If not for the Everly Brothers, not only would we not have had the greatest two-part harmonies of the rock era, but we might also have missed out on every set of singers who ever grew up trying to imitate that brotherly love, from the Beatles to Simon & Garfunkel to Crosby, Stills & Nash. There was a reason Lennon and McCartney briefly toyed with the notion of calling themselves the Foreverly Brothers.
Phil and Don are now foreverly on record only. The passing of younger brother Phil Everly at age 74 has classic rock fans everywhere "Crying in the Rain" (or the snow, actually, given the national weather at the time of his Jan. 3 death). The siblings have been essentially retired as a live act since the mid-2000s; had not made an album since the 1980s; had not had a major hit since the early '60s. Yet it seemed unimaginable that we'd never again hear both brothers simultaneously fret about having fallen asleep with little Susie at the drive-in, or lament about having become comic foils for a cruel girl named Cathy. Whatever teen predicaments befell either of them befell both, as they befell generations of thrilled listeners.
"Perhaps even more powerfully than Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers melded country with the emerging sound of '50s rock & roll," wrote Paul Simon in an essay saluting the duo as one of Rolling Stone's 100 greatest artists of all time. (The magazine factored them in at No. 33.) Indeed, they're among a handful of acts to claim membership in both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Nashville's like-minded country hall; Neil Young did the introductory honors when the Everlys were among the very first class inducted into the rock institution in 1986. Billboard has cited them as the third-biggest duo in the history of the Hot 100, trailing only Hall & Oates and the Carpenters for chart success, even though nearly all their hits came in the relatively short time span of 1957-62.
Their early sound owed a great deal to rockabilly. A song that had been rejected by Elvis Presley, "Bye Bye Love," became their first smash in '57, hitting No. 2 on the pop chart and No 1 at country — while also topping the R&B chart, oddly enough. That same year, "Wake Up Little Susie" became their first pop chart-topper. A generation of would-be rockers tried to emulate the way the Everlys' harmonies, borrowed from country acts like the Louvin Brothers, meshed with Don's distinctly rocking acoustic guitar.
There likely would have been no British Invasion without them. Graham Nash of the Hollies (and later, of course, CSN), cited the night in 1960 that he met the Everlys after a show in Manchester, along with partner Allan Clarke, as "a night that changed my life... I decided that whatever music I was going to make in the future, I wanted it to affect people the same way the Everly Brothers' music affected me." Sometimes the influence was very literal and practical. The Beatles were said to have struggled over the vocal arrangement of their breakthrough UK single, "Please Please Me," until, Paul McCartney said, "I did the trick of remaining on the high note while the melody [sung by John Lennon] cascaded down from it” — a gambit modeled on what they'd heard the Everlys do in "Cathy's Clown."
The Everlys inspired the British Invasion but had a hard time competing with it. They never again cracked the top 30 in America after 1962, although they continued to make great records (the 1968 album Roots remains a critical favorite), have chart hits in England, and be in constant demand to perform the oldies on TV and on tour.
In 1973, the duo broke up more or less on stage during a Knott's Berry Farm gig. Phil smashed his guitar on-stage and walked off, leaving Don to finish the engagement and proclaim, "The Everly Brothers died 10 years ago." They pursued solo careers and barely spoke over the following decade. Don, the baritone of the two, had taken most of the lead vocals on the duo's recordings, so this allowed people to hear Phil's tenor by itself at length for the first time. Among the highlights of his solo career was a recording of "The Air That I Breathe" produced by Duane Eddy and arranged by one of his then-band members, Warren Zevon. (Ironically, it wouldn't become a hit till it was recorded by... the Hollies.)
They were coaxed back to togetherness for a triumphant reunion show and HBO special in '83 and a Dave Edmunds-produced album in 1984. McCartney returned a long-overdue favor by writing their comeback single, "On the Wings of a Nightingale."
The '80s comeback also found them working again with the country legend who first discovered and championed them, Chet Atkins, as well as super-fan Mark Knopfler, who wrote "Why Worry" for them before recording it himself with Dire Straits.
"Notice... we're using two microphones now instead of singing into one," Phil told People magazine upon the occasion of their '83 reunion. Chimed in Don, "Yeah, we're not taking any chances this time." (Asked by Merv Griffin in 1966 who was the leader of the duo, Don had said, "We're a mutual aggression society.")
There were no more official breakups after that, though the gigs diminished. According to Simon, the duo "quietly retired" in 2000, but in 2003 he and Garfunkel asked them to come out on the road for a victory lap as part of their their own reunion tour. "The Everlys have a long history of knocking each other down, as brothers can do," Simon wrote. "So in a certain sense, it was hilarious that the four of us were doing this tour, given our collective histories of squabbling. And it's amazing, because they hadn't seen each other in about three years. They met in the parking lot before the first gig... They opened their mouths and started to sing. And after all those years, it was still that sound I fell in love with as a kid. It was still perfect."
Their influence extends to indie and/or punk-rockers. Two unusual tribute albums came out in 2013. Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Dawn McCarthy released What the Brothers Sang, an album's worth of some of the Everlys' more obscure tunes. Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones got more specific than that, coming together as an unlikely duo for Foreverly, a song-for-song remake of the Everlys' 1958 Songs Our Daddy Taught Us LP, which was itself a tribute to old folk standards.
Some would make claims that the brothers deserved to be higher than No. 33 on Rolling Stone's list of the greatest rock acts. "They should be remembered as the guys who invented modern rock & roll," said the late Warren Zevon, who once served as Phil's arranger and band member, referring to their integration of rock's 1950s rhythm with timeless melodicism. Will we ever hear their likes again? All we have to do is dream.
One of Phil's last public performances before succumbing to pulmonary disease (brought on by a lifetime of smoking, his wife told the Los Angeles Times) came just over a year ago, when, for Christmas 2012, he released this video of himself singing "Silent Night":