Don Everly, who with his late younger sibling Phil established the template for close harmony vocalizing in the chart-topping duo the Everly Brothers, died Saturday at age 84 in Nashville. No cause of death was immediately disclosed.
The Los Angeles Times confirmed the death through a family spokesman, even as tributes were already accumulating on social media Saturday night as word circulated about his death.
Everly (pictured above, right) – an inaugural inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 who also joined the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 – grew up singing the high, fluid harmonies that would make him famous in his family’s country act. Beginning in 1957, he and his brother cut a groundbreaking series of hit ballads and rockers for the Cadence and Warner Bros. labels.
The Everlys left a bold impression on the rock musicians who succeeded them. The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel – whose early pairing as Tom & Jerry essentially cloned the brothers’ sound – were only the best known acts to adapt their achingly beautiful harmony sound.
The brothers also made their mark on a later generation of country-rock musicians, with their impact felt in the work of the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and the Eagles.
In his notes for the 1994 Rhino Records boxed set “Heartaches & Harmonies,” critic and historian Ken Barnes wrote, “Excepting only the urban doo-woppers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a voice-blending rock act from 1957 on whose conceptual blueprint wasn’t first sketched by Don and Phil.”
Isaac Donald Everly was born in Brownie, Ky, on Feb. 1, 1937. His father Ike, originally a coal miner and a gifted guitarist, had pursued country music as a career in a duo with his wife Margaret. Don’s younger brother Phil was born in Chicago in 1939.
The boys grew up on Shenandoah, Iowa, where their parents hosted a country music show on local radio stations KMA and KFNF. The brothers began performing on the broadcasts from an early age, styling their vocal work along the lines of such country sibling duos as the Blue Sky Boys (Earl and Bill Bolick), the Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers and the ‘50s stars the Louvin Brothers.
The family moved to Tennessee in the early ‘50s. After Don and Phil both graduated from high school, they tried to establish themselves as an act in Nashville. They were mentored in Music City by guitarist and producer Chet Atkins, a family friend. They secured a contract with Columbia Records, but they were dropped by the label after one unsuccessful 1955 single.
The Everlys kicked around Nashville for a year in which they were rejected by nearly every label in town. However, they were befriended by Wesley Rose, head of the powerful Acuff-Rose publishing combine, who encouraged Archie Bleyer of the New York-based independent Cadence Records to roll the dice on the brothers. When they entered the studio for the label, their country-based sound was cast in a pop matrix.
Their first session for the company had an immediate and huge payoff. “Bye Bye Love,” a mournful yet deceptively chipper number penned by the husband-and-wife Nashville writing team of Boudeleaux and Felice Bryant, topped the U.S. pop singles chart and also reached No. 2 on the country rolls, racking up a six-month run. The follow-up number “Wake Up Little Susie,” also penned by the Bryants, reached the apex of both the pop and country charts a few months later.
Capable of delivering the commercial goods with both heart-wrenching ballads and up-tempo rockers, the Everlys went on to a score No. 1 hit with 1958’s “All I Have to Do is Dream” and “Bird Dog.” Their top 10 singles for Cadence included “Problems,” “Devoted to You” and “(Till) I Kissed You.”
In ’58, the brothers also released a landmark early concept album: “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us,” a collection of traditional country material in the vein of the Louvins’ “Tragic Songs of Life.” Though it failed to chart, it would later have a pronounced impact on country-rock, alt-country and Americana performers of all stripes.
The Everlys began a decade-long tenure at Warner Bros. in 1960, becoming one of the label’s first rock ‘n’ roll acts. They kicked off their stint with their final No. 1 pop single, the forceful “Cathy’s Clown,” which was highlighted by a unique and dazzling cascading harmony vocal.
Before they faded from the singles charts following the advent of the British Invasion, the brothers logged several other indelible top-10 numbers, including “So Sad” (No. 7, 1960), “Walk Right Back” (No. 7, 1961), “Ebony Eyes” (No. 8, 1961), “Crying in the Rain” (No. 6, 1962) and “That’s Old Fashioned” (No. 9, 1962).
Though their albums were too often old-school affairs – collections of hit singles laden with filler, or collections of cover material – the Everlys recorded another landmark LP near the end of their Warner Bros. epoch. Produced by future label president Lenny Waronker, “Roots” (1968) was an impressionistic country-based collection that found the duo interpreting material by pioneer Jimmie Rodgers and contemporary star Merle Haggard. Some critics rank it with the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” released the same year, as among the most important early country-rock albums.
Following their departure from Warner Bros., the Everlys made a pair of disappointing 1972 albums, “Stories We Could Tell” and “Pass the Chicken and Listen,” for RCA; neither set reached the charts.
By then, two decades of performing, recording and touring had created smoldering, insuperable tensions within rock’s most celebrated brother act. On July 14, 1973, Don showed up drunk for a show at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., and Phil smashed his guitar and stormed off the stage, leaving his older brother to finish the show alone.
After the act’s public breakup, Don Everly worked solo with limited success. He cut an album for Lou Adler’s Ode Records, “Sunset Tower” (1974), and a collection for Hickory Records, “Brother Jukebox.” His singles for the latter label occupied the lower reaches of the country charts; the biggest of them, “Yesterday Just Passed My Way Again,” peaked at No. 50 in 1976.
However, one of the elder brother’s sidemen, English guitarist Albert Lee, was instrumental in reuniting the Everlys. In 1983, at Lee’s urging, the Everly Brothers reunited for an emotional concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. While the subsequent album and video recorded at the event were not big hits, they sparked fresh interest in the brothers’ music among a new generation of listeners, and the Everlys were signed to Mercury Records.
Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney contributed the lead-off single, “On the Wings of a Nightingale” (No. 50) to the brothers’ first studio album in 12 years, “EB ’84,” which reached No. 36 in its titular year of release. The less successful “Born Yesterday” (1986) and “Some Hearts” (1988) followed.
The brothers reunited only sporadically thereafter. They recorded the song “Cold” for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman’s musical “Whistle Down the Wind” in 1998. When Paul Simon – who had used the Everlys on backup vocals for the title cut of his 1986 smash “Graceland” – reunited with Art Garfunkel for a 2003-4 tour, the brothers were enlisted as the supporting act, in recognition of their impact on the New York duo’s sound.
Speaking about his differences with his brother in a 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Don said, “Everything is different about us, except when we sing together. I’m a liberal Democrat, he’s pretty conservative. … We give each other a lot of space (on their then-occasional reunion tours)… We say hello, we sometimes have a meal together… Wherever I go, it’s ‘Are you still mad at each other?’ I say, ‘Do you have a family? Do you have a brother?’”
But he was not about to deny the musical chemistry of the relationship, and how it created enduring magic. “That’s one part where being brothers makes a difference. It’s just instinct,” Everly said. “That’s the charm of what the Everly Brothers are: two guys singing as one.”
Thrice divorced, Don Everly is survived by his wife of 24 years, Adela, his son Edan and daughters Erin (who was briefly married to Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose), Venetia and Stacy.