One half of harmonic, hitmaking duo
Phil and Don Everly on stage in 1964. Photograph: AP
Phil Everly, who has died aged 74, was half of the singing duo the Everly Brothers, who carried the close fraternal harmonies of country tradition into pioneering rock ‘n’ roll. With older brother Don, he had major successes with songs such as Wake Up Little Susie, Bye Bye Love, Cathy’s Clown, All I Have to Do Is Dream and When Will I Be Loved?
The brothers were consistent hitmakers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, winning over country, pop and even R&B listeners with a combination of clean-cut vocals and the rockabilly strum and twang of their guitars. They were also models for the generations which followed, from the Beatles and the Hollies; to Linda Ronstadt; Simon and Garfunkel; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and many others who recorded their songs and tried to emulate their precise vocal alchemy.
The Everlys carried a mountain-music blend, rooted in gospel and bluegrass, into pop songs that reached teenagers. They often sang in close tandem, with Phil on the higher note and the two voices virtually inseparable. That sound was part of a long lineage of country “brother acts” like the Delmore Brothers, the Monroe Brothers and the Louvin Brothers.
‘Sibling sound ’
Linda Ronstadt, who had a hit with the Everlys’ classic When Will I Be Loved? in 1975, commented: “They had that sibling sound. The information of your DNA is carried in your voice, and you can get a sound that you never get with someone who’s not blood-related to you.”
Paul Simon said: “Phil and Don were the most beautiful-sounding duo I ever heard. Both voices pristine and soulful. The Everlys were there at the crossroads of country and R&B. They witnessed and were part of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.”
The Everlys’ music grew out of a childhood spent singing.
Phil Everly was born in Chicago in 1939, the son of Ike Everly, a Kentucky coal miner turned musician, and his wife, Margaret. The family had left Kentucky to exploit the greater musical opportunities offered by Chicago. They soon moved on to Iowa, where Ike Everly found steady work playing country music on live radio.
In Shenandoah, Iowa, he got his own show – at 6am on radio station KMA – and, in 1945, “Little Donnie” and the six-year-old “Baby Boy Phil” started harmonising with their parents on air, continuing on to school after they performed.
In 1955, the teenage brothers settled in Nashville, where they were hired as songwriters before starting a recording career on their own account. Bye Bye Love, written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, reached No 1 on the country chart, No 2 on the pop chart and sold more than a million copies in 1957. They followed it with another Bryants song, Wake Up Little Susie, that was a No 1 pop hit and another million-seller. For the next few years, they were rarely without a Top 10 pop hit.
Their successful streak ended in the United States in the early 1960s, lasting slightly longer in Britain.
There were personal problems, too. In 1962, Don had to return from a UK tour after overdosing on amphetamines. He was also addicted to Ritalin, which had been prescribed for his nerves. By the mid-1960s, with the rise of British pop, the brothers’ hitmaking days were over, even if a song like the Beatles’ Please, Please Me unmistakably bore the stamp of their influence.
But they continued to tour and make albums, notably the 1968 Roots, a thoughtful foray into country-rock that included a snippet of a 1952 Everly family radio show. They had a summer variety series on CBS in 1970. In April 1971, Stewart Parker, reviewing a solo album by Don, wrote in The Irish Times that the duo were “pure trivia, but if they orchestrated your puberty and adolescence as they did mine, you’ll feel soft towards them”.
Meanwhile the brothers were growing estranged. In 1973, at a concert in California, Phil smashed his guitar and walked offstage, and Don announced the duo’s breakup.
Each recorded solo albums for the next decade before reuniting in 1983, with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London that was filmed as a documentary.
They returned to the studio for a 1984 album, EB84, produced by Dave Edmunds, which included a song written for them by Paul McCartney; they made two more studio albums together in the 1980s.
The reunited Simon and Garfunkel brought them together to be their opening act for their 2003 Old Friends tour. The brothers reportedly had not spoken to each other for three years before that.
Phil Everly is survived by Don and by their mother, Margaret, by his wife, Patti, his sons, Jason and Chris, and two granddaughters.