Personal reflections on a musician who was so much more than a great singer.
The great Don Everly has left us. He died at his Nashville home on Saturday, 21st August 2021, he was 84. No cause of death has been confirmed at this time although, it has been suggested it may have been a heart attack.
Don Everly was born in Brownie, Kentucky on the 1st of February 1937, the first child of Isaac Milford “Ike” Everly, Jr., and Margaret Embry Everly, and he was christened Isaac Donald Everly. His brother, Phil, followed two years later. Ike Everly was a guitar player and the brothers first appearances were on radio, singing with their parents as part of the Everly Family on their father’s Iowa radio show, but they were quickly identified as future stars by the likes of Chet Atkins and the Nashville establishment and were quietly prepared for that role. Their first hit came in 1957, with the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song ‘Bye Bye Love’ and the Bryants would be responsible for many of their early hits, though Don himself was no slouch as a writer, one of his earliest songs was recorded by Kitty Wells and he was responsible for the brothers’ biggest hit single, ‘Cathy’s Clown’.
Like many siblings in the music business, Don and Phil Everly didn’t always see eye to eye and there were plenty of arguments over the years, even when they were at the height of their success. Like many of their contemporaries, the brothers came to rely heavily on amphetamines to get them through their grueling schedules and this added to the tension between them, with Don succumbing to an addiction to Ritalin, which would, eventually, lead to a breakdown before he was able to successfully kick the habit. In the late 60s, their popularity started to wane as a duo, largely because of the changes in musical fashion, and in 1973, having already started to release solo records, they officially split up after a very public row at a Hollywood gig.
Following the break-up, Don turned his attention to Country music, where he found some success, working with his band, the Dead Cowboys, which included Irish guitarist Phil Donnelly, who would later appear in the Everly Brothers’ band following their reunion. During this period he would also work with Albert Lee who, in turn, went on to be a part of the reunion band as well. The work of Don and his collaborators during this period was very good and critically well-received, but the spectre of the Everly Brothers, and the heights they had scaled, always hovered over him and it was obvious that the music industry hoped for a reunion of the classic duo. In 1983 they got what they’d hoped for. Following tentative discussions, the brothers got back together for what was supposed to be a one-off reunion concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and it was a huge success, in fact, so successful that it lead to a couple of European tours; and that’s when I met Don Everly.
I was in my twenties and a jobbing tour manager when I was offered their reunion tour of the UK in 1984. I took it because it was a big chunk of work but I wasn’t interested in the Everlys – they were old guys and their music belonged to a previous generation! I quickly learned how wrong I was. They performed to packed houses and delivered superb shows every night. They had a great band and went down a storm at every venue they played and, oh, those harmonies! It was a thrill to stand in the wings and just listen to them sing. I can’t imagine that they will ever be bettered because they were just so good and to hear them night after night was heavenly. Don emerged as a gentle, kindly soul whose hell-raising days were behind him. He was always easy to work with and cared about the people around him. Above all else, he was a professional all the way through. It was all about delivering a good show and making sure the audience went away happy. When I was offered the following year’s tour I jumped at it. Don was always easy to be around, as was Phil, though being around the two of them together was more challenging. Though they had “buried the hatchet” for the purpose of getting back together as the Everly Brothers, they hadn’t resolved their differences and it’s fair to say they were never truly reconciled, though Don is known to have missed his younger brother considerably after Phil passed away some seven years ago now.
The Everly Brothers are, rightly, recognised for the important artists they were. They were there at the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll and their music always contained wider elements of roots music, particularly country. When the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame launched in 1986 they were one of the inaugural inductees, along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Alan Freed, John Hammond, Robert Johnson, Sam Phillips, Jimmie Yancy and Jimmie Rodgers. That’s an impressive list to be included in and shows the high regard they have always been held in by both their peers and subsequent generations. At the 1997 Grammy’s they received a Lifetime Achievement award for their contribution to music. They made 21 studio albums and 2 live albums. They released 75 singles, 11 of which became number 1 hits.
Don is destined to go down in history as one half of the best vocal duo ever, but he was much more than that and he has never really been given the appreciation he deserves as a musician. Don wasn’t just a good singer, he was a talented writer – ‘So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)’, ‘Cathy’s Clown’, ‘The Price of Love’, co-written with Phil Everly – overall he wrote over twenty songs that were recorded by The Everlys and/or other artists. He was also an excellent guitarist. Keith Richards has famously referred to Don Everly as “a great rhythm player” and Waddy Wachtel credits Don with teaching him about open G tuning. When the Nashville Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum introduced an Iconic Riff Award it was Don’s intro to ‘Wake Up Little Suzie’ that claimed the first honours. With Phil Everly, the guitar he carried on stage was little more than a prop, with Don it was one of the tools he worked with every day, he knew how to use it well and he deserves to be recognised as the fine musician he was.
The reunion of the Everly Brothers didn’t last and, in 1998, they made their last ever recording as a duo, ‘Cold’, for the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman musical ‘Whistle Down the Wind’. Following Phil’s death, Don would publicly endorse a political candidate for the first time, backing Hillary Clinton for the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections. Political differences had long been one of the causes of the brothers’ arguments.
The death of Don Everly leaves a big gap in the world of music. The Everly Brothers are one of the great inspirations that so many of our Americana artists cite as the reference point for their own vocal work. While it needed both the brothers to produce that exquisite sound they made, the music and the wider vision of the songs they sang so often came down to the creativity and musicianship of the older brother.
Don Everly was a true legend. He’ll be much missed.