Mystery Men

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.

Unwittingly, Phil and Don were about to stumble onto another strategy, the embryonic concept album, in their next caper:

The Mystery of the Murder Ballads
By mid-1958, the Everlys' Cadence contract was about to run out with little chance of them renewing it. Reluctant to deliver an album full of potential hits that could be siphoned off as singles after their departure, the Brothers recorded the epochal yet extremely non-commercial album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Perhaps Songs in the Key of Death would've been a more apt title, as many of these melancholy folk songs deal with men on their deathbeds, boys about to be hanged, girls about to be murdered and people rotting away in jails and rocking chairs--not exactly sock-hop fare. Why on Earth would Ike Everly teach his brood a song like "Down in the Willow Garden," where a sniveling father tells his boy to poison, stab and throw Rose Connoly's body in the river? Because that melody is so damned lovely, that's why! Despite the mounting body count with nearly every song, the whole presentation is more tastefully done than the downright morbid teen death records like "Tell Laura I Love Her," which will soon become a rock staple.

With only the Everlys' acoustic guitars and a standup bass to adorn the tracks, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us anticipates the folk boom that reaches the mainstream with the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" later this year. Naturally, when the lads bolt for Warner climates, Cadence releases competing singles every chance it gets, scoring its biggest coup with Phil's "When Will I Be Loved." Mysteriously, the most covered song either Everly will ever pen was left in the can because Don didn't care for it and Phil lacked confidence in bringing his songs to the act.

Earlier, Don had rejected a Phil song, "Gee But It's Lonely," that would wind up a Top 30 hit for Pat Boone. There'd soon come a time when the boys couldn't afford to give even a middling Top 30 hit away, after the boys are gripped by:

The Temptation of Ebony Eyes!
When you consider that Elvis' $50,000 RCA contract was considered a big deal in '56 and Sam Cooke just cashed his $100,000 check to sign with RCA in 1960, the deal Warner Bros. Records offered the Everlys that same year was astronomical--$1 million, spread out over 10 years. Clearly the movie company's record division had been operating as a loss leader--why else would they offer monotone Jack Dragnet Webb a record deal? As a singer? Warner offered the Everlys a future beyond the fickle world of rock, a shot at starring in feature films. This was the same signing incentive that would lure their pal Roy Orbison to MGM Records a few years later. And when you consider how badly Roy fared in his only film, The Fastest Guitar Alive, maybe it's fortunate the Brothers never got past the screen-test stage.

On the musical front, the Everlys hit one out of the park immediately with "Cathy's Clown," a song that had a significant impact on the Beatles and therefore the pop landscape from here on out. As Beatles musicologist Ian MacDonald points out in his book Revolution in the Head, not only did Paul McCartney copy Phil's droning, one-note "Cathy's Clown" harmony for "Please Please Me," he imitated it instrumentally on the bass as well.

When manager-publisher Wesley Rose pushed for the Brothers to release the Acuff-Rose-published "Ebony Eyes" as an A-side instead of "Temptation," the radically reworked standard the Brothers were pushing for, it caused an unforeseeable rift. "Ebony Eyes" proved to be a popular hit, but its plane-crash theme made the Everlys uncomfortable. After all, their friend Buddy Holly, who had written "Not Fade Away" expressly for them, had died in a horrible plane crash less than a year ago, and it left Phil and Don with a slight fear of flying. "Ebony Eyes" felt exploitative, and it must've required all of Don's acting lessons to deliver the tacky "The plane was way overdue" spoken bridge with a straight face. Even weirder was the fact that the chaplain in the song never confirms that Flight 103 has indeed crashed, yet the grief-stricken serviceman is already referring to his flying fiancee as a heavenly prize that can only be posthumously collected. Wotta quitter!  

The Everlys would never perform this song live until they reunited in 1983, and even then that corny spoken bridge was excised.

The far-reaching effect of the Everlys splitting with Rose was their inability to get permission to record future songs by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, who were under contract with Acuff-Rose Publishing. Under intense pressure to write hits and produce themselves, Don got addicted to amphetamines. On the eve of a 1962 British tour, he suffered a nervous breakdown, forcing Phil to perform solo to fulfill their obligations. Phil, who never got to introduce songs onstage before, realized he liked doing it. And Don couldn't keep that two-year seniority thing going forever, could he?

In the absence of new songs, the pair reworked more standards like "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Autumn Leaves," "The Party's Over" and "My Papa" on the incongruously sluggish Instant Party album. As Phil and Don experimented with new sounds, they got less airplay on country stations, which deeply cut into record sales. Reacting to this bizarre turn of events, the pair issued an album, The Everly Brothers Sing Great Country Hits, to remind country radio that they've always been country artists. They even rerecorded their old Cadence classics, all to no avail. The boys found themselves unable to crack this next most difficult case:

The Mystery of the Disappearing Hits
Face it, every time John and Paul double-teamed up on a mike, they were tipping the hat to the Everlys, even referring to themselves as "The Foreverly Brothers" when they cut "Two of Us." Despite the fact that the Beatles, the Searchers and the Hollies were all scoring big imitating the Everly sound, the Everlys themselves couldn't get arrested with that sound except in England. They went mad trying to figure out how to make it work for them. They recorded an album of old American rock 'n' roll standards, just like the Beat groups were doing.

