How the Everly Brothers' harmonies shaped pop music

In the ‘50s, the Everly Brothers arrived like a mirage from some deep Southern dream – boyishly handsome, guitar-playing siblings whose voices blended into something haunted, almost mystical.

“When we first heard it, it blew us away,” Paul McCartney once said of the Everlys’ “All I Have to do is Dream,” one of a string of hits Phil and Don Everly had ¿in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that transformed pop music.

The sound of “All I Have to do is Dream” echoed through the minds of the still-nascent Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys and countless other soon-to-be-icons. Chet Atkins’ tremolo-enhanced guitar underlines the duo’s longing, conveyed by harmonies that had been honed since childhood.

Phil Everly, who died Friday at age 74, once explained that their sound evolved in a way only shared by family members. He and Don pronounced and phrased words, even accented syllables the same way because they had been listening to each other talk and sing their entire lives. It brought an ache and an intimacy to nearly everything the brothers recorded.

Phil, the younger of the two, was born in Chicago in 1939, but his stay there was brief. The family, with deep roots in Kentucky, moved to the Midwest and eventually wound up in Iowa in search of musical opportunities for its patriarch, Ike Everly, who hosted a radio show with his wife, Margaret, and their two young sons.

When the family moved back South, to Tennessee, in the ‘50s, Atkins befriended them. The legendary guitarist guided their early career, and the duo landed on Cadence Records, where they crashed the pop charts while Phil was still a teenager. Between 1957 and 1962, they scored 25 top-40 hits on Cadence and Warner Brothers, including “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Bird Dog” and “Cathy’s Clown.”

Their sound was different: the Everlys were a rock ‘n’ roll duo with a singing style that evoked the forlorn harmonies of the hardest, most plaintive country duos. The timeless cry of the Stanley, Delmore and Louvin Brothers had seeped into their young consciousness, nurtured by their musician parents. It’s all there in the 1958 album “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us,” which came out at the height of their success and yet painted a stark, moving portrait of their roots in deep country and gospel.

After the Beatles arrived in America in 1964, the Everly Brothers’ chart reign – and that of most homegrown artists – all but ended. But the Beatles championed the work of Phil and Don as a major influence, and the duo continued to record. Its 1968 “Roots” album is a crucial link in the development of country rock. The duo broke up in 1973, but their songs remained as popular as ever: Linda Ronstadt had a huge hit with Phil’s “When Will I Be Loved” in 1975, and McCartney name-checked “Phil and Don” in his million-selling 1976 hit “Let ‘Em In.”

The duo was reunited for a trio of ‘80s albums with the enthusiastic help of such super-fans as McCartney, Dave Edmunds and Mark Knopfler, and their music was the subject of no less than three album-long tributes last year by contemporary artists: Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones (“Foreverly,” which reprised “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” in its entirety), Will Oldham and Dawn McCarthy (“What the Brothers Sang”) and the Chapin Sisters (“A Date with the Everly Brothers”).

But the core of the Everly Brothers’ legacy remains their own recordings, an enduring reminder of just how heart-breaking two voices can sound. Here’s a brief timeline of their career, arranged chronologically in song:

“Introduction: The Everly Family” and “Montage” (1952) from “Roots” (1968): “Baby boy Phil,” age 13, joins brother Don, 15, and their parents to sing some gospel-infused country on their father’s radio show in Iowa.

“Bye Bye Love” (1957): The raw, rhythmic drive of Don’s acoustic guitar announces the Everlys’ arrival on the pop charts with this, their first million-selling single. The song, written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, was rejected by other bigger-name acts until the Everlys used it to immortalize their signature mix of country twang and rock ‘n’ roll drive. It was later covered by Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, Simon and Garfunkel and George Harrison, among others.

“All I Have to Do is Dream” (1958): An ambience that echoes the haunting humidity of the most forlorn doo-wop ballads.

“Hey Doll Baby” (1958): One of the duo’s friskiest performances as their voices frolic atop the hard-strumming rockabilly-style acoustic guitars.

“Wake Up Little Susie” (1957): Despite the risqué subject matter (or maybe because of it), “Susie” hits No. 1, the brothers’ hard-hitting guitars setting the tone of breathless anxiety from the get-go.

“I’m Here to Get my Baby out of Jail” (1958): A plaintive country two-step included in the “Songs our Daddy Taught Us” album.

“Take a Message to Mary” (1959): A message from jail – “don’t tell her what I’ve done” – to his fiancé from a condemned man. The stripped-down ballad, accompanied by little more than the clacking of what sound like stirrups, marks another stunning change of pace.

“When Will I Be Loved” (1960): A Phil original that becomes one of the duo’s most enduring hits, and one of their last with a rockabilly edge. It was later covered by everyone from Linda Ronstadt, who had a major hit with it 1975, to John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen.

“Cathy’s Clown” (1960): It opens with its cascading chorus underpinned by a distinctive series of martial snare-drum ripples, and then slips into the verses where pounding piano replaces guitars as the primary instrument. The more ornate sound sets up the brothers’ debut single for Warner Brothers.

“The Price of Love” (1965): A chugging rocker with a bigger beat that provides an emphatic response to the British Invasion bands who freely appropriated the Everlys’ sound.

“I Wonder if I Care as Much” (1968): Don’s song originally appeared on the Everlys’ 1958 debut, and was reprised for the pioneering country-rock album “Roots” with a mystical, psychedelic feel.

“On the Wings of a Nightingale” (1984): The duo’s comeback single was written by McCartney, with Phil soaring on the first two lines of the chorus, then swooping down, inevitably, to join Don.

greg@gregkot.com

 

 

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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