Farewell to Phil Everly – one half of the perfect vocal duo

Phil (left) and Don Everly
Phil (left) and Don Everly

I was so sorry to hear of the death of Phil Everly earlier this week. He was just 74-years-old but suffered lung disease related to a lifetime of heavy smoking. Together with his brother Don he pioneered a sound that changed the course of musical history – stunning close-harmonies and songs that deftly drew from both country and R&B.  They were the perfect vocal duo. Without the Everlys could there ever have been Beatles, Beach Boys or Simon and Garfunkel? Not as we know them, I suspect.

I love the sound of Don and Phil. On one level it offers comfort and nostalgia and transports me back to another place and time when life was fresh and anything seemed possible. Yet it remains as thrilling today as it ever was. Of course the reality is that the Everlys – brilliant though they were – inevitably slowed down as the years went by. I saw them a few times in the 1980s and 1990s and they were superb. By the noughties though their concerts had lost the intensity of earlier shows and even though the magic never left them, the range and power of their beautiful voices was beginning to waver. Neither were in the best of health, possibly the legacy of a lengthy period of addiction to a variety of uppers.

A musician friend once described playing support on an Everly Brothers bill and looking on aghast as two “old geezers” were helped hobbling and shuffling into the dressing room where assistants were on hand to strap them up with surgical supports and corsets before dressing them in their finery and pointing them towards the stage. “It was amazing,” he recalled. “The years just fell away. One minute it seemed they could barely walk, the next it was. ‘Hey, it’s the Everly Brothers. One, two, three Wake Up Little Susie!” 

They could certainly be a handful. Don in particular. He had a much darker personality than his quieter and more polite brother.  One time back in the 90s he had Hattie, my wife and partner in photographic crime, thrown out of a concert after demanding to know why she was taking photographs of the band. The answer: that she had applied for and been issued with an official photo-pass fell on deaf ears. Don Everly stopped the concert and demanded that she be escorted from the theatre.” He walked to the apron of the stage and stabbed a finger at her. “We ain’t as pretty as we used to be,” he snarled. “We don’t mind the fans taking pictures (cue big round of applause) but we don’t want professionals pointing their cameras at us.”  The band looked at their feet. Hattie held her photo pass aloft in a vain attempt to stand her ground. But her fate was sealed. Her exit was of course accompanied by the 4,000 strong audience booing and slow hand-clapping. I sunk into my seat. Ironically before picking up the pass, Hattie had been contacted by the concert’s promotor and asked as the “official photographer” to try and get some new publicity pictures and perhaps a couple of live shots to use on a forthcoming album cover. “It’s really difficult getting new pictures of them,” he explained. He wasn’t wrong.

So I found myself in the odd position later that night of having to write a news story about Hattie being slung out of the concert because puffy, overweight Don Everly was too vain to have his picture taken and then write a review for the same edition of the paper saying what a superb concert it was. The Sun picked up on the photographer banned from concert story and ran a piece which contained the immortal words “Photographer Hattie Miles, 32, was asked to leave…” She loved that. They’d shaved almost a decade from her age. Sometime later we ran into the stringer who flogged the story. He said he’d opted for 32 because it was always best to “err on the side of caution.” She was flattered by the amount of erring employed.

None of this put me off the Everlys. Their music will always have a place in my heart. It was an essential part  of  the soundtrack of my childhood – a sound full of energy, hope and possibilities. When I was eleven my dad took me to buy a new bicycle. We went into a coffee bar next to the bike shop and Crying In The Rain was playing on the jukebox. To this day I remember the music better than the bike itself.  It was also of course the quintessential sound of the fairground. Think of the Everly’s and you are instantly riding a Waltzer with Cathy’s Clown booming in the background.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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