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The last Everly brother

Don Everly’s death officially marks the day the music died

Artillery Row

I’ve always been proud and somewhat smug that the first band I saw live was The Everly Brothers. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it beforehand. As an eight-year-old Boyzone obsessed child, the prospect of sitting quietly in a room full of mature adults seemed less than thrilling, like the musical equivalent of a lengthy episode of Hercule Poirot. But, that night at Blackburn King George’s Hall changed everything. Their swooping harmonies, love-soaked-lyrics and skilled musicianship were so emotional and pure that it transcended age. The set was effortlessly spellbinding and to this day, when I am feeling lacklustre and melancholy, I seek the assistance of Phil and Don Everly. Therefore, when the news emerged that the last remaining member of the duo, Don had passed away I felt a sudden onset of heartache. They say the death of Holly, Valens and Richardson marked “the day the music died” and whilst that may be, Don’s departure makes it final.

Their swooping harmonies, love-soaked-lyrics and skilled musicianship were so emotional and pure that it transcended age

All musical partnerships can trace their origins back to the Everly Brothers: even if they aren’t aware of it. If Don and Phil hadn’t graced the world with their talent and vision, perhaps the Beatles would have still come to fruition, but their music wouldn’t have been as romantic and dreamy. Or maybe McCartney and Lennon would have focused on sole ventures instead of immersing themselves in a journey based on collaboration and alliance. Simon and Garfunkel may have never felt the courage to lay their souls bare or understood the power of simplicity and sentimentality. Indeed, Paul Simon once described the pair as “the most beautiful sounding duo I ever heard.” It’s pretty fair to say that Paul and Art, however talented in their own right, are a replica Don and Phil sporting turtlenecks. Irrefutably, the Everly sound left an enduring impression for a generation of artists to emulate and take inspiration from.

Don was the elder sibling born in 1937, in Brownie, Kentucky. Like most stars, he came from a musical family. His parents, Ike and Margaret were musicians who had high hopes both for themselves and their children. After a soul-crushing daytime job in the coal mines, Ike would perform on local radio where his true passion could be set free. Don later made an appearance followed by his brother Phil in which they would sing much loved country classics in and around the southern states. It soon transpired that the siblings were the star attraction and possessed a certain gift and so, the Everly Family became the Everly Brothers. 

But, a new sound was on the horizon. An intense, fast paced, excitable beat that was a far cry from the innocence of country: rock ’n’ roll. Don and Phil managed to – rather masterfully –  adapt to the change by incorporating the two genres. Don had the incredible talent of creating genius guitar riffs that elevated the duos songs into rock ’n’ roll infamy. “Wake up Little Susie” being a specific example. 

However, their success wasn’t without setbacks. Signed to Columbia and then dropped, the duo arrived in Nashville where they further suffered the discouraging blow of being rejected from every label in town. In the end, Cadence Records decided to take a risk on the persistent brothers and within the studio Don and Phil created an appealing sound for all ages. They immediately rose to the top of the U.S. pop singles chart with “Bye Bye Love,” a song that starts with one of Don’s unmistakable riffs followed by lyrics that detail unrequited love. Other No. 1 hits followed such as “All I Have to Do is Dream,” a song dripping in unadulterated passion that almost sounds – like its namesake – not-of-this-world. Its etherial quality has eclipsed the decades and is still divine and quite unique.

Like many artists that would come after, the Everly Brothers in ’58 released an album signifying their diversity and capability. The concept album titled “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” was an album of stripped back country and working-class storytelling. Alas, it didn’t create waves but the pair remained proud of it and their bravery to shift focus at the height of their career was admirable. 

Nevertheless, they managed to pick up where they left off in impressive fashion. A move to Warner Brothers saw them release their self-written “Cathy’s Clown,” which became their biggest single selling eight million copies. A string of songs followed that captured the publics imagination. My personal favourite being, “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad),” a song about the highs and lows of love and the pair artfully exemplify this by alternating between singing softly then with purposeful and loud intent.

Don and Phil’s immaculately polished act appeared contrived in an era of Bohemia and psychedelia

Don provided the duo with a deeper tone acting as the antithesis to Phil’s sweet voice. He often sang the majority of the pairs solo lines, a particularly memorable and commanding example of this being on the 1965 hit “Love is Strange” when Phil asks Don “how would you call your baby home?” To which he arrestingly sings “baby, oh sweet baby. My sweet baby, please come home.” But all good things must end and the Everly reign wouldn’t prove to be the exception. Eventually, the public did begin to tire of the Everly formula as a younger generation desperately sought a style that separated them from their parents’. Don and Phil’s immaculately polished act appeared contrived in an era of Bohemia and psychedelia. 

And like most formidable partnerships, the brothers felt the heavy weight of pressure that comes alongside bursts of creative magic shared with another. Family and business rarely ever ends well but teamed with fame and spotlight, the brothers became weary of each other. Don suffered terribly from alcohol abuse and on July 14 1973, when Don arrived drunk Phil famously smashed his guitar in front of a crowd of adoring fans and exited the stage for good. Don would later attempt suicide and even spent a time in a mental hospital where he underwent therapy. Later Don discussed his differences with brother Phil in a 1999 interview with the LA Times. He said, “Everything is different about us, except when we sing together.”

Don, like his brother attempted a solo career afterwards but he was never to reach the level of success that his sibling partnership had brought him. The pair eventually managed to reunite for a tour, sporadic concerts and the occasional collaboration with another artist. They performed backing vocals for Paul Simon’s album “Graceland” and recorded a song for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman’s musical “Whistle Down the Wind”. 

But, for me personally, their greatest gift of their latter years remains to be their concert in Blackburn. There, dreams were made and a girl fell in love the majesty of country and rock ’n’ roll. After the set, I was taken to the stage to meet the pair and I shook Don’s hand. He told my grandfather that I was “a pretty little thing,” and he thanked me for watching patiently. The pleasure was mine and it still is. That generation of which he heralds are departing but their sound will continue to influence many more to come. Here’s to music that’s unashamedly romantic, honest, tender and dramatic. Thank you Don.

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