One half of one of the most successful duos in the history of rock and roll, Phil Everly teamed with his older brother Don 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 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. Phil's induction with Don 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. Phil's death in January 2014 brought a new wave of nostalgia for the brothers, whose work had just received recorded tributes by artists ranging from alt-country icon Bonnie "Prince" Billy to Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong.
Phil Everly was born on Jan. 19, 1939, two years after his older brother, Isaac Donald Everly. Their father, Ike Everly, was a popular country musician, and with his wife, Margaret, had a radio show in Shenandoah, Iowa on KMA and KFNF. Ike had also taught his sons the intricacies of roots music, from the precise harmonies and careful guitar picking of gospel and traditional country to the rhythm of blues. By the time Phil was six, he was performing alongside his brother and parents on their radio shows, and toured with them as a family act. While still in their teens, Phil and Don decided to strike out on their own as a duo. 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, the brothers 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, Phil and Don 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), the lovely ballad "All I Have to Do Is Dream" (1958) and the Don-penned 1959 hit "(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, while his brother was too distraught to attend.
In 1960, the Everly Brothers signed a 10-year, 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 No. 8 hit "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, while Phil struggled with depression. 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. 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. Like Don, Phil recorded several solo albums while maintaining regular duty as a guest vocalist for the likes of Warren Zevon. His first solo LP, Star Spangled Springer, saw little chart activity when it was released in 1973, and its follow-ups, Phil's Diner (1974) and Mystic Line (1975), were received with equal disinterest. In 1978, he wrote "Don't Say You Don't Love Me" for the Clint Eastwood comedy "Every Which Way But Loose" (1978), and performed the song in the film with its female lead, Sondra Locke. He returned for the 1980 sequel, "Any Which Way You Can" (1980), where he appeared as part of Locke's backing band. Phil finally enjoyed some solo success in England with his eponymous 1983 album, which featured a host of popular musicians who had grown up on the Everly Brothers, including Cliff Richard, Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler and Terry Williams of Rockpile. Two of the album's tracks broke the U.K. Top 50 in 1983, with "She Means Nothing to Me," a duet with Richard, landing in the Top 10.
The players on Phil's album were just a few of the artists who had grown up spreading the gospel of the Everly Brothers. Such superstar acts as Simon and Garfunkel, Paul McCartney, the Bee Gees, the Grateful Dead, Linda Ronstadt, Nick Lowe and numerous others recorded or performed the brothers' songs on record or in concert. In 1983, British guitarist Albert Lee broached the idea of an Everly Brothers reunion with Don, with whom he had been performing for several years. Don reached out to Phil, and the Everly Brothers 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. Phil Everly died of complications from obstructive pulmonary disease on January 3, 2014.