Phil Everly: Discord behind the harmonies


Phil Everly never got to be his own man. He was always -- and always will be -- Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers.

Phil and Don Everly, who had been singing together since they were children on their parents' radio show, were tied together in ways few brothers ever were. And it was a constant source of frustration and anger for both of them.

After the duo broke up -- rather publicly, during a farewell performance at Knott's Berry Farm in 1973, with Don so drunk he couldn't remember lyrics and Phil smashing his guitar and walking offstage halfway through the show -- neither could find any work as a solo act. Nobody wanted to see one Everly brother.

Phil Everly, who died last week at age 74 of heart failure, wrote a book with his brother on harmony vocals in rock and roll. The Beatles were only one of the many singing groups who modeled their vocal sound on the Everlys. The Everly Brothers' hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s remain some of the most effervescent, richly emotional vocal performances in rock.

Their harmonies began in their DNA -- blood harmony -- a trait the Everlys shared with the Wilson brothers of the Beach Boys and the Gibb brothers of the Bee Gees, among others. Don Everly sang the leads and Phil found the harmony. They sang from a place that can't be learned -- it was instinctive.

After they broke up, Phil Everly made a handful of fine solo albums. He cut one song, "The Air That I Breathe," that was covered by the Hollies in 1974 and became a Top Ten hit. Phil Everly's musical director was a young, unknown musician named Warren Zevon (Phil Everly apparently once suggested to Zevon that he write a song called "Werewolves of London"). Nobody noticed the albums.

His brother Don had already discovered the same fate awaited his superstar-laden 1970 solo album, supervised by Hollywood producer Lou Adler, about the same time that Adler produced Carole King's "Tapestry," the biggest-selling album ever at the time.

These two brothers could fight. They refused to do joint interviews and posed for photographs together only by appointment. Their contract not only called for separate dressing rooms, but separate stage entrances. "I don't know," Phil Everly once told me. "You're up there nose-to-nose at the microphone and pretty soon, he starts breathing your air."

It was a Biblical torture. Two brothers forced together, unable to make their separate ways in the world, dependent and resentful of one another the whole way.

When the pair reunited in 1984 -- and British rocker Dave Edmunds produced the lovely comeback hit written expressly for them by Paul McCartney, "On the Wings of a Nightingale" -- they were at the absolute height of their powers. The concerts were transcendent. Their voices were welded together, floating and spinning around each other with an almost mystical connection. The reunion was short-lived.

Their last appearances came as special guests on the 2004 reunion tour of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, another singing duo familiar with conflict. The Everlys sang background vocals on the title track to Simon's 1984 album, "Graceland."

The two brothers couldn't have been more dissimilar. When they were out on the road together, Don was a raucous, outgoing, life-of-the-party type, while his brother was a quiet, cordial and soft-spoken gentleman.

A mutual friend, songwriter Sharon Sheeley, sent me to meet Phil Everly backstage at a show at the Circle Star Theater in the late ‘80s. A loud party spilled out of one dressing room into the hallway. A bunch of biker-types and their ladies crowded into the room, drinking bourbon out of Styrofoam cups. In the center of the throng was Don Everly.

Down the hall, at the far end of the corridor, in another dressing room, sitting on an upended suitcase and looking at a magazine all by himself was Phil Everly. He was glad to have company.

Joel Selvin is The Chronicle's senior pop music correspondent. E-mail:


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