Phil Everly — the younger of the Everly Brothers — died yesterday of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the age of 74. The Associated Press obituary does not traffic in understatement: “There is no more beautiful sound than the voices of siblings swirled together in high harmony, and when Phil and Don Everly combined their voices with songs about yearning, angst and loss, it changed the world.”
Phil Everly’s death represents a profound loss to the Cosmic American Music in which the Everly Brothers by themselves formed a constellation. They brought the close harmony singing of traditional country music into the mainstream of American popular music. More than a few great musicians learned harmony singing by listening to their records. In his touring multimedia retrospective, Peter Asher recalls how he and Gordon Waller taught themselves harmony singing by imitating the Everly Brothers. Paul McCartney acknowledged his debt to the Everlys in “Let ‘Em In” and wrote “On the Wings of a Nightingale” for their first post-reunion recording in 1984.
After tearing through a succession of memorable pop songs written for them by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant at the end of the 1950’s, they struck out on their own with Warner Brothers in 1960. Some of their most brilliant work followed, including their 1960 Warner Brothers hit “Cathy’s Clown.” Even as their audience in the United States deserted them in the wake of the British Invasion, they continued deepening and updating their work on albums such as The Everly Brothers Sing and Roots.
Their British fans never really left them. After performing together with their faces a few inches apart from each other for 20 years, the brothers famously broke up in public onstage at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, in 1973. When they reunited ten years later, they repaid their debt to their British fans by debuting the reunion in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (Rhino Records has now released a two-disc recording of that concert.)
The video above captures Don and Phil in a beautiful performance of “Take a Message To Mary/Maybe Tomorrow” at the Christmas 1983 BBC concert following their reunion concert that fall. It’s a medley that goes back to their Cadence recordings of the 1950’s and brings their career full circle. “Take a Message to Mary” was written by the Bryants, “Maybe Tomorrow” by the Everlys.
We saw the Everly Brothers at the University of Minnesota when their reunion tour took them through Minneapolis in June 1984, and again in the fall of 2003 when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel — two of their most diligent students — brought them to St. Paul as part of their own version of a reunion tour. Seeing them all together gave me the occasion to meditate on the emotional pull of the brothers’ close harmony singing in “The deep meaning of Simon and Garfunkel.” Brother Phil, RIP. (This post is adapted from my past tributes to the Everly Brothers here.)