R.I.P. Phil Everly (1939-2014)
I did not expect to spend the first days of 2014 mourning the passing of Phil Everly, yet that's exactly what my wife and I did after hearing that the American icon, age 74, succumbed to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on January 3. As it turned out, we wound up spending the last few days spinning the music of The Everly Brothers almost exclusively. We, of course, listened to plenty of Phil and Don's early teen tragedies: "Bye Bye Love," "All I Have To Do Is Dream," "Wake Up Little Susie" and "Cathy's Clown." We also cranked both their self-titled debut (one of the most audacious debuts in the history of rock and roll) and 1958's Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (arguably the first stripped down/acoustic concept album ever recorded). This is the material that made them so iconic -- founding fathers every bit as vital as Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Carl Perkins. What made The Everlys unique were their ethereal voices, a unique blend of the country harmonizing of their youth (they grew up singing on their father Ike Everly's radio program) and Tin Pan Alley's flair for symphonic romance and drama. Because of this, Don, the baritone, and Phil, that glorious tenor, served as the bridge over which harmony singing traveled from the American South to the British Invasion, the folk-rock boom, the Haight-Ashbury scene, surf rock, country-rock and just about any other genre and/or group to emerge in the '60s that relied heavily on multi-layered vocal parts.
That said, the brothers' pervasive influence didn't stop there. Take just about any modern-era outfit exploring power pop, jangle pop or dream pop, from The Jesus And Mary Chain to R.E.M. to Galaxie 500, and you will no doubt hear strong echoes of the rich melancholy, furtive and veiled, that made Don and Phil's work so striking and modern. After all, the Everlys more or less invented dream pop all the way back in 1958 with "All I Have to Do Is Dream," a haunting ballad about a boy struggling with the notion that his dreams feel so much more real than reality itself; that he's far more in love with his mind's vision of the girl than the actual girl.
But for as influential as The Everly Brothers were, I'm of the opinion that they never did receive their just due. The duo's impressive legacy rests chiefly upon their 1958 to '60 material, but as any hardcore fan will tell you, they released a lot of their best material between 1962 and '71. In fact, some would say Phil and Don didn't peak until the mid '60s. Singles such as "Gone, Gone, Gone," "The Price Of Love" and "You're The One I Love" -- all released during the peak of the British Invasion -- were as fiery and exciting as any 45 released by The Beatles, The Kinks or The Who. And then there's their 1968 masterpiece Roots. Featuring contributions from Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks and The Beau Brummels' Ron Elliott, the song cycle is an immaculate marriage of psychedelic pop, progressive bluegrass and country-folk. Not only that, it utilizes in-studio collage techniques that were far ahead of their time.
Unfortunately, none of The Everly Brothers' '60s output sold well. Only within the last few years have younger generations of rock fans been excavating this period in their career. The fact that they were dismissed as '50s relics so quickly really bothered them. Here they were releasing all this amazing music and barely anyone was buying it. They got a raw deal, and as often happens in show-biz families, it affected their personal relationship profoundly. Over the course of the last several decades, Phil and Don seemed to be stuck in a cycle: the occasional low-key tour followed by a lengthy break from one another. In the mid '80s, they once again climbed the charts with "On the Wings of a Nightingale," a fantastic tune penned by one of their biggest fans and students, Paul McCartney. They also released the excellent Everly Brothers Reunion Concert album. But that was the duo's last meaningful brush with fame. All throughout the '90s I kept expecting Don and Phil to hook up with Rick Rubin and tackle an American Recordings-type "comeback" affair -- they would've been perfect for such a project. But with each passing year it became more and more apparent that the brothers were finished with attempting to impress the rock world on any large scale effort. I guess we had ignored them one too many times.
For a spell in the mid '00s I tried scoring an interview with Phil in hopes of writing a Mojo-style profile piece on Roots. Phil's son Jason and I shared a couple of e-mail correspondences. Though Jason was enthusiastic about the idea, he also was honest about his father's disinterest in conducting interviews. Looking back, I now believe another motivation of mine was to simply have the opportunity to tell Phil that he and Don didn't record all that amazing music in the '60s in vein. It was getting a second lease on life by younger fans like myself. Of course, what a selfish notion, right? How could anything I say change the sense of betrayal the Everlys certainly felt when the very movement that they helped to invent, rock and roll, discarded them so brutally? Still, I wish I could've told him. R.I.P., "Baby Boy" Phil.