Sunday morning coming down

For a change of pace and for the sheer pleasure of the thing, I would like to pay tribute to Don Everly on the occasion of his birthday yesterday; he turned 83. Younger brother Phil died at the age of 74 six years ago. In the Cosmic American Music the Everly Brothers have a constellation all to themselves. They brought the close harmony singing of traditional country music into the mainstream of American popular music. Richie Unterberger has a good overview of the vicissitudes of their career in his AllMusic profile of the Everlys. Kit Rachlis has a perceptive chapter on the Everlys in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.

More than a few great musicians learned close harmony singing by listening to their records. To take just one example, Paul McCartney acknowledged his debt to the Everlys in “Let ‘Em In.” Simon and Garfunkel learned harmony singing by imitating the Everlys’ records. And so on.

The Everly Brothers’ debut album on Cadence in 1958 remains a keeper. It was full of hits including several we all know as classics, most of them written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. I learn from Rachlis that the Bryants’ “Bye Bye Love” had been rejected by 30 acts before the Everlys rescued it for their hit — “ten days after its first release…eventually reaching the Number Two spot on the pop listings and Number One on the country charts.” I’m mostly overlooking the songs of this period because of their familiarity, but I can’t leave without a look back at “Love Hurts.” Written by Boudleaux Bryant, this one has echoed down the years.

Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (1958) derives from their work on Cadence. You can’t really understand the Everly Brothers without giving this one a spin. I love “Long Time Gone” from Songs.

In 1960, they signed a big contract with Warner Bros. and struck out on their own. Some of their most brilliant work followed, including their number one smash “Cathy’s Clown.” Written by the Everlys, it still sounds fresh today.

Their audience in the United States dwindled in the wake of the British Invasion. They nevertheless continued deepening and updating their work on albums such as The Everly Brothers Sing (1967) and Roots (1968) with songs that stand with their best work. On Roots they retrieved Don’s “I Wonder If I Care As Much” from their first Cadence album and gave it a maturity that it lacked on the Cadence recording.

Their subsequent recordings on Warner Bros. are haphazard affairs, but there are keepers among them. I put the single “I’m On My Way Home Again” (by Terry Slater and Venetia Stevenson, 1969) in that category.

I also put “Stories We Could Tell” (by John Sebastian, 1971) in that category.

After performing together with their faces a few inches apart from each other for many years, the brothers broke up in public onstage at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California in 1973. It took some ten years for time to heal the wounds sufficiently for them to reconcile professionally.

Their British fans never really left them. Repaying their debt to their British fans, the brothers debuted their reunion in a concert at Albert Hall. Paul McCartney repaid his debt by contributing “On the Wings of a Nightingale” to their reunion (EB84). It was their last top 10 hit on any US chart (number 9 on Adult Contemporary, according to the Wikipedia list of songs recorded by the Everlys).

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 Albert Hall 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 when their reunion tour brought them to Minneapolis in June 1984 for a show at Northrop Memorial Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota, and again in the fall of 2003 when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel brought them to St. Paul for an arena show as part of their own version of a reunion tour. I was struck by the excitement of the audience as we entered each of these shows.

The quality of the songs, the performances, the playing, the sound all added up to make the shows something of an emotional experience. The emotion triggered by the shows can be written off to the self-indulgent nostalgia of the baby boomers who constituted virtually the entire audience for the shows, but I thought it represented something more. The Everly Brothers had brought the close harmony singing of the recorded country tradition into popular music. That style of singing originates in the music of the Carter Family and runs preeminently from the Carter Family through the succeeding “Brothers” acts that deepened and perfected it — the Monroe Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Stanley Brothers.

As Richie Unterberger writes in a fine essay on country duos, “The Everlys could…be seen as the link in the chain that finally brought the magic of country harmony singing to a wide international pop audience. In the process they weren’t playing country music anymore, although you could hardly say they sold out, given that they made some of the finest rock and pop records of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Their influence was immense on the Beatles, the Hollies, Simon & Garfunkel, and many other rock and pop acts of the last several decades that built their sound around close harmonies.”

The demands of the form place a premium on conformity of timing, pronunciation, intonation and pitch that contribute to the difficulty of the style and the tradition of blood relationships among its practitioners. The inherent stress of show business combined with the family element of the equation must make the form extraordinarily intense.

When these folks reunite for love or money, we must understand at some level how the show replays the family romance of love and death that holds us all in its grip. We seize the moment of this reunion like that of our own family reunions to cherish the harmony for its beauty and evanescence.

NOTE: I want to express my gratitude to the estimable Richie Unterberger for responding to my inquiry regarding his essay on country duos. He reminds me that his essay appears in The All Music Guide to Country: The Definitive Guide to Country Music. The essay is no longer accessible online.

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