, they knew we were from the ’50s, and that was not the ’60s. It was that attitude and (our) songs didn’t have any double meanings, really. So, we had a hard row to hoe in that group and we also worked Vegas and that was really bad.” Cue Jimi Hendrix wailing on the national anthem at Woodstock.
1:15:46 – Phil: “I always felt that the ’60s were phony.” While I don’t agree with Phil that the ’60s was a bad period for music — there’s too much evidence to the contrary — I think the phoniness claim has merit. Not that there weren’t genuine, authentically free thinkers, but when you build a culture that embraces free love, heavy drugs, and politics-as-theater, you can’t be surprised when predators, addicts, and phonies show up to the orgy. One man’s cultural and political revolutionary is another man’s self-serving middle class poser. To-MAY-to, to-MAO-to.
1:16:06 – Don: “In the ’60s we were never able to break into that record thing at all no matter what music we pursued. I got stoned, I did everything trying to record something, maybe there’s something I’m missing in this whole thing.” [whole room laughs] We were just never accepted. We were working, but our records weren’t (selling). And we made some really good records.”
1:16:40 – “Bowling Green.” On February 28, 1971, the Everlys appeared on Ed Sullivan for the final time, performing one of my favorite songs in the EB canon. “Bowling Green” was released as a single in 1967 — their last top 40 hit in the US — but it also led off their second LP from that year, The Everly Brothers Sing. Interestingly, it’s usually credited to Terry Slater, the bass player in the Everly band in the mid-to-late ’60s, however, there is a co-writer and her name is Jackie Ertel aka Mrs. Phil Everly.
1:18:16 – Newspaper headline: “Dramatic Everly break up.” To reiterate, I think this documentary did a lot of things well. We learned a lot about Phil and Don’s Kentucky coalmining roots and that they were part of a family of charismatic entertainers. But, we got from their 1961 enlistment in the Marines to their dramatic 1973 breakup in 8 minutes of film time. It took us 51 minutes to get to Boudleaux and Felice Bryant and the meat of their Cadence period. I love that you really dig into the Everly roots here, but how about the album Roots???
1:19:02 – Phil: “The real pressure was the business. We had more to worry about that, then … you mean, sibling rivarly continuing past adolescence and all the way into childhood? No, it was more the pressures of the business. It’s a simplistic kind of view that (sibling rivalry) is what led to the ultimate end of the Everly Brothers. But, it’s untrue.”
1:20:14 – Don: “I went through a period (where) I didn’t wanna sing anything Phil and I had done. I needed a rest. I wasn’t pursuing it. I spent a lot of time just living an ordinary life, which I hadn’t done before. I’s sorta amazed to be off the road for the first time that I could remember. I did one album in California. There was a band called Heads Hands & Feet that come into town. (Guitarist) Albert Lee became a good friend of mine and I wound up working with them on a collaboration of an album called Sunset Towers.”
1:21:01 – Phil: “Periodically, I will get an urge to play and go do it. But, I’ll go 2 years without performing in front of somebody and it won’t bother me too much because I make music at home and (I’ve always been) satisfied.”
1:21:31 – Audio of an Ike Everly radio show.
1:22:08 – Tom Petty: “There’s really no better singers than The Everly Brothers is there?” Love that Petty is represented because he does one of my favorite Everly covers with “Stories We Could Tell” from Pack Up The Plantation: Live! (released in 1985, but the song was recorded in 1980). “Stories” was written by John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonful) and served as the title track for the brothers’ underrated 1972 LP. For all of the flawed records in their catalog, Stories We Could Tell and Roots are excellent efforts from later period Everlys. If you own no other albums, get those.
1:22:30 – British actress Charlotte Rampling. Rowwwr.
1:24:15 – Phil: “I kinda feel because we’re playing the Royal Albert that dad is there. And it’s special ’cause I know that he really would like this (1983 reunion). It’s important that we do this regardless of what we do afterwards. It’s important that we sing together at least once more. It’s a magic moment in my life and Don’s, too. So, (it’s) just ideal.”
1:29:50 – We revisit Lighthouse Baptist Church as the Everly family, including Phil, takes us through “Amazing Grace.”
1:30:30 – Phil: “You can sing the blues at 20 and be blue. You can be sad at 20. When you sing the blues at 40, you’ve got 40 years of blues and 40 years of sadness, and it’s sadder. But, then at 60 it’ll be some other way. The family made music, dad made music, and he taught us the craft. And actually, I believe that it’s a family business, otherwise I wouldn’t have taught my sons. Passing that on, I would like to see my grandchildren learn to play just because it’s what my dad taught me. His guitar got him out of the coalmines of Kentucky. The guitar he gave us got us all the way to London.”
1:31:38 – “Kentucky.” A centerpiece of the live act, this tune closes the documentary in stark, stunning fashion. What voices, we were lucky to have them as long as we did. Tell your friends: Phil Everly is dead. Long live The Everly Brothers!
You are the dearest land outside of Heaven to me
I miss your laurels and your redbud trees
I know that
My mother, dad, and sweetheart are waiting for me
I will be coming soon
When I die
I want to rest upon a graceful mountain so high
For that is where God will look for me
The actual Everly Brothers portion of the video is 1:34:30. The final 10 minutes is a lackluster interview with one of my favorite singers and songwriters, Tom T. Hall. This isn’t Tom T’s fault. The host is a condescending British prick with no sensitivity to country music, so the interview is a wasted opportunity. Ironically, Tom T. Hall was born in Olive Hill, Kentucky, about 4 hours northeast of Muhlenberg County.