“Listen and hear each word
Stop or you’ll miss the birds
They sing in the top of the trees…”
– The Everly Brothers’ Living Too Close to the Ground
There’s a compilation of the Everly Brothers music out there. It’s called 100 Essential Hits.
There’s overstatement there, but the sweet-crooning siblings did chart 31 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including a dozen top-10 hits. One of them was When Will I Be Loved, written by Phil Everly. He died Friday, at age 74, of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Brother Don, two years older, survives.
When Will I Be Loved, of course, was also a smash hit for Linda Rontsadt in 1975. As for the song’s titular lament, the question was rhetorical when it came to the general appreciation for what the Everly Brothers did. The wavy-haired harmonists not only linked traditional country and Appalachian folk music to early rock and roll, but were seminal influences on sixties pop stars, skiffle-lovers and second-generation rockers such as the Hollies, the Beatles, the Byrds, the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel. “Phil and Don were the most beautiful sounding duo I ever heard,” Paul Simon said on Saturday morning. “Both voices pristine and soulful.”
Simon went on to say that the Everlys existed at the “crossroads of country and R&B,” and that they helped birth rock music. But that’s musicology stuff. Their best legacy was their peppy uplift to the Cold War kids – rockabilly adrenaline to the radio – and sweet commiseration for the lovelorn angst of the sock-hop set.
The cool cats on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand cha-cha-cha-ed it to Love of My Life. The playful Bird Dog was a hoot. Wake Up Little Susie was impossible to sleep through, and the Everlys offered more bop to Be-Bop-a-Lula than Gene Vincent ever did, and one doesn’t mean maybe.
Respect for the twosome’s knit-tight harmony is unavoidable, but the high-priced praise for the brothers’ other abilities reveals a broader range of talent. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, perhaps rock and roll’s greatest rhythm guitarist, lauded the Everlys’ way with their signature black six-strings. “Nobody ever thinks about [it], but their rhythm guitar playing is perfect,” Richards wrote in his autobiography Life. “And beautifully placed and set up with the voices.”
It wasn’t just the rhythm. Neil Young clearly admired the main lick to Sonny Curtis’s Walk Right Back, a hit for the Everlys in 1961. Listen to it and compare it to Young’s Harvest Moon.
Other fans included the aforementioned Simon (who used the brothers on his agile 1986 hit Graceland) and Paul McCartney. The “Phil and Don” he mentions on 1976’s Let ‘Em In was a shout-out to you know who.
The Everly Brothers’ personal harmony with each other wasn’t as close as their voices suggested. After the hits stopped happening in the 1960s, they broke up, dramatically onstage, in 1973. Their first reunion album in 1984 – date-stamped EB84 – included the song On the Wings of a Nightingale, a song written for them by McCartney.
The brothers never completely reconciled, but it’s impossible (and unnecessary) to think of one without the other. The devotee Richards remembers the Everlys from a British tour in 1963, when the Rolling Stones shared a bill with them (and Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Mickie Most).
“The Everly Brothers come out and there’s a soft light,” Richards wrote in Life. “The band plays very quietly, and their voices, that beautiful, beautiful refrain – almost mystical. ‘Dream, dream, dream…,’ slipping in and out of union and harmony.”