Singer-guitarist Phil Everly, who, with his older brother Don formed the music duo the Everly Brothers, has died at the age 74. Phil and Don were the sons of Ike Everly, a Kentucky musician whose bluesy picking style was a major influence on legendary guitarist Merle Travis. Ike Everly began hosting his own radio show in Shenandoah, Iowa in the 1940s, and by 1945, Phil and Don had begun singing with their parents as the Everly Family. Steeped in Appalachian musical tradition, the brothers were first signed as country musicians by Columbia, at the urging of family friend Chet Atkins. Columbia dropped them after their only single for the label, “Keep A’ Lovin Me,” stiffed, and in early 1957, they went to work for Cadence Records, where they were reborn as rock ‘n’ rollers. With their close-harmony vocals and folk-country roots, the Everlys—along with Roy Orbison— proved it was possible even for nice guys to become rock ‘n’ roll royalty, with enough talent.
The Everly Brothers’ first single for Cadence, “Bye Bye Love,” by the married songwriting team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, reached No. 2 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the country chart. It inaugurated a three-year stream of classic hits for Cadence, including “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” “Bird Dog,” and “When Will I Be Loved.” They toured the nation with Buddy Holly, and confirmed their standing as rockers—albeit rockers who minded their elders—with the 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a stripped-down collection of traditional songs. It was a ballsy move for a couple of rising teen idols.
In 1960, the Everlys were poached by Warner Bros., where their hit-making streak continued with “Cathy’s Clown.” But their star dimmed as the ‘60s wore on—in America, at least. Like many other early heroes of rock, the Everly Brothers continued to be revered as gods in the U.K., where groups like The Beatles would hone their early sounds covering the Everlys’ songs. The Everlys would later repay that British devotion with the 1966 album Two Yanks In England, with songs written and backed by UK chart-toppers The Hollies.
In 1961, both brothers enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve to avoid being drafted into the Army. The next year, they had their final Top Ten hit with “That’s Old-Fashioned.” For a time, both brothers suffered from an addiction to amphetamines; at one point Don dropped out of their performance schedule to seek treatment. Throughout their travails, the Everlys stubbornly clung to their sound, going even further back to their country beginnings—and creating a cult triumph—with 1968’s aptly titled Roots, which was, in many ways, a summing up of their careers.
Meanwhile, the Everly Brothers’ legend was being cemented by newer artists who had been inspired by the beauty and power of their jangly guitars and twinned-vocal harmony singing, such as the Byrds and Simon And Garfunkel. In 1970, the same year they were dropped from Warner Bros., the Everlys hosted their own summer TV show, replacing Johnny Cash’s. In 1972 and 1973, they recorded two country albums for RCA.
But any hope of a comeback was shattered on the momentous night in 1973 when, during a fractious show at Knotts Berry Farm, Don officially announced a breakup by smashing his guitar on the stage and walking off. For the next 10 years, the brothers didn’t perform together, and reportedly didn’t see each other offstage except at their father’s funeral. Both attempted solo careers. Don recorded “Everytime You Leave,” a duet with Emmylou Harris. Phil could be seen in the Clint Eastwood comedy Every Which Way But Loose singing his own “Don’t Say You Don’t Love Me No More” with actress Sondra Locke. He also sang backup on “Frank And Jesse James,” the lead track on Warren Zevon’s 1978 self-titled album. Zevon, who’d worked as a keyboardist for the Everlys, had written the song hoping the brothers might record it together.
In 1983, Phil Everly recorded his own self-titled solo album that featured appearances by Mark Knopfler, Christine McVie, Billy Bremner, and Cliff Richard. It was a hit in Britain. Later that year, he and Don finally reunited for a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, at the behest of English guitarist Albert Lee.
The next year, the Everly Brothers recorded a comeback album, EB ’84, produced by Dave Edmunds, led by the Paul McCartney-written single "On The Wings Of A Nightingale." They even joined the MTV generation by filming a video for it.
In 1986, the Everlys contributed backing vocals to Paul Simon’s Graceland, then joined Simon and Art Garfunkel on their 2003 reunion tour. Though they would not release another recording after 1988’s Some Hearts, they continued to tour together until 2005, and in 2010 contributed their voices to Songs From Bikini Atoll, an album by Don’s son, Edan Everly. And last year saw the release of no less than three new tribute albums, from younger artists still finding inspiration in the brothers’ music: A Date With The Everly Brothers, from The Chapin Sisters; What The Brothers Sang, from Bonnie Prince Billy and Dawn McCarthy; and Foreverly, from Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones.