Harmony, melancholy and indelible influence of the Everly Brothers | Pop and rock
AAmong the hundreds of hours of footage from the recording sessions that eventually became the Beatles’ Let It Be album was a version of Two of Us, recorded on January 25, 1969. While John Lennon and Paul McCartney s ‘harmonize, the latter said to the former: “Take it, Phil”, a reference to Phil and Don Everly, the duo on which the couple had initially tried to model themselves. On a morning vacation, Lennon and McCartney attempted to impress the local girls by telling them that they had a band at home and that they were “the British Everly Brothers.”
Soon after, the duo temporarily stopped working entirely on the song and began performing a ragged cover of Bye Bye Love instead. It’s both strangely sweet – a fleeting moment where the moody sessions actually served their purpose of bringing The Beatles back to their roots – and strangely revealing. At the end of a decade in which they had done more than anyone to completely change rock music, shifting its parameters until it was sometimes unrecognizable from the state it started the ’60s in – and making people like Don and Phil Everly old news in the process – John Lennon and Paul McCartney always wanted to look like the Everly Brothers. Throughout it all, McCartney later wrote, “their music resonated in my mind.”
But then, who wouldn’t want to sound like the Everly Brothers, at least when it comes to vocal harmonies? Listen to their hit series from 1957 to 1962 and you will hear music that is both airy and haunting, both modern and centuries-old. The lyrics center on the rock’n’roll topics of teenage romance and high school life, but the Everly family had roots in Kentucky, and the brothers’ voices were also rooted in the harmonies of the folk music of the Appalachians. Despite all the apparent ease with which their voices mingled and the talk about the ineffable power and naivety of brotherly harmonization, Phil said their singing was a complex, intricate act based on diatonic thirds, with its sound. older brother – who tended to sing the tracks – very in charge. “He’s so good, I have to be careful every second with my harmonies,” he said shortly before his death in 2014. “It’s like playing tennis with someone who is really great. You cannot let your mind wander for a nanosecond.
It was a sound they could use to evoke exuberant joy – like on (Till) I Kissed You from 1959, written by Don – but most often turned to evoke sadness. A deep and touching vein of melancholy runs through most of their greatest hits. Often heartbroken even when the music was catchy, as on Bye Bye Love, they excelled in ballads: the alien All I Have to Do Is Dream; the depressed and self-written Cathy’s Clown. If you want to hear how weird they might sound, turn to Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, their 1958 traditional country album – a remarkably daring move in the heyday of rock’n’roll – and their version of five. minutes from the 19th Century Song Lightning Express, its harshness cutting through the heart-wrenching sentimentality of the song: “The best friend I have in this world, sir, awaits me in pain, should die anytime.” If you want to hear the unadorned power of their vocals, their 1959 minor hit Take a Message to Mary strips the musical backing until it’s barely there: Acoustic guitars are low in the mix, someone. sounds a bottle in place of the drums and everything is focused on the vocals.
It was a sound that seemed to leave an indelible mark on the next generation of musicians. Apart from the Beatles, the Everly Brothers were celebrated by everyone from the Rolling Stones – Keith Richards hailed Don as “one of the best rhythm guitarists I have ever heard” and called their voices “almost mystical” – to the Beach Boys. . Paul Simon called them “the most beautiful duo I have ever heard”, Bob Dylan asserted that “we owe these guys everything – they started it all”, while Neil Young suggested that his whole career was based about trying and not sounding like them.
Considering the degree of influence they wielded, the ’60s should have been an easy decade for them to adjust. They clearly had ambitions that stretched beyond rock ‘n’ roll and country – in 1961, Don recorded a big band version of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance under the pseudonym Adrian Kimberly, bravely trying to market it as “The Graduation Song” – and certainly could adapt to changing times: listen to Glitter and Gold and June Is as Cold as December from 1966, the latter a superb rendition of the sound of the electric guitar to 12 Byrds strings. They recorded with the Hollies as a backing group on Two Yanks in England – turning out a few minor songs that the Hollies contributed with their vocals in the process – and Don, still the most outward looking of the pair, enthusiastically embraced the new era, paling around with Jimi Hendrix and taking LSD.
But the blows stopped. Perhaps they were too tied in the public’s mind to the first wave of rock’n’roll, albeit a confluence of circumstances – the couple’s increasingly strained relationship; addiction to amphetamines which, in Don’s case, led to an overdose in 1962; a stint in the US Marines – no doubt helped. The earthy side of the post-psychedelic era, ushered in by the band Music From Big Pink, suited them better: their fantastic 1968 album, Roots, like the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, ushered in what has become country rock. . But it didn’t sell, which sounds extraordinary when you hear how great their version of what Gram Parsons called “American Cosmic Music” sounded on You Done Me Wrong or Mama Tried. Neither did Don’s eponymous solo album in 1970, a true little-known gem, housing the magnificent song Omaha.
The duo acrimoniously split in 1973, and Don pursued a country career with intermittent success before a much-publicized ’80s reform. The following album EB84, with his contributions from McCartney and ELO’s Jeff Lynne eclipsing a Don Everly’s trio of great originals, set the tone for the rest of their careers, which was heavily supported by the young artists they had influenced. They sang on Paul Simon’s Graceland, while Simon and Garfunkel made their debt explicit by bringing the brothers on stage during the first set of their 2003 tour. Among the scattered recordings they made, one Dire Straits’ 1986 version of Why Worry makes the album track Brothers in Arms sound like something Don could have written himself in 1960.
Eventually, their old feuds resurfaced: By the time of Phil’s death in 2014, the couple had separated again, this time seemingly arguing over American politics. Nevertheless, the death of his brother still upset Don: he kept his ashes and pretended to speak to them on a daily basis. But despite all the assumptions of their post-rock’n’roll careers, which left him with a string of early hits and a subsequent catalog rich in buried treasures, Don couldn’t help but be aware of the extraordinary influence that he and his brother had exercised, because people like McCartney kept telling him that.
“If someone comes along and says he’s been musically influenced by us, and appreciates that influence, it really makes me happy to think that I’ve influenced people,” he said in 2016. . “I don’t take it for granted.”