For a while there, Phil and Don Everly were almost the biggest thing going, rivalling Elvis with a string of hits beginning in 1957 with Bye Bye Love, and continuing into the early Sixties, with 1960’s Cathy’s Clown, their first Number 1 under a new relationship with Warner Records, being their biggest hit. During their run at the top they taught an emerging generation of performers all about intricate harmony and lilting melody, and were an incalculable influence on everybody from the Beach Boys and the Beatles to Neil Young and Paul Simon. Indeed Lennon and McCartney, early on, aspired to be the “British Everlys”, and their first Number1, Please Please Me, owed much to the American duo, featuring the same sort of harmonization that was the Everlys’ trademark. Keith Richards thought Don was one of the greatest rhythm guitar players who ever cut a record, and Bob Dylan said “we owe those guys everything”. They had taste, and serious vocal and instrumental chops. Their songs, whether self-written or not, avoided the kitsch and phoney sentimentality that characterized so much of the output of their 1950s peers, and drew heavily on the country and Appalachian folk music on which they were raised back home as boys in Kentucky. A striking, rather moving vein of heartbreak and melancholy runs through their hits, and even the most upbeat numbers, like Wake Up Little Susie, were less about happy romance than they were about stress, mistakes, and facing the unpleasant music.
Yet good as they were, and despite the boundless respect of the industry, their star faded with startling rapidity after around 1962. It’s hard to understand; there was nothing inherently obsolete or less sophisticated about their style as compared to most Sixties artists, and they should have been able to make a go of it. Instead they became a nostalgia act, and bickered back and forth, pursuing solo careers from the mid Seventies to the mid Eighties, until launching a minor comeback as a duo, propelled along by one Paul McCartney, who gifted them probably the best thing he ever wrote for a third party, the sublime On the Wings of a Nightingale, a song of the day way back when:
The middle selection above, Bowling Green, might seem an odd choice from a catalogue that contains much more prominent and popular numbers, but it’s a sentimental favourite. Way back, I think the late Sixties, the Everlys had what was then known as a “summer replacement series”, new programming the networks broadcast in the July-August hiatus rather than play reruns of Gunsmoke or Bonanza. It was my first exposure to the duo. They closed every show with a brief rendition of Bowling Green, and it really put the hook in me, especially that one delicious musical phrase, a man in Kentucky sure is lucky.
Phil died in 2014 of COPD, brought on by years of smoking, and Don left us just last week, his passing overshadowed by the almost contemporaneous death of Charlie Watts, a figure who these days looms much larger in the public consciousness. Charlie would have told you, though, just like all the greats would tell you, that Phil and Don Everly were the real deal, and earned their place in the pantheon.