One half of one of the most successful duos in the history of rock and roll, Don Everly teamed with his younger brother Phil to form The Everly Brothers, whose soaring harmonies and ebullient pop tributes to young love sold millions of records and influenced such artists as the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and dozens of others. Steeped from an early age in the precise vocals of country music by their musician father, the Everlys captured the hearts of late '50s pop audiences with such gorgeously rendered songs as "Bye, Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Susie," "All I Have to Do is Dream" and Don's "(Till) I Kissed Her." Their vocal prowess earned them 26 Top 40 singles, but the hits came to an end in the mid-1960s with the rise of the British Invasion. Don's struggles with addiction tore the brothers apart in the early 1970s, but the pair launched a dignified reunion a decade later that found their harmonies still pristine and deeply moving. Don's induction with Phil into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 solidified what millions of music fans had known for almost a quarter-century: that the Everly Brothers were among the most memorable and well-loved artists of rock and roll's early years.
Born Isaac Donald Everly in Powderly, KY on Feb. 1, 1937, Don Everly was the eldest of two sons born to Ike Kennedy, a greatly respected musician, and his wife, Margaret. Ike Everly schooled both Don and Phil in the intricacies of roots music, from the precise harmonies of gospel and traditional country to the rhythm of blues. Don made his singing debut at the age of eight on his parents' radio show on KMA and KFNF in Shenandoah, IA in 1945, and eventually earned his own segment, "The Little Donnie Show," for which he would croon a few songs and read radio spots. Phil would join the act at age six, and the brothers would perform as a duo and as part of the family act. While still in their teens, they decided to strike out on their own. Ike Everly introduced them to guitar legend and producer Chet Atkins, a family friend, who helped to place some of Don's compositions with such established country acts as Kitty Wells, who recorded his "Thou Shalt Not Steal" in 1954. With the royalties earned from the sales, Don and Phil cut their first single, "Keep A' Lovin' Me," which was released by Columbia Records in 1956 but failed to find an audience.
Spurred by Atkins' encouragement, the brothers met with Wesley Rose, president of the music publishers Acuff-Rose. Rose promised the Everlys a record contract if they signed with his company as songwriters, and after meeting his terms, introduced them to Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records. Through Bleyer, the Everlys were introduced to the writing team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, who had struggled to find the right artist for an upbeat country number called "Bye, Bye Love." The Everlys cut the song in 1957 with a team of Nashville studio musicians, and by the spring of that year, it had risen to No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts and No. 1 on the country charts. The key to the song's success was the brothers' crystal-clear harmonies, with Don taking the lower register and solo lines and Phil handling the high parts. Their vocal intertwining was clearly steeped in the rich history of Appalachian ballads, which found favor with country listeners, but the brothers' crisp delivery also showed a keen understanding of pop music and R&B swing, which helped to win over the teenaged audience who collectively helped turn "Bye, Bye Love" into the Everlys' first million-selling record.
The next three years saw the Everlys release some of the biggest singles of their careers, including the Bryants' "Wake Up Little Susie" (1957) and the lovely ballad "All I Have to Do Is Dream" (1958). Don also established himself as a top-notch songwriter with 1959's "(Till) I Kissed Her," which reached No. 4 on the Billboard Top 100. They also toured extensively with Buddy Holly and the Crickets during this period, and struck up a close friendship with the Texas-based rock legend. Phil would later serve as one of Holly's pallbearers at his funeral in 1959, though Don was too distraught to attend.
In 1960, the Everly Brothers signed a 10-year, multi-million dollar recording deal with Warner Bros., which they kicked off by penning "Cathy's Clown" (1960), the biggest hit of their career with over eight million sales worldwide. More Top 10 hits followed, including "So Sad (to Watch Good Love Go Bad)," "Walk Right Back," and Phil's "When Will I Be Loved." But a falling-out with Wesley Rose prevented them from working with the label's writers, including the Bryants, which cast a pall over subsequent work. Their careers were further hampered by their 1961 enlistment in the United States Marine Corps, which took them out of the record business for several years. By the time they had resumed their careers and resolved their issues with Acuff-Rose, the pop world had passed them by in favor of the emerging British Invasion. Ironically, some of that movement's biggest stars, like the Beatles, counted the Everlys among their greatest influences.
Both brothers were also undergoing serious problems with amphetamines, though Don's addiction was seriously exacerbated by a prescription to Ritalin. He suffered an overdose in 1962, and after two suicide attempts, was committed to a mental institution, where he received shock therapy. In the midst of this turmoil, the Everlys continued to release albums and singles, most of which were largely ignored by the music buying public. However, they remained major stars in England and Canada, and continued to land Top 10 and Top 40 hits in both countries through the late 1960s. In 1966, they paid tribute to their European fans by releasing "Two Yanks in England," on which they were backed by the Holllies, one of the most Everly-esque of British pop bands.
In 1968, Don and Phil returned to their country upbringing with "Roots," a collection of songs penned by the likes of Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, Jimmie Rodgers and George Jones that presaged the emergence of the country-rock scene of the late 1960s through such bands as The Byrds. However, the album was a failure, and by 1970, their contact with Warner Bros. had lapsed and their fan base in both the United States and England had dissipated. Don released an eponymous solo album in 1970 that also found few interested listeners. In 1972, the Everly Brothers signed with RCA Records, and released two undistinguished albums that year and in 1973.
By this point, Don and Phil's lives were in considerable disarray. Both had multiple failed marriages, and years of drug dependency and faltering fortunes had created unbearable tension between the brothers, who were forced to put their personal issues behind them every time they took to the stage. Their problems came to a head in July 1973 when Don showed up intoxicated for a show at Knott's Berry Farm in Los Angeles. When a Knott's representative shut down the concert, Phil destroyed his guitar and left the stage, effectively ending the brothers' partnership.
For the next decade, Don and Phil maintained separate careers and lives. Don found some success in Nashville, both with his band the Dead Cowboys and backing British guitarist Albert Lee. But a generation of musicians had grown up spreading the gospel of the Everlys' greatest hits, including Simon and Garfunkel, Paul McCartney, the Bee Gees, the Grateful Dead, Linda Rondstat, Nick Lowe and numerous others, many of whom recorded or performed the brothers' songs on record or in concert. In 1983, Lee broached the idea of an Everly Brothers reunion with Don, who then reached out to Phil. The Everlys officially reunited that year at London's Royal Albert Hall, which generated a hit live album and video. The following year, another acolyte, British musician Dave Edmunds, produced their comeback album, EB '84, which brought them minor chart success on both sides of the Atlantic with Paul McCartney's "On the Wings of a Nightingale." Two years later, they scored their final Top 20 hit with "Born Yesterday," which reached No. 17 on the country charts.
That same year, Don and Phil were among the freshman class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they were inducted by Neil Young. More tributes came their way in the decades that followed, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004. Rolling Stone magazine placed them at No. 33 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Both Don and Phil continued to perform together, despite having declared themselves as retired; in 2003 and 2004, they opened for and performed with Simon and Garfunkel as part of the duo's Old Friends tour. Meanwhile, the Everly Brothers' own concerts had become family affairs, with Don's son Edan and Phil's sons Jason and Chris joining their fathers onstage while maintaining their own solo careers.