Phil Everly was born to folk and country music singers Ike and Margaret Everly on Jan. 19, 1939, in Chicago, two years after his older brother. As the sons of country and western singers, they had been performing since they were ‘knee-high to grasshoppers’ and were the most country-oriented of the early rock giants.
The brothers began singing country music in 1945 on their family’s radio show in Shenandoah, Iowa, and though their sound would become more cosmopolitan over time, they never strayed far from their country roots.
Along with older brother Don, Phil Everly took The Everly Brothers to the forefront of its peers, first finding success with its self-titled debut album in 1958. The duo charted 31 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including 12 top 10 hits. They claimed a No. 1 single with ‘Cathy’s Clown’ in 1960, which spent five weeks atop the chart. The act was also successful on the Hot Country Songs chart, tallying four No. 1s with ‘Bye Bye Love,’ ‘Wake Up Little Susie,’ ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ and ‘Bird Dog.’
They are the chart’s third biggest duo ever, following Daryl Hall & John Oates, and the Carpenters.
At a show in Knoxville they commanded the attention of Chet Atkins, who helped the Everlys gain a recording contract with Columbia Records. However, their only release for the label, ‘Keep A’ Lovin Me,’ did not chart – and the brothers were quickly dropped from the roster. Atkins continued to encourage the Everlys, and helped them gain the attention of Wesley Rose – who signed them to Acuff / Rose as songwriters. That gave them a foot in the door to a deal with Cadence Records.
There is perhaps no more beautiful sound than the voices of siblings swirled together in high harmony, and when Phil and Don Everly combined their voices with songs about yearning, angst and loss, it changed the world.
It can be argued that while Elvis Presley was the king of rock `n’ roll, Phil and Don Everly were its troubled princes. They sang dark songs hidden behind deceptively pleasing harmonies and were perfect interpreters of the twitchy hearts of millions of baby boomer teens coming of age in the 1950s and `60s looking to express themselves beyond the simple platitudes of the pop music of the day.
The Everlys dealt in the entire emotional spectrum with an authenticity that appealed to proto rockers like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who gladly pass the credit for the sea changes they made in rock to the ruggedly handsome brothers. The Beatles, whose pitch-perfect harmonies set the pop music world aflame, once referred to themselves as “the English Everly Brothers.” And Dylan, pop culture’s poet laureate, once said, “We owe these guys everything. They started it all.”
Listen to the Everlys’ ‘Cathy’s Clown,’ for instance, then the Fab Four’s ‘Please Please Me.’ You’ll hear it right away. Simon & Garfunkel also were strongly influenced by the Everlys and recorded live versions of ‘Bye Bye Love’ and ‘Wake Up Little Susie.’
That reaction was universal for the Everlys. Their hit records included the then-titillating ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ and the era-identifying ‘Bye Bye Love,’ each featuring their twined voices with Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s lyrics that mirrored the fatalism of country music and the rocking backbeat of modern pop music. These sounds and ideas would be warped by their devotees into a new kind of music that would ricochet around the world.
Two generations later, artists are still finding inspiration in their music. Most recently, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones lovingly recorded a tribute to the Everlys and their unique album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.
The brothers pursued solo careers beginning in the early ‘70s, though Don obtained the lion’s share of the chart success at first. However, the younger Everly did end up finding success with 1983’s self-titled release in the U.K., hitting the country’s top 10 with ‘She Means Nothing to Me.’ Phil also appeared in the Clint Eastwood movie “Every Which Way but Loose.”
Their breakup came dramatically in 1973 during a concert at Knott’s Berry Farm in California. Phil Everly threw his guitar down and walked off, prompting Don Everly to tell the crowd, “The Everly Brothers died 10 years ago.”
Even during that hiatus, the Everlys influenced country’s direction. Linda Ronstadt’s version of Phil’s ‘When Will I Be Loved’ went to the top of the charts in 1975 and Everly covers included Connie Smith’s ‘Till I Kissed You’, Anne Murray’s ‘Walk Right Back’, Tammy Wynette’s ‘Crying in the Rain’, Willie Nelson’s ‘Let It Be Me’ Reba McEntire’s ‘Cathy’s Clown’ and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ ‘Gone Gone Gone’.
Phil and Don reunited in 1983 with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, which in turn led to their first album together in over a decade – EB ‘84. Produced by Dave Edmunds for Mercury, the Everlys placed five more records on the country charts in the mid 80s, with ‘Born Yesterday’ becoming their first top-20 record in 27 years. They appeared on the charts for the last time in 1989, adding vocals to a Johnny Cash remake of ‘Ballad Of A Teenage Queen,’ (which also featured Rosanne Cash).
In 1986, the duo became one of 10 inductees in the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and were later added to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
Don Everly said in a 1986 Associated Press interview that the two were successful because “we never followed trends. We did what we liked and followed our instincts. Rock `n’ roll did survive, and we were right about that. Country did survive, and we were right about that. You can mix the two but people said we couldn’t.”
The inspiration attributed to the Everlys’ voices brought the brothers together again in 2003 at the request of Simon & Garfunkel, a duo known to fight bitterly as well. The resulting tour brought a chuckle from Paul Simon in a Rolling Stone interview.
“It was hilarious that the four of us were doing this tour, given our collective histories of squabbling,” Simon said. “And it’s amazing, because they hadn’t seen each other in about three years. They met in the parking lot before the first gig. They unpacked their guitars – those famous black guitars – and they opened their mouths and started to sing. And after all these years, it was still that sound I fell in love with as a kid. It was still perfect.”
In 2006, Phil made one of his last recordings, appearing on Vince Gill’s These Days. The song, ‘Sweet Little Corrina,’ definitely hearkened back to the classic Everly Brothers sound.
Phil Everly last performed in public in 2011, but his son Jason told The Associated Press that he had been actively writing songs, living part of the year in Burbank and the rest in Nashville. He said his father had been in the hospital for about two weeks when he passed away.
Brother, Don Everly said in an official statement. “I was listening to one of my favourite songs that Phil wrote and had an exteme emotional moment just before I got news of his passing. I took that as a spiritual message from Phil saying goodbye. Our love was and will always be deeper than any earthly differences we might have had. The world might be mourning an Everly Brother, but I am mourning my brother Phil Everly.”