LOS ANGELES, Calif. – There is no more beautiful sound than the voices of siblings swirled together in high harmony, and when Phil and Don Everly combined their voices with songs about yearning, angst and loss, it changed the world.
Phil Everly, the youngest of the Everly Brothers who took the high notes, died Friday from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 74.
He left a towering legacy that still inspires half a century after The Everly Brothers’ first hit.
You could argue that while Elvis Presley was the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Phil and Don Everly were its troubled princes. They sang dark songs hidden behind deceptively pleasing harmonies and were perfect interpreters of the twitchy hearts of millions of baby boomer teens coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s looking to express themselves beyond the simple platitudes of the pop music of the day.
The Everlys dealt in the entire emotional spectrum with an authenticity that appealed to proto rockers like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who gladly pass the credit for the sea changes they made in rock to the ruggedly handsome brothers. The Beatles, the quartet whose pitch-perfect harmonies set the pop music world aflame, once referred to themselves as “the English Everly Brothers.” And Dylan, pop culture’s poet laureate, once said, “We owe these guys everything. They started it all.”
Two generations later, artists are still finding inspiration in the music. Most recently, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones lovingly recorded a tribute to the Everlys and their unique album “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.”
“There’s so much darkness in those old songs,” Armstrong said recently. “I think mainly that’s just how people communicated when it came to mourning and loss. Then with the Everly Brothers it sounds like these two little angels that sing.”
That reaction was universal for the Everlys. Their hit records included the then-titillating “Wake Up Little Susie” and the era-identifying “Bye Bye Love,” each featuring their twined voices with Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s lyrics that mirrored the fatalism of country music and the rocking backbeat of modern pop music. These sounds and ideas would be warped by their devotees into a new kind of music that would ricochet around the world.
Listen to the Everlys’ “Cathy’s Clown,” for instance, then the Fab Four’s “Please Please Me.” You’ll hear it right away. Simon & Garfunkel also were strongly influenced by the Everlys and recorded live versions of “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie.”
In all, the brothers’ career spanned five decades, although they performed separately from 1973 to 1983. In their heyday between 1957 and 1962, they had 19 top 40 hits.
The two broke up amid quarrelling in 1973 after 16 years of hits, then reunited in 1983, “sealing it with a hug,” Phil Everly said.
Don Everly said in a statement to The Associated Press on Saturday morning that though they quarreled, the brothers still loved each other.
“I loved my brother very much,” Everly wrote. “I always thought I’d be the one to go first. I was listening to one of my favourite songs that Phil wrote and had an extreme emotional moment just before I got the news of his passing. I took that as a special spiritual message from Phil saying good-bye.”
Although their number of hit records declined in the late 1980s, they made successful concert tours in this country and Europe.
They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the same year they had a hit pop-country record, “Born Yesterday.” They also are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, a nod to their heritage. Phil Everly was born to folk and country music singers Ike and Margaret Everly on Jan. 19, 1939, in Chicago, two years after his older brother.
As the sons of country and western singers, they had been performing since they were children and were the most country-oriented of the early rock giants. The brothers began singing country music in 1945 on their family’s radio show in Shenandoah, Iowa, and though their sound would become more cosmopolitan over time, they never strayed far from their country roots.
Don Everly said in a 1986 Associated Press interview that the two were successful because “we never followed trends. We did what we liked and followed our instincts. Rock ‘n’ roll did survive, and we were right about that. Country did survive, and we were right about that. You can mix the two but people said we couldn’t.”
Their breakup came dramatically during a concert at Knott’s Berry Farm in California. Phil Everly threw his guitar down and walked off, prompting Don Everly to tell the crowd, “The Everly Brothers died 10 years ago.”
During their breakup, they pursued solo singing careers with little fanfare. Phil also appeared in the Clint Eastwood movie “Every Which Way but Loose.”
Phil Everly last performed in public in 2011, but his son Jason told The Associated Press on Friday he had been actively writing songs, living part of the year in Burbank and the rest in Nashville. He said his father had been in the hospital for about two weeks when he passed away.
Though the COPD caused by smoking affected his health, Jason Everly said it never affected that voice.
“He sang like an angel,” his son said. “It was pretty surprising how he could still get those notes. We would still talk about it and sing together.”
The inspiration attributed to the Everlys’ voices brought the brothers together again in 2003 at the request of Simon & Garfunkel, a duo known to fight bitterly as well. The resulting tour brought a chuckle from Simon in a Rolling Stone interview.
“It was hilarious that the four of us were doing this tour, given our collective histories of squabbling,” Simon said. “And it’s amazing, because they hadn’t seen each other in about three years. They met in the parking lot before the first gig. They unpacked their guitars — those famous black guitars — and they opened their mouths and started to sing. And after all these years, it was still that sound I fell in love with as a kid. It was still perfect.”
AP Music Writer Chris Talbott reported from Nashville, Tenn., and can be reached at http://twitter.com/Chris_Talbott . Hillel Italie in New York contributed to this report.