Born Isaac Donald Everly on 1 February 1937 in Brownie, Kentucky, Don wasn’t the twin of Phil, as so many believed. Phil was in fact, born on 19 January 1939 in Chicago, Illinois.
When the two boys were living in Shenandoah, Iowa, their parents – who were both performers – introduced them to listeners on their Earl May radio show. Don was eight-years-old, Phil was six, and they were known to listeners as Little Donnie and Baby Boy Phil. When their radio shows ended, the family group dispersed, but Phil and Don wanted to continue in the business.
Family friend Chet Atkins helped the brothers reach a deal with a music publisher for a song they’d written, Thou Shall Not Steal. Kitty Wells recorded it, and Don and Phil received $600. This led to a recording deal with Columbia Records.
They recorded four tracks at the Old Tulane Hotel’s studios in Nashville during November 1955. Two were released on a single – Keep A-Lovin’ Me and The Sun Keeps Shining – early in 1956. The record bombed so Columbia canned the remaining tracks and dropped the brothers.
Every label in America turned the brothers down until, once more, Chet Atkins came to the rescue and secured them positions as staff writers for a publishing outfit headed by Roy Acuff and Wesley Rose.
When Cadence Records expressed interest in signing a country and western act, Rose suggested The Everly Brothers, who duly recorded Bye Bye Love at RCA’s studio in Nashville.
The single was far removed from the country and western style. Instead, it featured acoustic Rock & Roll against sharp harmonies which would become The Everly Brothers’ signature sound.
The single brought the duo instant success when it shot straight to #2 in the American chart, with sales in excess of one million copies. It also crossed over into both the R&B and country and western listings and became a UK #6 hit.
American television viewers began to see Phil and Don regularly on variety programs, and their follow-up single, Wake Up Little Susie, soon earned them their second million-seller. The single also roared to #2 in Britain.
By the close of 1958, The Everly Brothers had four million-sellers. All I Have To Do Is Dream (penned in 15 minutes by songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant) topped the US charts for four weeks, becoming their biggest-ever selling single. It also provided the boys’ debut #1 in Britain, holding on to that position for a staggering seven weeks.
After the brothers had headlined the Alan Freed Christmas Rock & Roll Spectacular at Loen’s State Theater in New York, they flew to London to receive the ‘World’s Number One Vocal Group’ award following the readers’ poll in the New Musical Express. They also appeared on the Cool For Cats music television show.
The brothers’ three-year deal with Cadence terminated at the close of 1959 and the major labels virtually queued up to add the duo to their rosters. It was reported that the brothers were seeking a new contract that would bring them one million dollars over the next 10 years – a deal unheard of at the time.
The fledgling Warner Bros label agreed to pay $100,000 a year for the next 10 years, and The Everly Brothers signed the first-ever $1 million record contract.
Their first single for Warners was Cathy’s Clown, and by May 1960 it had topped both the US and UK charts. For the next couple of years, the Everly’s would be rarely out of the charts thanks to releases by both Warners and Cadence, who still marketed their back catalogue.
But in the wake of Don’s drug problems – which surfaced dramatically during their UK tour in October/November 1962, forcing Phil to complete many dates on his own – their record sales cooled.
Their seamless harmonies were a huge influence on a whole generation of musicians – not least John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but ironically the coming of the British Invasion in the 60s also helped put paid to the Everly’s rise to super-stardom.
They tried a number of different styles throughout the decade, embracing beat music on Beat & Soul and teaming up with The Hollies on Two Yanks In England.
When neither of those attempts really worked, the Everly’s bass player, Terry Slater, stepped up and gave the soft-pop sound of The Association a country twist for a song called Bowling Green which opened the album The Everly Brothers Sing. It was to be their final US hit.
In 1968, tired of their preppy image, Don and Phil embraced producer Lenny Waronker’s suggestion that they make a seriously panoramic country-pop album. Aided by Ron Elliott and Glen Campbell, and sending classic Americana written by the likes of Merle Haggard, Jimmy Rodgers and Randy Newman, into the stratosphere, the brothers delivered a cosmic Kentucky masterpiece.
The end came in July 1973 when Phil walked off stage at California’s Knotts Berry Farm, claiming “I’ll never get on a stage with that man again.”
Phil Everly died on 3 January 2014 in Burbank, California, of pulmonary disease. He was 74.