The Everly Brothers Blended American Music Like No One Before Them

R.I.P. Phil Everly
There were harmonies in American pop before the Everly Brothers, mostly based on the singing you'd hear every Sunday sitting in the pews of almost any African American church in America -- strong call-and-response harmonies and rich choral tapestries of sanctified soul. Doo Wop, early girl groups, and R&B artists used them, and kids like Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers blended them with the sounds of the street corner and took them to the top of the charts. Those early kinds of harmonies were ubiquitous -- until the Everly Brothers arrived.

The Everly family was originally from Kentucky, and the folk, country, gospel and specially bluegrass music Don and Phil grew up on came pouring out of their mouths with a celestial clarity. Their father, Ike Everly, was one of the best guitar pickers the country had ever produced. He influenced greats like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, and passed his innovative fretwork on to his sons. After years of honing their close harmony singing on the Everly Family radio show, Don and Phil moved to Nashville and landed a recording contract. Their first single, "Bye Bye Love," featured Atkins on lead guitar and combined elements of folk and country with the new rhythms of rock 'n' roll. The blend of styles was unique, and topped the pop, country, and R&B charts, a crossover success before that term was invented. Decades later, we can recognize the Everlys laying the foundation for what we now call Americana.

The harmonies the Everlys introduced to pop music were perfect and soulful. Both brothers had high pure voices, although Phil usually sang the high harmonies. They usually sang lead together, their voices blending to produce a single passionate, and sometimes playful, supervoice that was unique to the ears of most of America. Country music had a long tradition of brothers singing harmonies -- the Delmore Brothers and the Louvin Brothers come to mind -- but their singing was inspired by folk music and lacked the adolescent angst, pop sheen, and keening bluegrass soul that came naturally to the Everlys. Each brother sang a slightly different melody line that blended into one shimmering sound. The country influence the Everly Brothers injected into pop was an epiphany shared by artists like Simon and Garfunkel; Lennon and McCartney; Dennis, Carl, and Brian Wilson; Billy Joe Armstrong and Nora Jones, and thousands of other singers and musicians who tried to capture a bit of the Everly magic in the harmonies they sang.

The Brothers blended rock, country, folk, bluegrass and later, soul music into a style that¹s never been duplicated. They also wrote songs, with Phil penning the standard "When Will I Be Loved" and co-writing "Cathy's Clown" with Don. They stopped having hits in the early '60s, but they continued to make compelling albums that showcased their groundbreaking style until the late '80s. Over the years, the Brothers had a famously acrimonious relationship, but when they sang together, on record or on stage, the tension vanished and the music flowed. Even as they aged, the angelic voices of the Everlys remained warm, supple, and spine tingling.

Eventually, God calls all his angels home. Phil Everly passed away Jan. 3, and, though his voice is now silent, the songs he was part of will live on.

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