It did nothing! They wrote great songs like "The Price of Love" and "Man With Money," which the Who recorded but left unissued in Keith Moon's lifetime. On that tune, you get the thrill of hearing good sons Phil and Don getting desperate, painstakingly outlining how they are going to rob a store and end this poor-boy shit right now. Even that didn't work. They do an entire album, Two Yanks in England, with the Hollies providing more than half the tunes and instrumental backing. Zilch!

They embraced folk music after Simon and Garfunkel and the Mamas and Papas also weighed in with Everly sighs. Nada! Once the summer of love rolled around, the Everlys recorded "Bowling Green," a lightweight pop tune in the vein of "Feelin' Groovy." It reached the lower rungs of the Top 40, a height which they'll not scale again. The team was about to meet a chilly demise in this next horrific installment:

Danger at Knott's Berry Farm!
Even with a successful 1970 summer TV series, the Everlys remained "cold" as a recording entity. This turn of events kept the act on the road ad infinitum, and their inability to agree even on where to play contributed to the duo loathing the sight of one another. Baby brother Phil enjoyed the prestige of playing big showrooms in Las Vegas. Don, who sang "I'm Tired of Singing My Song in Las Vegas" on the next-to-last Everlys album, was pushing for the Fillmore West. Somehow, they wound up at the John Wayne Theater in Knott's Berry Farm, where they'd played the usual hits for six consecutive summers.

The accounts of this very public fallout have varied greatly, but Walk Right Back sets the record straight. At this point in time, the brothers demanded separate dressing rooms. You could tell the rot had set when they went from sharing a mike onstage, to using a double mike, to having two single mikes spread out as far apart as possible. Wisely, they decided to take a two-year sabbatical from one another after these three scheduled Knott's Berry Farm shows. Unwisely, Don drank too many preshow margaritas and, to Phil's consternation, began forgetting words to their all-too-repeated set and singing a quarter-note flat.

Once fans started slowly filing out, some stage hand mercifully brought the curtain down. Phil stormed off, spiking his $1,200 guitar into the stage floor and swearing, "I'll never get onstage with that man again." Don, meanwhile, remained onstage taking bows. Not only that, he completed the other two Knott's Berry Farm shows alone, responding to shouts of "Where's Phil?" with a cryptic summation: "The Everlys died 10 years ago."  

And it would be 10 years before they would reunite for two shows at the Royal Albert Hall. During those 10 years, both men released several solo albums of agreeable country rock and served as a fantasy camp for any other performers who dreamed of singing with an Everly. Most notably, Cliff Richard stepped into Don's shoes, and the ersatz Everlys scored a big hit in Britain with "She Means Nothing to Me."

The Everlys lost none of their harmonic prowess in the time away, as the overwhelming success of the reunion concert and HBO special proved. With interest in the Brothers at an all-time high, they signed with Mercury in 1984 and recorded the shimmering EB '84 album, produced by Dave Edmunds. Although the album included songs written especially for them by Paul McCartney ("On the Wings of a Nightingale"), Jeff Lynne ("The Story of Me") and Bob Dylan (he'd written "Lay Lady Lay" for them years before, but they turned it down), the best tracks were written by Don, especially a beautiful ballad called "Asleep," which he wrote shortly before the breakup and refused to record until he and Phil were working together again.

In 1986, the duo was doubly honored by a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame and their induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year, they guested on the title track of Paul Simon's Grammy-winning Graceland. After that, the novelty of a reunited Everly Brothers died down, and the world was soon back to taking them for granted again.

Because of this, their recording work has been sporadic since 1990. In the same year that Axl Rose married and divorced Don's daughter and "Sweet Child o' Mine" inspiration Erin Everly--possibly even the same week--Phil and Don rerecorded a song their daddy taught them in 1952 called "Don't Let Our Love Die." That turned up on the 1994 Rhino boxed set Heartbreak & Harmonies. Then last year, they recorded the song "Cold," written especially for them by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Jim Steinman (I know, I got scared, too, but it's supposedly not bad). The good news is Phil and Don are getting along quite well now these days, only touring four weeks out of the year and singing great. The bad news is they're not daring to enter a recording studio to jinx it. Don wants to record Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, Part 2, but Phil doesn't think they will ever record again. "I think we've done enough," he told Walk Right Back author Roger White. "But you never know. I could do it tomorrow."

The only original rock 'n' rollers left who could still turn out a decent album might never again try. You can't get more mysterious than that.

The Everly Brothers are scheduled to perform on Sunday, May 16, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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