Mystery Men

Face it, you don't really know what the Everly Brothers have been doing all these years, do you, Bird Dog?

If rock's first half-century ends with Korn's "Rock Is Dead" tour pulling down the largest 1999 concert receipts, what hope could there possibly be for people to get excited about the acts that once made rock live? Come New Year's Eve, Little Richard will probably be woohooing it up in some steak house at $35 a head plus free champagne, wishing he'd written a song with 1999 in the title instead of an ice cream flavor.

Maybe some scrupulous rock revival promoters might coerce other grads from the Class of '57 to flash their past for some end-of-the-millennium scratch. Bo Diddley's probably already packed. Fats Domino hasn't been widely seen since he shook a baggie full of blueberries for a commercial, so it's a safe bet if he's breathin', he's available. Chuck Berry could probably tear himself away from the two-way mirrors at Berry Park to ding-a-ling in the 21st century. Jerry Lee Lewis, too old and frail to kill anyone at this point, might take the booking and pull a no-show.

Subtract every early rocker that's either perished in train, plane or automobile crashes, accidentally shot himself, overdosed or had a heart attack and you're left with Ray Charles and the Everly Brothers, two names that haven't been dragged through the mud because of bad pickup bands and indifferent performances. And Phil and Don, age 58 and 60 respectively, are relative kids compared to those other septuagenarians.

That's because the Everlys were one of the few early rock acts in 1957 that were contemporaries with their intended audience. Phil and Don, at ages 18 and 20 respectively, could sing about teenage concerns without coming off like the other old perverts pushing 30 and leering at little schoolgirls. And unlike the only slightly older Elvis, who had to serve in the Army and make at least four bad films before adults approved of him, the Everlys were always fine, upstanding boys who sang prettier than the McGuire Sisters and respected their elders, if "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" was any indicator. Everything about the Everlys screamed a career that could span generations.

Yet the average person knows nothing about the ups and downs that have befallen the Everlys since they began their recording career 43 years ago. Only diehard fans recall their acrimonious and sadly public 1973 breakup and the 10-year silent treatment that followed. Maybe because this was a family dispute, people just minded their own business.

Plexus, a British publishing house, has just reissued Walk Right Back, a fascinating 1988 biography on the duo. But without the lure of a new record to reignite interest, only the converted will investigate it.

So they remain two enigmas born two years apart. Most readers speeding by at 90 mph to get to the topless-bar ads will see this picture of the Everlys circa 1960 and think it's a story about the goddamn Hardy Boys. If only some enterprising writer had churned out a series of children's books years ago that uncovered the murky mysteries of the Everly Boys and their hit sleuthing career, Gen Xers and their future spawn would know and appreciate the most influential duo of the century (please, no letters from Beavis and Butt-head fans). I can see the adventures lined up on a bookshelf, starting with:

The Secret of the Cadence Gold!
Phil and Don's teen recording career got off to an extremely bumpy start. Their first and only Columbia recording date lasted slightly longer than the average rinse and spit session in the dentist chair. Of the four Don Everly songs cut in the ensuing 20 minutes, two were issued on a single and just as promptly forgotten about. Phil and Don seriously considered leaving Nashville to rejoin their parents in Chicago to avert starvation. Luckily, they came to the attention of famed music publisher Wesley Rose, who immediately got them some pie and a contract with Cadence Records, home of Andy Williams, the Chordettes and Julius La Rosa. When Phil and Don cut their first hit, "Bye Bye Love," in May of 1957, the overriding incentive wasn't so much nailing down a hit but collecting the $64 session fee that would allow them to continue eating.

Like many Everly hits to follow, "Bye Bye Love" was penned by the husband-and-wife team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. The couple had already seen 30 recording artists turn down this song, including Elvis. Had the King wrapped his royal tonsils around it, "Bye Bye Love" would've come off as a sneering emancipation proclamation. With Phil's wailing harmonies and Don's less-than-sanguine lead vocal, "Bye Bye Love" resonated with lost innocence and first heartbreak. The Bryants also credit Don for coming up with the distinctive "Hip Shake" intro that brought the song to life. Another innovation was the use of drums in a Nashville recording session. When the boys performed the song at the Grand Ole Opry, it was the first time someone showed up there with a drummer, too. It wouldn't be the last, either.

After "Bye Bye Love" reached No. 2 nationally, Cadence commissioned the Bryants to come up with a sound-alike follow-up. That would be "Wake Up Little Susie," which shot up straight to No. 1 despite the song meeting strong opposition from the Catholic Church because it contained the suggestive words "ooh la la." Their next No. 1 was "All I Have to Do Is Dream," with the hard-rocking, Roy Orbison-penned "Claudette" on the flip. This release established the formula of coupling an up-tempo number with an impeccable ballad on every Everlys 45. Using this strategy, the Brothers racked up six double-sided hits in the Top 40 in a four-year period from '58 to '61.

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