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Phil and Don

Music | After six decades, the Everly Brothers’ legacy continues

Issue: "The Battle for Africa," Feb. 8, 2014

Since the death of Phil Everly on Jan. 3 at the age of 74, praise for the songs that he and his older brother Don recorded between 1957 and 1989 and performed thereafter as the Everly Brothers has flowed in from practically every region of the pop-music world.

In some ways, it has been like 1983 all over again. That was the year that the Everly Brothers reunited for a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall after a decade of musical and personal estrangement and showed the generation that had come of age since they’d last hit the charts why they still mattered.

Phil was 44 and Don was 46, yet their high, flawlessly intertwined vocal harmonies seemed barely to have aged at all. Supported by a band led and organized by the British guitarist Albert Lee, they reprised their many hits and then some, singing songs that had originally been templates of soured romance as if they were acts of contrition for their own fraternal falling out.

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Critics honored the occasion by reminding the public of how influential the Everly Brothers had been. They’d inspired the harmonies of John Lennon and Paul McCartney (the latter of whom had name-checked them in his 1976 hit “Let ’Em In”) and Simon and Garfunkel (whose cover of “Wake Up Little Susie” was their last hit as a duo). They’d sown the seeds of country-rock (with their 1968 album Roots). The 1975 Top 10 hits of Nazareth (“Love Hurts”) and Linda Ronstadt (“When Will I Be Loved,” which Phil wrote) were Everly recordings first (in 1960). The same went for the 1978 James Taylor-Carly Simon hit “Devoted to You” (1958). In 1982, Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe included a four-song Everly-covers EP with their band Rockpile’s album Seconds of Pleasure.

A year after the reunion, Phil and Don were back on the charts with their first album of new material in 21 years (the Edmunds-produced EB 84) and a single written for them by McCartney (“On the Wings of a Nightingale”). Neither that song nor its exquisite follow-up, “The First in Line,” achieved the commercial success of “Bye Bye Love,” “Crying in the Rain,” “Let It Be Me,” or “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” but the message was clear: The Everly Brothers were back.

Two more studio albums followed. The title cut of 1986’s Born Yesterday even made the country Top 20 even though it was the less-successful follow-up singles “I Know Love” and “These Shoes” that best proved the brothers could still conjure their melancholy-tinged magic.

For the next 25 years, the Everlys were a touring act. According to his son Jason, Phil had quit smoking in 2004, but even so he could no longer hit the high notes for which he’d become famous. By 2011, the brothers’ remarkable, nearly six-decade career had run its course.

Their legacy, however, endures. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant won a Grammy in 2008 for their cover of the Everlys’ “Gone Gone Gone.” And in 2013, Norah Jones and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong re-recorded the brothers’ 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us and called it Foreverly (Reprise).

Jones and Armstrong, setting aside every vestige of the styles for which they’ve become famous, honor the angelic innocence that was the Everlys’ sonic trademark. And because they do, Foreverly serves not only as a tribute to the Everly Brothers but also as a portal to all that influenced them—and to the America within which they took such deep root.

Watch a video clip from the Everly Brothers reunion concert in 1983:

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