Don and Phil Everly End a Discordant Decade Apart to Harmonize Sweetly Again
01/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EST
As the two-night stand approached last September at London's Royal Albert Hall, requests for the 12,000 available seats were rumored to have soared past 60,000. Word on the street had it that some of rock's biggest names—Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend—were angling for the chance to take back seats as reverent sidemen to the concerts' main act. But the headliners—two primordial presences from the dawn of rock history, without whose precise vocal harmonics, it has been said, there would have been no McCartney and Lennon, no Simon and Garfunkel, no California country-rock sound—decided two musical giants on one stage were more than enough. So when Don and Phil Everly stepped out at Albert Hall, it marked that rarest of musical events: one uncluttered by extraneous egos.
It also signaled the end, at least temporarily, of an acrimonious split that had silenced one of pop music's most influential and beloved acts for 10 years. In 1973, midway through a concert at California's Knott's Berry Farm, it all fell apart. Don's performance was described as "erratic." Phil stalked off the stage and smashed his guitar. The next night Don went on alone, declaring, "The Everly Brothers died 10 years ago." Despite several lucrative offers to reunite, Don and Phil, now 46 and 45 respectively, hardly spoke until Don called recently to suggest they patch up their quarrel. "I wouldn't have closed the shop down," Phil reflects. "But Donald suggested we not speak for a couple of years, and I took him at his word. It was something he had to want to start again."
What had changed to bring them back together? Friends and business acquaintances suggest the answer lies in the decade they had to grow up—Phil in L.A., Don mostly in Nashville—and to straighten out two shattered personal lives that still bear the emotional scars of business upheavals in the late '50s, drug problems in the '60s, desultory solo recording and performing careers in the '70s, five divorces, six children, the pressures of producing hit single after hit single, constant touring, and the combination of Beatlemania and the Vietnam-era rock-drug culture that all but drowned out their innocent sound. Moreover, the brothers had come to realize that, unlike their greatest hits, they weren't going to live forever. And a $1 million deal—for the Albert Hall concerts, an HBO film of the concerts (airing this month) and a documentary for PBS—didn't hurt, either, though both claim that royalties from the glory years were enough to get by on.
Whatever the reason, the reunion looks like a good move. As the HBO film shows, once the Everlys buried the hatchet and pulled out the axes—their trademark acoustic Gibsons—it was as if they had never been away. Their fusion of sweet Appalachian harmonies, rock arrangements and lyrical sentiment on hits like Bye Bye Love, When Will I Be Loved, Cathy's Clown and Wake Up Little Susie seemed, indeed, as moving and powerful as ever.
Still, this is, to be sure, a complex healing process most safely revealed through the good ole boy banter that bonds them—and defuses tension between them. "Notice in the concert," says Phil, his face crinkling into a smile while he spaces his hands as if describing a fish, "we're using two microphones now instead of singing into one." "Yeah," adds Don, "we're not taking any chances this time."
There is no denying the delicacy—even volatility—of their offstage reconciliation. "They were tentative toward each other at first," says Stephanie Bennett, who, as president of Delilah Films, bankrolled the two Albert Hall shows and the spin-off films. "But now the trust is building, and they are becoming more protective of each other. They must have missed each other, and going home to Kentucky for the documentary really was a catalyst. They had to talk and communicate."
Though they were performing their own timeless classics, Don was so nervous the night before the first Albert Hall set he couldn't eat. He walked off his jitters in Knightsbridge. "I was wondering, 'Oh my God, what if I forget this or that?' But once we got out there, we got into it. It was an amazing sensation, a wonderful high."
Phil couldn't have been more in harmony with brother Don's feelings. "The 10 years apart brought us to that moment when we walk, ed onstage," Phil says. "During Love Hurts, even I got chills. You have to have been us and gone through it, to have had that moment. It was just that simple—and that complicated."
The Albert Hall concerts brought the Everlys full-circle. It was there that their father, Ike, who had thrust his sons onto the family's radio show, appeared with them in 1970—to a standing ovation—five years before he died. "I wish he could have seen us this time," Don says, "he'd have been proud. We were singing from our hearts, for our self-esteem, egos, whatever. We wanted to live up to what people expected, and we accomplished that."
