Don Everly didn’t expect to outlive his younger brother Phil. “I always assumed I would go first, because I was the oldest,” he said following Phil’s death in 2014. He might have added: and wilder, and weirder. But in the end Don Everly has died at the respectable rock’n’roll age of 84, triggering an outpouring of love and recognition for the man Keith Richards described as “one of the finest rhythm players” and his indelible role in the family band which Rolling Stone magazine ranked No.1 on a list of the Greatest Duos of All Time.
The Everly Brothers ruled the UK and US charts in the late Fifties and early Sixties with bittersweet songs of teenage yearning. Bye Bye Love, Let It Be Me, Walk Right Back and Crying in the Raincaptured the agony and ecstasy of first love before The Beatles and The Stones arrived with the raunch.
The brothers put their exquisite sibling harmony stamp on songs written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Ray Charles and The Hollies, as well as their own material, written separately and together, such as Cathy’s Clown, which topped the UK charts for nine weeks in 1960, and provided direct inspiration for The Beatles’ Please Please Me.
The Everly Brothers were among the very first batch of inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, alongside Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, who has described the Everlys as “integral to the fabric of American music”.
Inducting the duo, Neil Young noted that every group he had been in had tried and failed to copy the Everly harmonies. They represented the gold standard for male pop harmony singing, with Don typically, but not exclusively, singing the baritone melody and Phil the tenor harmony. Their tight, natural interplay influenced The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel and fellow fraternal outfit The Bee Gees. They were the sound of the slow dance at the high school hop and later acknowledged as trailblazers for country rock.Isaac Donald Everly was born in February 1937 in Brownie, Kentucky to folk singers Ike and Margaret Everly. The family moved first to Chicago where younger brother Phil was born, and then to Iowa where the boys began singing on the family’s radio show as Little Donnie and Baby Boy Phil.
On relocating again to Nashville (via Knoxville), Tennessee in the 1950s, the adolescent duo picked up the patronage of ace guitar picker and industry player Chet Atkins, and launched their career with a debut single, Keep a-Loving Me, written by Don and recorded for Columbia Records. When the single flopped, Atkins helped them secure a publishing deal and a new label, Cadence Records.
Here, they were offered a song by spousal songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant which had been rejected by thirty other acts. Bye Bye Love, a jaunty chronicle of heartbreak, cuckoldry and suicidal ideation, shifted a million copies and became the first of a consistent five-year chart run at home, only interrupted when the brothers enlisted in the US Marine Corps.
When Top 10 success dried up in the States, the hits continued in the UK. The Price of Love was later given a glam rock makeover by Bryan Ferry, while their 1966 album, Two Yanks In England, was recorded with The Hollies as their songwriters and backing band.
However, by this point, the buzz-cut brothers had been thoroughly eclipsed by the young rock’n’roll groups they had influenced and remained artistically adrift until a late Sixties career reboot as country rockers. Their 1968 Roots album remains a touchstone among musicians, while the rambunctious Stories We Could Tell, released in 1972, is a cult classic.
However, their country rock renaissance was cut short by the time-honoured sibling strife, which boiled over at a gig in California in 1973. Phil had previously been left holding the fort on tour in 1962, when the Ritalin-addicted Don suffered a mental breakdown. This time it was Don’s turn to cover when his brother stormed off stage.
With the break-up of their partnership, Don pursued a moderately successful solo career, fronting his own country band Dead Cowboys. He was no stranger to the side hustle. Using the pseudonym Adrian Kimberly, he had previously recorded a twanging cover of Greensleeves and jaunty marching band rendition of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance for the brothers’ own shortlived Calliope Records.
With 20/20 tunnel vision, each brother regarded his sibling’s solo work as a betrayal. But they discovered they couldn’t live with or without each other and the Everly Brothers reunited ten years later for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, “sealing it with a hug” according to Phil.
They recorded another album, EB 84, featuring a lead single, On the Wings of a Nightingale, written by Paul McCartney, and contributed harmonies to Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland album. With sweet symmetry, Don’s last live appearance was on Simon’s 2018 farewell tour. They duetted on Bye Bye Love, with Simon covering Phil’s harmony.
Recognition abounded in his later career. The Everlys were given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1986, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997 and were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 but there were also quirkier, non-establishment tributes. In 2013, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones collaborated on Foreverly, a tribute to the Everlys’ 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. In the same year, the Chapin Sisters covered A Date with the Everly Brothers and alt.country musicians Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Dawn McCarthy released What the Brothers Sang, covering the lesser known corners of their sublime catalogue.
The brothers had become estranged again in later life and as recently as 2017 Don was contesting copyright of Cathy’s Clown. The pair had never agreed politically but, following Phil’s death, Don felt he could be more explicit in expressing his views, supporting Hilary Clinton as presidential candidate in 2016.
Everly is survived by his fourth wife Adela, his four children, Venetia, Stacy, Erin and Edan, and by his mother Margaret.
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