One mark of a good song is that it makes Billboard’s Top 10 list. An even greater indicator is its staying power; whether it is remembered decades after it was a hit. Perhaps the highest accolade is whether the artist influences other musicians. All of these standards were met by the singing duo the Everly Brothers, one of whom, Phil, has died days shy of his 75th birthday.
At age 16 I was a disc jockey for a suburban Washington, D.C., radio station. I hosted a weekend music program called The Top Fifty Show. The Everly Brothers were always at or near the top of my list.
Phil and Don Everly squeezed into the public consciousness for only a few years between 1957, the year before Elvis Presley left a gaping hole in pop music when he entered the Army, and the arrival of The Beatles, who more than filled that void beginning in 1964. The brothers’ music survives, not only in its own right, but because of its influence on other acts, including The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt, Simon and Garfunkel, and Bob Dylan.
The music was danceable, the lyrics understandable, and the sentiments memorable. My generation “invented” rock and roll. While some of it was sexually suggestive, it avoided coarse language and left much to young imaginations. Not all of us, including me, understood at the time what Fats Domino meant when he sang “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill.”
Wonderfully handsome with good stage presence and great hair, Phil and Don expressed in their music what was in the hearts of many teenagers. “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is about a guy who loves a girl and can always be with her in his dreams.
Two of my favorites remain “That’s Old Fashioned” and “Wake Up Little Susie,” because they appealed to a moral code that has not been followed in many years, especially in popular music and culture.
In “That’s Old Fashioned,” Don and Phil sing:
It’s a modern changing world, everything is moving fast;
But when it comes to love, I like what they did in the past.
I’m the kind who loves only one, so the boys say I’m old-fashioned.
Let then laugh, honey, I don’t mind.
I’ve made plans for a wedding day for you and me.
That’s old-fashioned, that’s the way love should be.
Phil didn’t practice what he sang. He married three times and struggled with drugs, but the standard remains a good one in an age of singers whose performances would be shameful to most people alive in the 1950s.
In “Wake Up Little Susie,” the brothers sang about a boy and girl on a movie date. They fall asleep in the car and when they wake up at 4 a.m., the boy fears they may be in trouble with her parents:
What are we gonna tell your Mama
What are we gonna tell your Pa?
What are we gonna tell our friends
When they say, “Ooh la la!”
There is also this:
The movie wasn’t so hot
It didn’t have much of a plot
We fell asleep, our goose is cooked,
Our reputation is shot.
Who worries about reputation today? What followed in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s was music containing foul lyrics, explicit sex, hatred of parents, gangsta rap about killing the police, misogyny. I doubt that those who listened to it will proudly play the music of their lives for their grandchildren as my generation can.
From an Everly Brothers song that wasn’t a hit comes a lyric that those who love the Everly Brothers might say fits Phil’s passing:
There’ll be a day you’ll want me only
But when I leave, I’ll be a long time gone …
That day has arrived. While Phil may be gone, his and Don’s music endures. What artist could ask for more?
Listen to a Cal Thomas commentary on Phil Everly on The World and Everything in It: