The setting was the rooftop of the Henry Fonda Theater, the event a tribute to Buddy Holly. Phil Everly was among the guests.
Gracious and approachable, I was surprised how oddly appreciative he was that journalists would want his perspective on music from the ’50s. Both his own and that of his friend Buddy Holly. He thanked people for asking him questions that September night in 2011, though the grilling was far different than when he and his brother Don were dominating the Billboard charts.
“When we were interviewed in the ’50s, the first, second or third question would be ‘what are you going to do when it’s over?’ The people writing the articles hated the music,” Phil Everly said. “Whether it was Buddy or Eddie Cochran or Don and myself, none of us thought it would last because that was what we kept getting told. Inside the perimeter, what we were thinking was — and this is what we loved — the cool thing was to do something original. That was important to all of us.”
Being original, for Phil Everly, meant harmonies, connecting pre-WWII country music traditions with rock ‘n’ roll and tackling an uncommon range of subjects from staying out too late to being in jail to heartbreak. Their songs were dark and tragic, Phil’s voice angelic and Don’s earthly, a combination that would influence generations of rock n’ roll singers attempting to pair voices.
Phil Everly died Jan. 3 in Burbank, Calif., of complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 74.
Phil Everly sang in higher registers than his brother Don, his voice often conveying despair and hopelessness in songs such as “Take a Message to Mary,” “It’s All Over” and “Maybe Tomorrow” and burrowing a state of unconditional romance on ballads such as “Devoted to You.” Their layered vocals, a tradition in rural country music, was unique for rock ‘n’ roll in 1957 when they first commandeered top five positions on pop, country and R&B charts with “Bye Bye Love.”
They crossed over largely through their embracing traditions of country music singing, filtering their vocals through a bit of doo-wop and adding a backbeat and the stylized cool of Chet Atkins’ guitar. They sang traditional songs, became the go-to singers for Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, wrote their own and interpreted artists such as Roy Orbison without ever disturbing the Everly essence.
Their best songs combined sweetness with urgency and despite the bulk of their hits coming when they were teens and in their early 20s, the songs and stories were often worldly and universal. As perfectly teenage as “Wake Up Little Susie” sounds, “When Will I Be Loved” is believable regardless of the age of the singer.
Those harmonies and their songs would influence many acts that would marry country with rock in the 1970s, most notably, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Eagles. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Vince Gill and Paul Simon were big fans as were Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, who covered the Everlys during their late ’70s tenure in Rockpile. Linda Ronstadt famously covered their hit “When Will I Be Loved.”
Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones partnered on a release late last year of Everly Brothers songs as did Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie Prince Billy. Both albums brought twang, tension and a bit of old-fashioned song craft to a new generation of listeners who are more likely to be introduced to the Everly Brothers sound through the Milk Carton Kids than the originals.
During a reunion tour in the mid-1980s, they told me in an interview that they often were not quite sure what they were thinking about and, oddly enough, when they were trying to create hit records in the mid-1960s, they tried harder to focus their music for young listeners. They felt they were better as adults than as youngsters, using their voices to better reflect the sentiments of their songs.
Their performance of Dire Straits “Why Worry” at that time was a reminder of the ebb and flow of influence. A fine song by Mark Knopfler, but coming from the Everlys it felt broader and deeper than the Dire Straits record, lived in and personal. It was among the highlights of their show.
A decade and half later, the Everlys were touring with Simon & Garfunkel, sticking to hits that influenced the New Yorkers. It’s not too often that an act takes its influence on the road with them and if it were to have happened more often, the Everlys would have had an overflowing calendar of concerts.