The Everly Brothers: 12 Essential Tracks
Look back at Phil Everly’s beautiful career in a playlist of his key work
Remembering Phil Everly
Phil Everly’s death from pulmonary disease yesterday confirmed the sad fact that the Everly Brothers will never sing again. Phil and Don Everly, born in 1939 and 1937, respectively, were the sons of country-western duo Ike and Margaret Everly, and began playing on country radio by the time they were seven. The Brothers recorded 15 Top Ten hits between 1957 and 1962, producing a mind-blowing blend of Appalachian harmonies and rock & roll that influenced the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and the Rolling Stones. We mined our playlists and consulted session legend Waddy Wachtel, who joined the Everly band in 1972, to create a career-spanning list of the band’s greatest recordings, from massive hits to under appreciated deep-cuts.
By Patrick Doyle
“Bye Bye Love” (1957)
“Bye Bye Love” had been rejected by 30 acts when songwriter Boudleaux Bryant played it for the Everlys, who had recently signed to Cadence Records in Nashville. Their recording was soon a Number Two pop hit and Number One country hit. “Archie Bleyer [owner of Cadence, the Everly Brothers’ label] was down from New York, and he wanted to know what the kids hoped to get out of the whole thing,” Wesley Rose, the group’s music publisher and manager, told Rolling Stone in 1986. “Don said, ‘We’re hoping the record does good enough so I can buy a new case for my guitar.’ He did better than a new case for his guitar.”
“Wake Up Little Susie” (1957)
The Everly’s first Number One hit has a hilarious premise: a teenage couple attend a lame movie, fall asleep, only to wake up at 4 a.m. and start panicking about what to tell their parents. It may sound innocent, but the song was banned in Boston for suggestive lyrics. The recording blew away Felice Bryant, who co-wrote the song with her husband, Boudleaux. “Coming out of their mouths, it was pure honey. Anything they put their voices on seemed to blend like custard. I think they could sing the telephone book to me. The blend was unbelievable.”
“All I Have to Do Is Dream” (1958)
Phil Everly called this gorgeously haunting ballad (again written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant) one of the most important songs his group ever recorded, and it’s easy to hear why. “The band plays very quietly, and their voices, that beautiful, beautiful refrain – almost mystical,” Keith Richards once said. “‘Dream, dream dream …’ slipping in and out of unison and harmony. Load of bluegrass in those boys.” The song had an endless life, hitting the charts in 1963 (by Richard Chamberlin), 1970 (by Glen Campbell) and 1981 (by Andy Gibb and Victoria Principal). But the definitive version will always be the Everlys.
“Lightning Express” (1958)
After an incredible run of singles including “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie,” the Everly Brothers fulfilled their contract with Cadence Records with a bold move: Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (the Everlys’ father Ike was an accomplished singer and guitarist who played in a country duo with their mother, Margaret). The highlight is “Lightning Express,” a long, heartbreaking ballad about a penniless boy who boards a train to see his dying mother. The Everlys, like their heroes the Louvin Brothers, weren’t afraid to evoke chilling loneliness with close harmony.
“Take a Message to Mary” (1959)
This underrated minor hit is a sad ballad about a man separated from his lover after a careless gunshot lands him in jail for life. The band – who always used spare arrangements during this period – tapped a screwdriver against a coke bottle as percussion. “I don’t believe in perfection,” says Waddy Wachtel, who joined the Everly Brothers band as guitarist in 1972 and later worked with everyone from Warren Zevon to Keith Richards. “But this record is the closest that anyone has ever come to singing in perfect harmony. I do believe every word and syllable are as close to perfect as is humanly – or in their case, inhumanly possible – because I feel humans could never sing this well. It’s a miraculous record.”
“Cathy’s Clown” (1961)
After a contract dispute, the band left Cadence Records and signed to Warner Bros. The first single was the self-written breakup anthem “Cathy’s Clown” (Phil supplied the all-time great chorus). It sold more than two million copies, spent five weeks at Number One and became their best-selling song ever. This live clip shows them performing the song on U.K. television backed by the Crickets.
“Milk Train” (1968)
The band had a rough Sixties. The brothers got divorced from their wives and hooked on drugs – Don’s doctor got him addicted on speed via a “vitamin treatment” and he attempted suicide before finally getting clean in 1966. They proved they hadn’t lost a step with “Milk Train,” a trippy country-rock gem released as a single in August 1968.
“Lord of the Manor” (1968)
Waddy Wachtel also points us to this B-side to “Milk Train,” a propulsive, eerie track about a servant witnessing an affair between his boss and a maid. Says Wachtel, “This later tune by them is creepy and great, odd production, but beautiful.”
The Everly Brothers jumped full-on into the late-Sixties country-rock revival with Roots, where the band recorded hits by Glen Campbell and Merle Haggard plus new songwriters like Randy Newman, who was working as an L.A.-based songwriter when he wrote this brilliant, romantic ode to the Prairie State. Gram Parsons became obsessed with the album and spent many late nights spinning it with buddy Keith Richards.
“I’m Tired of Singing My Song in Las Vegas” (1972)
The Everly Brothers enlisted a session band including Warren Zevon, Wachtel and John Sebastian for 1972’s Stories We Could Tell, which featured Don Everly’s twangy “I’m Tired of Singing My Song in Las Vegas.” The Everlys had spent plenty of time playing oldies shows in Vegas by this point, and the track perfectly expressed the frustrations of being on the circuit.
“On the Wings of a Nightingale” (1984)
After a decade of inactivity, the band reunited to perform a comeback TV special in London before recording EB 84 with producer Dave Edmunds. He enlisted Everly fanatic Paul McCartney to write this strummy throwback rocker. “Dave said it was the hardest phone call he ever made, because McCartney is always being asked for something,” Don Everly told RS in 1986. “Paul said if he could come up with anything, he’d give a call. Dave forgot about it, but about six weeks later, the phone rang and it was McCartney. He said. ‘I Think I’ve got one.”
“More Than I Can Handle” (1984)
This forgotten highlight from EB 84 is a harmony-soaked rocker recalling the simplicity of their early days.