The month of January includes both the 80th anniversary of Phil Everly’s birth, and the fifth anniversary of his death, which makes it a good time to reflect on what he and his brother Don (Feb. 1 birthday) meant to The Music.
And a good occasion to watch again the 2016 British Broadcasting Co. special The Everly Brothers: Harmonies from Heaven, which not only features the Brothers’ music. It also delves into their influences, who they influenced and the cultural milieu — the late 1950s and early ’60s — in which they became one of the biggest acts in pop and country and western music.
But first, let’s reflect on what these two young men did in a five-year span, starting in 1957 and ending just before the British Invasion came ashore in the U.S: 18 U.S. Top 40 Billboard hits, 13 of them Top Tens, three of those No. 1s, and another three runners-up. They hold the record for most Billboard Hot 100 singles by a duo, and only Hall & Oates have more Top 40s, in the duo category.
Selling records is one measure of success, but Don and Phil scored big in an artistically more-important one: influence. But before we get to that, where did this stuff come from? Little Brownie, in Muhlenberg County, Ky. — yes, the same place that John Prine wrote about.
And from their parents: Isaac Milford “Ike” Everly, a coal miner whose father encouraged his son to pursue his love of music, and Margaret Embry, in her mid-teens when she married her 11-year-older husband. When Don and Phil were young, the family moved to Chicago, where Ike Everly performed and influenced Merle Travis and others in thumb-style guitar.
Wanting their children to grow up, like they did, in a small town, the elder Everlys moved their family to Iowa. In the small town of Shenandoah, Ike Everly — who had been teaching his boys to sing harmony — got his family on an early-morning show on the local radio station.
When the boys were in their early teens, the family again relocated to Knoxville, Tenn. There, a family friend — legendary guitarist Chet Atkins — got them a shot at recording in Nashville. Their first single release, a song penned by Don Everly, tanked, and cost them their contract with Columbia Records.
But Atkins introduced them to music publisher Wesley Rose, who in turn connected them to Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records, the label on which they would record for the next several years. This also led them to Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the husband-and-wife songwriters who would provide most of their big early hits.
Felice Bryant, and her son Del, figure prominently in the above-mentioned TV special, which also features commentary by upwards of 20 musicians, songwriters, music journalists and others. (Felice’s comments provide a window into the Brothers history, but also into the songwriting process; she and her husband were among the earliest to make that profession a living, at least in Nashville.)
Back to influences, which is mostly what the BBC special is about: the Everlys were influenced by much of the same music that led most early rock and rollers to create. Don, who is still living, in particular talked about the impact that black Gospel and blues had on them; their father’s music was country, of course.
Much of the TV show is commentary from an “A” list of music industry figures, much of that about who Don and Phil influenced. A few talk about American culture at the time the Everlys came to prominence, record company executive Keith Harris noting that the family radio in the living room, the dominion of the parents, was being subverted by transistor radios that allowed teenagers to take their music to their rooms. Writer Lucy O’Brien weighs in on the growing disposable income that allowed teens to buy records — lots of them.
But much of the commentary is by musicians who the Everlys inspired. Art Garfunkel talks about how the brothers’ tight harmonies influenced he and Paul Simon in their high school years — and notes that, although they tried to be each other’s family, they didn’t have the DNA that helped Don and Phil’s voices work so well together.
While the Everlys’ vocalizations are what most fans remember, a bunch of those interviewed for the special were guitarists who talk about the brothers’ six-string work: among them, roots rocker Dave Edmunds, Albert Lee of Head Hands and Feet, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and legendary session musician Waddy Wachtel. Don and Phil’s guitar work — the former admitted Bo Diddley was a big influence — was groundbreaking, and a big factor in their success, those musicians point out, and demonstrate.
The combination of the two young men’s voices and instruments had a major impact on the music of the ’60s. His first band took their name from another early rock legend, Buddy Holly, but Graham Nash observed that it was the Everlys who really influenced the pop/rock revolution of the mid-60s. “If you talked … to everyone that was in the British Invasion … they loved the Everly Borthers, and tried to do that,” the Hollies vocalist observed.
But Richards’s comments also underline the fact that the movement that the Everlys helped create, also dethroned them. The Stones’ founding partner noted that his band opened for Don and Phil on a 1963 package concert series in the U.K., the up-and-coming group’s first tour (which also featured Diddley). By the end of the tour, Richards notes, the brothers had surrendered the top spot to the Stones.
That was recognizing the writing on the wall: the Beatles, Hollies, Stones and other British Invasion bands were dominating the charts within a year, and the Everlys had just two Top 40 singles after 1963. Ten years later, they broke up in an acrimonious split that culminated in an on-stage spat. They didn’t speak to each other for 10 years, although they did reunite professionally, eventually; while the personality conflicts that drove that breakup are obvious in Don’s comments, so is the affection that continued despite those.
The influence the Everly Brothers had on musicians has extended into the 21st century. Among those commenting during the TV special are Jake Bugg, a then-22-year-old British musician who’s already had a No. 1 U.K. album; and Teddy Thompson, son of English folk-rock legend and guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson (and formerly a member of his dad’s band). “I thought all music was going to be this good,” the latter said of his first exposure to the brothers’ music — and then shook his head, sadly.
Anyway, the Everly Brothers documentary is worth a look and listen — even if the talk outweighs the music offered; not sure any of their songs is played in its entirety. Doesn’t seem to be on YouTube, other than a trailer and a preview, but it appears to air somewhat regularly on American public TV, and there was a DVD/BlueRay release around the time it originally aired.