The Everly Brothers in Arms

  • There were ten very bad years, with a turbulent time before and periods of hard uncertainty after. Don Everly is 49 now, and he says, "I'd love to snip those years out of my life. Re-edit my life, rearrange it if I could, reassemble my life like a film. I'd like to put those ten years on another planet."

    His brother Phil, two years younger, softens the focus just a touch and sharpens the perspective. "We needed the distance to grow, Don," he reminds him. "That was a positive period when the seeds were planted. We're reaping the harvest of it now."

    Don has to think on that a little. "We needed to be apart," he says finally. "At least we got it over with. We had five really good years, and the ones after that weren't so bad. Probably made better people of us. We didn't suffer any brain damage. We didn't die."

    They came close enough, though, and for a long time one of the seminal forces in all of rock lay dormant. The Everly Brothers, who matched the lofting harmonies of mountain music to the uptown soul of rhythm and blues, sang with a single heart. Their hits -- like Bye Bye Love, Wake Up Little Susie, Bird Dog -- were history everyone could hum. But rock changed when the British hit in the early '60s, and the Everlys had a tough time hanging on, to their success and each other. "Rock 'n' roll was an American invention," Phil says, "but in the '60s a tremendous amount of American talent pumped gas." You could hear heavy traces and fond tributes to the Everlys in the Beatles, in Simon and Garfunkel, in the Eagles, but respect keeps no one on the rock charts. The Everlys were working the oldies circuit in 1973 when Phil walked offstage, smashed his guitar and didn't go back. Don soloed the next night and told the audience, "The Everly Brothers died ten years ago."

    For the next decade the brothers would talk, says Phil, "only during family crises." Finally, in 1982, Don picked up the phone to resolve their own crisis. "It was like I'd talked to him yesterday," Phil says. They had lunch, got drunk, and within ten months were singing at their reunion concert in London. There was a subsequent record of the concert as well as a companion television special. PBS did a documentary history of the brothers, and the pair released EB '84, an album that brought them smartly up to date. Perhaps because their rift had been so long and so deep, or maybe just because rock exists in a state of perpetual flux, the reunion had a tentative, tenuous quality, as if the brothers were not only testing audiences but trying each other on for size. No small part of the emotional weight of their new album Born Yesterday comes from the sense that matters have been settled. The Everlys are back. They are back to stay. Back, and as good as ever. And rock ( 'n' roll just doesn't get better than that.

    Born Yesterday, produced by Dave Edmunds with canny affection, contains some spectacular versions of material as various as Bob Dylan's classic Abandoned Love and the mid-'70s oldie Arms of Mary, a sexual reminiscence that the brothers convert into a reverie of distant innocence and immediate longing. The album's standout is the title track, written by Don, a song of romantic loss and spiritual devastation that has at least a decade's worth of pain packed tight beneath its terse lyrics. Don, who uses the Random House Dictionary and a thesaurus when he writes, expresses grateful surprise when he is complimented on the song but agrees, after a while, "I guess that's life experience I'm writing from now. Born Yesterday took me three to four years to write." "That song," says his brother, "points out that we're all like children. Do any of us really grow up?"

    The Everlys were born in Kentucky, where Father Ike was, in the words of his younger son, "a truly unrecognized genius. He taught us everything we know, how to play and how to sing." (One of the greatest of all Everly records is Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, a 1958 album of country songs that shows the brothers may have strayed from tradition but always stayed close to their roots.) Phil and Don were both still in their teens when they hit big in 1957 with Bye Bye Love, and the hot singles and concert tours that followed for the next five years bought them a piece of pop immortality that was recently reconfirmed when they were among the first ten acts to be voted into rock's new hall of fame. When it was happening, though, all that history took on a kind of centrifugal force that spun the brothers around and, eventually, tipped them off balance.

    They had developed a heavy dependency on speed from revved-up "vitamin shots" they had started to take in the '60s. Don's problem was particularly severe, and the brothers, starting to stall commercially, were beginning to put more distance between themselves as well. Personally, their lives seemed like a series of wrong turns. Phil put two marriages behind him, Don three. Professionally, they recorded on their own after the split, but there was no spirit in any of that music. "Brothers sing differently," Don says. "We sing as one person. That's what we do."

    In a way, it was a new understanding of what they both did best that brought Phil and Don together again, their gifts strengthened, renewed. It was all, finally, about harmony. "Don and I are infamous for our split," says Phil, "but we're closer than most brothers. Harmony singing requires that you enlarge yourself, not use any kind of suppression. Harmony is the ultimate love." The harmony, it became clear, had been disrupted but never broken. At the Albert Hall reunion concert, after those painful years, Don led into the wrong song for the encore, an old Jimmy Reed tune called Baby What You Want Me to Do. The number had never been rehearsed, but when Don hit the first note, Phil jumped in. It was the first time they had sung that song in 18 years, and they got it in the good old Everly Brothers style: just right.