Don Everly, older brother in groundbreaking rock duo, dies at 84
By Bill Friskics-Warren
Don Everly, the elder of the two Everly Brothers, the groundbreaking duo whose fusion of Appalachian harmonies and a tighter, cleaner version of big-beat rock ’n’ roll made them harbingers of both folk-rock and country-rock, died Saturday at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 84.
A family spokesperson confirmed the death to The Los Angeles Times. No cause was given.
The most successful rock ’n’ roll act to emerge from Nashville in the 1950s, Everly and his brother, Phil, who died in 2014, once rivaled Elvis Presley and Pat Boone for airplay, placing an average of one single in the pop Top 10 every four months from 1957 to 1961.
On the strength of ardent two-minute teenage dramas like “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Cathy’s Clown,” the duo all but single-handedly redefined what, stylistically and thematically, qualified as commercially viable music for the Nashville of their day. In the process they influenced generations of hitmakers, from British Invasion bands like the Beatles and the Hollies to the folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel and the Southern California country-rock band the Eagles.
In 1975 Linda Ronstadt had a Top 10 pop single with a declamatory version of the Everlys’ 1960 hit “When Will I Be Loved.” Alternative-country forebears like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris were likewise among the scores of popular musicians inspired by the duo’s enthralling mix of country and rhythm and blues.
Paul Simon, in an email interview with The New York Times the morning after Phil Everly’s death, wrote, “Phil and Don were the most beautiful sounding duo I ever heard. Both voices pristine and soulful. The Everlys were there at the crossroads of country and R&B. They witnessed and were part of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Bye Bye Love,” with its tight harmonies, bluesy overtones and twanging rockabilly guitar, epitomized the brothers’ crossover approach, spending four weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart in 1957. It also reached the top spot on the country chart and the fifth spot on the R&B chart.
As with many of their early recordings, including the No. 1 pop hits “Bird Dog” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Bye Bye Love” was written by the husband-and-wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and featured backing from Nashville’s finest session musicians.
Both brothers played acoustic guitar, with Don Everly being regarded as a rhythmic innovator, but it was their intimate vocal blend that gave their records a distinctive and enduring quality. Don Everly, who had the lower of the two voices, typically sang lead, with his brother singing a slightly higher but uncommonly close harmony part.
“It’s almost like we could read each other’s minds when we sang,” Don Everly told The Los Angeles Times shortly after his brother’s death.
The warmth of their vocals notwithstanding, the brothers’ relationship grew increasingly fraught as their career progressed. Their radio hits became scarcer as the ’60s wore on, and both men struggled with addiction. Don Everly was hospitalized after taking an overdose of sleeping pills while the pair were on tour in Europe in 1962.
A decade later, after nearly 20 years on the road together, their long-standing tensions came to a head. Phil Everly smashed his guitar and stormed offstage during a performance at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, in 1973, leaving his brother to finish the set and announce the duo’s breakup.
“The Everly Brothers died 10 years ago,” he told the audience, marking the end of an era.
Isaac Donald Everly was born Feb. 1, 1937, in Brownie, Kentucky, not quite two years before his brother. Their mother, Margaret, and their father, Ike, a former coal miner, performed country music throughout the South and the Midwest before moving the family to Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1944. Shortly after their arrival there, “Little Donnie” and “Baby Boy Phil,” then ages 8 and 6, made their professional debut on a local radio station, KMA.
The family went on to perform on radio in Indiana and Tennessee before settling in Nashville in 1955, when the Everly brothers, now in their teens, were hired as songwriters by the publishing company Acuff-Rose. Two years later, Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose would help them secure a recording contract with Cadence Records, an independent label in New York, with which they had their initial success as artists.
Don Everly’s first break as a writer came with “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” a Top 20 country hit for Kitty Wells in 1954, as well as with songs recorded by Anita Carter and Justin Tubb. He also wrote, among other Everly Brothers hits, “(’Til) I Kissed You,” which reached the pop Top 10 in 1959, and “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad),” which did the same the next year. “Cathy’s Clown,” which he wrote with his brother, spent five weeks at the top of the pop chart in 1960.
Don Everly also released a self-titled album on the Ode label in 1970 and made two more solo albums, “Sunset Towers” on Ode and “Brother Juke Box” on Hickory, after the Everlys split up.
In 1983 he and his brother reunited for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, a show that was filmed for a documentary. The next year they recorded “EB84,” a studio album produced by Welsh singer-guitarist Dave Edmunds. That project included the minor hit “On the Wings of a Nightingale,” written for the Everlys by Paul McCartney.
The duo released two more studio albums before the end of the decade. They were inducted as members of the inaugural class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
They also received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 1997 and were enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
In 2003 they toured with Simon and Garfunkel, and in 2010 they appeared on an album by Don Everly’s son, Edan Everly.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.