This month I’m gonna cover the most famous family act in rock’n’roll history. And as sometimes happens in real life, it’s a story of the family members splitting up in acrimony and recrimination. It’s a true and great story, with some of the greatest rock’n’roll songs in history thrown in along the way.
Our tribute concert on 14th May was dedicated to the Everly Brothers. I booked the Marshmallows to perform for us, after my customary free rock’n’roll dance class kicked off the Event. Most of you know from my previous articles how good I think this band is. Marshmallows are quite simply fantastic. As their name implies, on stage they are sweet and hot ! Some of the photos you can see were taken at this great concert on 14/05/16.
The Everly Brothers had the classic beginning to their musical careers. Their Dad and Mum were already a performing act. Small time for sure, but they had their own music show on a local Kentucky radio station playing country-oriented music. After the family moved to Iowa, while still very young the brothers Don and Phil joined the family act, under the names “Little Donnie and Baby Boy Phil.” In the early 1950s the family then moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. After the 2 boys had graduated from High School, their own musical careers really started to move fast. Chet Atkins, the famous country singer, was a friend of the family and it was he who got some recording companies interested in them. Success wasn’t long in coming and their first monster hit was “Bye Bye Love”, which was number 2 in the charts in 1957.
“Bye Bye Love” was the first of many smash hits for the brothers. Here’s just a sample of their hits which have become legendary r’n’r tracks; “Wake up Little Susie”, “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Bird Dog”, “Problems” and “(Till) I Kissed You,” “Walk Right Back”, “Cathy’s Clown” and “When Will I be Loved”.
Their huge success lasted up to the very early 1960s. By then of course the golden era of rock’n’roll was over and their popularity waned in like measure, although they still commanded big crowds at their concerts. They continued to record throughout the 1960s.
And here’s where the story gets less than dream-like. This was a case of sibling rivalry big-time. They never really liked each other from early on and as their successful career developed, the conflicts between them increased. Ultimately it led to their splitting up at the beginning of the 1970s and pursuing separate careers, neither of which produced anything like the success they had achieved together. Attempts were made at re-unions for commercial reasons, but they never lasted. In fact for 10 years they never spoke one word to each other, except at their father’s funeral.
Prior to the split, they’d also had different problems. Both became addicted to the drug Speed during the 1960s. Survivors from the 1960s will remember this was a popular illegal drug during this period, especially amongst the Mods. The brothers took some time to recover from it. This included concerts having to be cancelled and periods of hospitalisation. Don was the worst affected by this addiction.
They both loved performing and continued to do this, separately, for the rest of their lives. Of course the heady days of stardom were far behind them by then. Phil died in 2014 of lung disease, at which time the estrangement between the brothers had still not ended.
The song writer Sharon Sheeley, who knew them both very well and in fact dated Don in the 1950s, gave an insight into the kind of people the two were. Regular readers of this column will know Sharon was the focus of my “Russia’n’Roll” article last month. Here’s how she described them: “Phil and Don had strikingly different personalities. Don the eldest, seemed self-centred and very spoiled. Phil’s personality was a polar opposite of his brother. They clashed, argued, fought with each other all the time.” Don had dated Sharon without telling her he was married. It was Phil who broke this news to her, adding, “You’re too nice a girl to be involved with my brother Donald, Sharon.”
The advent of the period of the Beatles in the 1960s and the new style of music of they brought with them, inevitably impacted negatively on the brothers’ popularity with the public. This added to the feuds between Don and Phil, as this competition from the “British invasion” made them argue even more about what sort of material to record and what direction they should take musically.
And here’s another British link to the story of the brothers. In 1961 a pop duo, “The Allisons”, represented the UK in the Eurovision song contest. They came second, with their song “Are You Sure ?”. And the link ? The Allisons were basically a rip-off of the Everlys, although of course they would have denied it. Their sound and looks made them today what we’d call an Everly Brothers tribute/copy band. In their publicity they even tried to give the impression they were brothers, despite the fact that they weren’t. I’m not suggesting their act comprised Everly numbers hits, but the style and persona they adopted and performed was definitely a-la-Don and Phil. And the Allisons made good money out of it all. Not only did they come second in the Eurovision that year, but they went on to become a successful pop act in the UK. “Are You Sure ?” made it to number one in the UK charts, selling over a million records. I’m just old enough to remember seeing them on the telly performing in that 1961 Eurovision contest. I was very young but can still remember thinking at the time, “they’re just like the Everly Brothers”.
It is very fortunate for rock’n’roll that despite their personal differences, the Everly Brothers stayed together long enough to create some of the greatest songs in rockin’ history. And they were together at the time it mattered most i.e. the 1950s, the golden era of rock’n’roll. They were truly two of the Greats; the brothers who worked through their conflicts to become musical legends.