When the Everly Brothers had their first hits in the late 50s they were both barely more than boys, and the sound of those two late adolescents harmonising about sorrow, pain and the hurts of teenage love, was imprinted on the memories of a generation. So when I finally met them after a London concert I asked them how those songs came to be written and recorded.
Bye Bye Love (1957) was their first hit. “At the time we would have recorded anything just for the studio fee,” Phil explained. “We didn’t even think in terms of it being a hit, and it had already been turned down by quite a few other people.”
Wake Up Little Susie (1957) came next. “There was a lot of tension about because we knew that it was important for the follow-up record to be a hit,” says Phil. ‘We must have listened to about 200 songs before Felice and Boudleaux Bryant came up with this. It was one of their most difficult songs to record, too, because of the tension. We did 14 takes on the first day, and in the end Archie Bleyer (their producer at Cadence Records) walked out of the studio because it wasn’t working. Then the next day we got it in four takes when he wasn’t there. In those days, you were expected to record a single in the three hours they gave you.”
Their next hit was All I Have To Do Is Dream (1958). “The first time I heard it was on an acetate with Boudleaux singing,” says Phil. “They could have put it out just like that. We knew it was an instant hit.”
Don wasn’t so sure about Bird Dog (1958) and they only recorded it because they needed a new single. At one stage producer Archie Bleyer wanted to put a famous ventriloquist who had a talking dog on the track to say “He’s a bird dog”, but they managed to talk him out of it.
Both brothers, however, enjoyed the flip-side Devoted To You which Phil describes as “like an English madrigal”. It was written for them by the Bryants. “It’s a very well-structured piece and it feels good to sing,” he says.
For Take A Message To Mary (1959) Archie Bleyer produced a more elaborate arrangement, including the sound of a coke bottle being hit by a drumstick to get the feeling of a chain gang or prison cell.
Their next hit was Till I Kissed You (1959) which Don wrote on a plane back from Australia to the States. “I’d fallen in love with a French girl there called Lillian and I was afraid I was never going to see her again. In those days Australia seemed like the end of the world.”
Let It Be Me (1960) was noticed first by Don as a guitar instrumental on a Chet Atkins record. “I bought all his records, and I called him about this particular one and he told me there was a beautiful lyric. We went to New York to record it with strings. A lot of people weren’t sure we should do that.”
Cathy’s Clown (1960) was written by both brothers and was probably their biggest hit. “Musically, the inspiration came from the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofé,” says Don. “There’s a little marching section which was used for a Philip Morris commercial on the radio at the time and I was very taken by it. The lyric came from stories our father (Ike Everly) used to tell us about a kid who would taunt him coming home from school by saying ‘Mary had a little Ike’.”
Phil wrote When Will I Be Loved (1960). “I think I was upset over some girl at the time and I remember sitting in my car at a root beer stand near where I lived and writing the last verse.”
Don wrote their next hit So Sad (1960) although he can’t remember being particularly sad at the time. “The song just seemed to pop up,” he remembers, and it’s still one of his favourites. The flipside was Lucille, a Little Richard song that the Everlys revived. “We would never have done a cover of anyone else’s hit,” Don explains. “A lot of people wanted us to pick up songs that were just bubbling under the charts and to cover them, but we never did that. They even wanted us to cover The Beatles’ Please Please Me before they happened in the States. When we did cover versions, it was always some time after the original hit, so that we could arrange it in our own way. On Lucille we used all the top session guitarists in Nashville. They all played the riff but each take was tuned slightly out from the other and that gave us a much fatter sound.’
The double-side hits Walk Right Back and Ebony Eyes hit the charts in 1961. Walk Right Back was written by Sonny Curtis,” says Phil. “He came to the apartment I had in Hollywood and sang it. Sony could sing like a humming bird. Ebony Eyes was written by John D. Loudermilk. I remember before we were going to record it Felice Bryant rang the airport in Nashville to make sure there was no Flight 1203. No one would have got on it.”
Although they were prolific writers themselves, the Everlys never insisted upon recording only their own songs, and in 1962 Carole King and Howard Greenfield teamed up for a day and wrote Crying In The Rain for them. “It was,” says Phil, “the only time they ever wrote together.”
By 1963 the Everlys were facing stiff competition in the charts from the English beat boom which had been built, at least in part, by Liverpool groups who were copying their style and harmonies. Their hits dwindled.
The release of Love Hurts, a song written for them by Boudleaux Bryant (and one of their best-ever recordings), was held up by a legal wrangle and Roy Orbison had a hit with it during the delay.
They had to wait until 1965 for the next big hit, The Price Of Love, a song they wrote together and the one that opened their comeback concert. “I still like the lyrics,” says Phil. “It reminds me of touring. While Donald plays to the band a lot, I like to look around and see who’s in the audience and maybe pick up a pretty face … a girl I’ll never meet: “You talk too much, you laugh too loud, You see her face in every crowd …”