Last Saturday, just before news began to spread that Phil Everly had died the day before, I sent a text message to a friend about a perennial favorite song, “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad).” I could listen to that for hours on end — so sweet, so devastating, so timeless.
Later that afternoon we learned the man who had made it so memorable with his high tenor harmonies that coiled around those of his older brother, Don, had succumbed to lung disease. He was 74.
The timing of that text exchange was coincidental but also a poignant reminder that the Everly Brothers’ music, first heard in the mid-1950s, has endured and thrived over the decades, as if preserved in amber.
Phil died not even a year after the first of three tribute albums to the Everlys had been released in 2013, starting in February with “What the Brothers Sang,” a collaboration between indie musicians Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Dawn Mc-Carthy. Next up was “A Date With the Everly Brothers,” featuring the close harmony singing of the Chapin Sisters, and finally there was November’s “Foreverly,” which paired Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong with Norah Jones. The message was clear: The Everlys’ influence is alive and well in generations of musicians who likely first heard them through their parents.
In a sense, the Everlys have been a phantom force in pop music. They were popular and successful, of course, and among the first class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Commercially speaking, though, they were also overshadowed early on by bands raised on their harmonies who then copied their style.
Maybe you know just one of the Everlys’ hits or even a handful, but that doesn’t do justice to the vast shadow they’ve cast over music. When you listen to the Beatles, you’re hearing the Everlys. Same goes with the Beach Boys. And Bob Dylan. And the Rolling Stones. And Neil Young. And Crosby, Stills & Nash. And Gram Parsons. And Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. This list could go on, across genres and generations.
Paul McCartney, in particular, has long championed the Everlys as a major influence on the Beatles. A few days ago he saluted Phil, whom he called one of his “great heroes,” with a post on his Facebook page:
When you listen to the Beatles, you’re hearing the Everlys. Same goes with the Beach Boys. And Bob Dylan. And the Rolling Stones . . . This list could go on, across genres and generations.
“When John [Lennon] and I first started to write songs, I was Phil and he was Don,” McCartney wrote. “Years later, when I finally met Phil, I was completely starstruck and at the same time extremely impressed by his humility and gentleness of soul. I will always love him for giving me some of the sweetest musical memories of my life.”
McCartney’s life and that of countless others. The Everlys’ music is almost out of time, really. Songs like “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Devoted to You,” “Cathy’s Clown,” “Crying in the Rain,” “Bye Bye Love,” and “When Will I Be Loved” have an ethereal beauty that borders on celestial. They emanate from another dimension, not at all about production or studio sorcery. The Everlys have stayed in fashion because they counted on a simple quality: talent that aimed straight for the heart.
Their songs were staples of early pop music that have been covered over and over, making Phil and Don Everly perhaps the first true examples of “a musician’s musician.” You could argue they were also the first instance of a crossover act who brought their love of folk and country music to the pop idiom.
Apart from last year’s tribute records, the Everlys did not experience a late-career renaissance. They didn’t have to. The foundation they laid in the late ’50s and early ’60s was so pivotal, so necessary, that their place in the pantheon was sealed long ago.
They went on the road with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, another pair of disciples, in 2003 and ’04, followed by some headlining gigs of their own the next year. After that, they kept a low profile as their legacy ballooned.
It’s interesting to consider what they might have done together in their twilight years with the right producer — say, Rick Rubin or Jack White, folks who know how to distill an artist’s essence. The Everlys’ final studio album was 1988’s “Some Hearts,” but in a recent interview with Paste magazine, believed to be his last, Phil had no regrets about not recording more. In fact, he noted there’s plenty of stuff that people didn’t hear once the spotlight had faded. He referenced 1972’s “Pass the Chicken & Listen,” but I would add to that “Roots,” the 1968 album that more directly tied the digital Everlys to country and by extension the birth of country rock.
Even if you just stick with the hits, though, they’re enough to make you a lifelong fan. Abigail Chapin, who, along with her sister Lily, paid homage to the brothers on their tribute album last year, goes back to the Everlys time and again because what they achieved was so classic and seminal.
“The way they sang together was really seamless,” Chapin says. “You don’t even know what’s the harmony and what’s the melody. They’re interconnected, and Phil was a master like no other at what he did.”