Ike grew up in poverty in Kentucky coal country where he went to work in the mines at 14. He learned to pick guitar early on. In the '40s he and his wife, Margaret, moved to Shenandoah, Iowa, where they had a country radio show. Now recognized as a rockabilly pioneer, having helped forge a finger-picking style he learned alongside Merle Travis, Ike brought Don and Phil into the family business when they were 8 and 6. He taught them to harmonize and strum; offstage, he showed them how to hunt for squirrels and rabbits—"to supplement our diet," Don recalls with a fond smile.
The boys stayed with the radio show for 10 years, until TV and records became the prime media for music and forced the Everlys to look for greener pastures. Don and Phil left for Nashville to try their hands at songwriting and possibly making it to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Modest dreams, soon to be left in the dust. In 1957, after two years of struggle, they cut a tune that many other singers had turned down. It was called Bye Bye Love. By the time it hit No. 2 on the pop charts, Don and Phil were on their way to a phenomenal string of roots-rock gems that would continue unbroken through 1962, propelling them to fame, fortune—and overwhelming pressure. The record market in the late '50s was dominated by singles rather than albums, creating an incessant demand for hits as well as concert tours of up to nine months a year to keep sales moving.
"We had to constantly prove ourselves," says Don, "from one record to the next. If they liked it, they bought it. If they didn't, they didn't."
"The first record we put out that I didn't like," Phil recalls, "was Problems. That's 'cause it was the first that didn't sell a million. Only sold nine hundred forty something thousand."
The Everlys' dizzying rise—15 Top 10 singles in five years, more than 35 million singles sold—began to exact its price. During the '60s, before and after the brothers' six-month stint in the Marines in 1961, Don in particular battled a recurring dependency on speed, which he got his first taste of under the care of a celebrity "Doctor Feelgood." The results were unfortunate but predictable: hallucinations, insomnia, hospitalizations and, ultimately, shock treatments. "I forgot everything," he can now say lightly, "except where to buy the drug." Only his Marine fitness and a California psychiatrist helped him survive the devastation, which included wasting away to 130 pounds.
Phil's "treatments" with the New York-based doctor (who was eventually stripped of his medical practice) were less severe and far less disruptive. "I was acutely depressed," he says, "but the real problem was that I was acutely ignorant, and we were surrounded by bad advisers."
The years apart gave the brothers time to recover. Phil's second marriage ended in divorce six years ago, and he has sworn off serious relationships with women. "Relationships all have to lead somewhere and mine usually go out the door with me," he says. "I avoid getting involved." He delights in hanging around his San Fernando Valley home with a few trusted buddies, and in taking care of his sons, half-brothers Jordan, 17, and Christopher, 9. "It's like it's genetic: You have a parental gland, and mine is overactive," he says. The boys' mothers live nearby, enabling Jordan and Christopher to stay over school nights and weekends.
While Phil dotes on his sons and avoids romantic entanglements, Don keeps his kids at phone's length while continuing the quest for the perfect woman. He left Los Angeles for Nashville in 1975 and has hardly seen his three daughters and son, Eden, 15, since then. (Eden and Jordan are pals and have begun picking and singing together, though Don says, "We aren't pushing them. We wouldn't do that to them.") Don tried marriage again in the mid-'70s, and while estranged from his third wife about two years ago, he met a sometime singer, Diane Craig. They've been inseparable ever since. But he has kept a distance from the kids. "It's just the way it is," he shrugs. "When you have nothing, nil, with their mothers but a lot of strain, it's better to stay away."
In Diane, he's found a woman with whom he shares a love of old movies, gourmet cuisine, backyard fireworks displays and, most importantly, trust. It's helped him get through the bitterness of his divorce wars. "We really do need each other," he says warmly, "and we've got a lot going for us."
So now, it seems, do the Everlys. There is an LP to be made of the concerts, talk of European dates this year and possible U.S. shows. The brothers will cut their first joint studio LP in 10 years in the spring, and it will be produced by England's king of rockabilly revival, Dave Edmunds. Even more promising, they seem ready to take a shot at something new in middle age. "Rock has always been about going for it, about innovation, and we're part and parcel of that," reflects Phil. "I know who we are, what we did, who we influenced, all that. I'm aware and I'm proud of our contribution. But it's important for the music to mature."
Don's exuberance is no less intense, but his sardonic humor can put a different shine on it, and provides perhaps the most succinct summing up of what it's meant to be an Everly Brother. "The best advice I have for someone coming into the music business now is: Learn to be an attorney or accountant first, then learn to sing."