Now the brothers' amazing legacy has been recognized in the form of the four-disc boxed set Heartaches & Harmonies, to be released today by Rhino Records. The collection - which has a list price of $59.98 - comprises titles
from five labels, including all of the duo's '50s hits for Cadence and '60s successes on Warner Bros.
"I'm looking forward to the box set. It's nice, but we're pretty low-key about these things," said Don Everly, 57, in his dressing room after performing before an enthusiastic crowd at the Grand Palace, one of 30 theaters in this gaudy, thriving country-music mecca.
Brother Phil, 55, at ease in his own room, is equally unassuming about the box, his career and life in general. Asked what he does when he's not on the road, he laughed quietly, then replied, "I go to lunch mostly, if you look at my American Express card bill."
Phil, who sings the plaintive, sweetly keening harmony to Don's tenor lead, acknowledges that he assisted the Rhino compilers. He even came up with the rare "Don't Let Our Love Die," from a 1951 radio broadcast of The Everly Family Show, which featured the boys and their parents, Ike and Margaret.
"I knew it existed and I got it from our mother," he said. "They were doing such a wide range of our material for the box, it seemed like a good idea to put it on there."
The brothers didn't always receive such respect. In the '50s, they recalled, they were interviewed by writers who could barely stand their music.
"We'd been in show business for 15 years and it was the very thing I had hoped for all my life," Don said, a slight edge to his quiet voice. "Then all these people said, 'Well it ain't gonna work.' They thought it was temporary.
"A reporter would come in and make it clear he liked jazz and wanted to let you know he was there only because somebody made him come."
They made frequent TV appearances during their '50s hit streak, said Don, and some of the shows' hosts were nice, "like Vic Damone and Ed Sullivan. But we were on the Arthur Murray Dance Party once, and Mrs. Arthur Murray came out and told the audience that we didn't do 'their kind of music,' but they should be tolerant and listen to it anyway. Then, we were supposed to come out and sing. It was like we were second-class citizens. . . . We knew they didn't want us around."
Andrew Sandoval certainly didn't feel that way. The co-producer, compiler and annotator of the Everly box was happy to become involved in what turned into a five-year Rhino project.
"With so many labels involved, it's been a problem to coordinate," Sandoval said from his California office.
"When Warner Brothers began their Warner Archives series, one of their first projects was an Everly album, and we waited for that to come out (last year). While we were waiting on that, we continued our research and work with other labels. The song selection went from about 75 to 104 during that period. Warners let us have all the songs we wanted."
Even with four discs, Sandoval said, it "got to the point of choosing which good songs we would probably have to leave out of the box. We got some real interesting things, including a Coke commercial and a couple of unreleased Warner songs."
The box also features an unsuccessful 1956 single, "Keep A' Lovin' Me," issued on Columbia Records. Things changed in 1957 when the brothers signed with Cadence, a New York company that cut most of its records in Nashville. Within two years, the duo had reeled off a half-dozen Top 10 pop hits for their new label, including "Bye Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Susie" and ''All I Have to Do Is Dream."
"They were cutting music for kids - not real country at the time, but Nashville was very proud of them," said Chet Atkins, one of the most powerful producers in Nashville during the '60s, and guitarist on most of the Everlys' hits.
"People used to see them hitchhiking around town and they were so nice. They were considered pop, but Don and Phil thought they were country, just like Elvis Presley did."
Although Cadence owner Archie Blyer produced the Everly sessions, the brothers had a lot of say. Don, in particular, "would help with the arrangements," said Atkins. "We got into Bo Diddley, but Don took it to a more sophisticated level for the song intros."
At recording sessions, Atkins, who is the acknowledged hero of both brothers, was often accompanied by Music City hotshots such as pianist Floyd Cramer and drummer Buddy Harman. The Everlys still work with good players, including veteran steel guitarist Buddy Emmons and British producer and pianist Pete Wingfield. Lead guitarist Albert Lee played with Emmy Lou Harris' Hot Band and spent five years with Eric Clapton.
"I've always listened to them, and have worked with them on and off for 30 years," Lee said backstage, after their Branson matinee.
"I also worked with Phil and Don separately. At one point, I even did some gigs with Don, doing Phil's harmony parts. But no one can match those two when they sing together."
The harmony is soaring again, despite an acrimonious past. Things really
went sour in 1973, when Phil threw his guitar down and stalked off stage during a California concert. Don wrestled with a longtime drug problem, and the two didn't work together again until 1983, when they reunited for a triumphant concert at London's Royal Albert Hall.
They still aren't exactly bosom buddies. When they aren't on the road, Phil hangs out in Los Angeles. Don lives in Nashville, and fronts a band he calls the Dead Cowboys. The distance seems to be what keeps them together.
"It's not hard to get up for a tour, but we did a lot of them as kids and I'm not interested in being on the road all the time," Phil said. "We've all hung out over the years, so we can get the band together and click right away. It's fun when we do it, but then we go on to other things."
"We have different ideas about what we want to do, based on what Phil's been influenced by out there in California," explained Don. "So we go on the road and we do the stuff that we do . . . the best we can for all kinds of audiences, and it's still rewarding."
The Everlys are ambivalent about recording again as a duo. In 1984, they had a Top 50 hit in the Paul McCartney-written "On the Wings of a Nightingale." There were also a half-dozen minor country hits during the same period.
"You never say no to recording," Phil said. "If somebody brought us a song that we just had to record I would do it."
The Everlys don't do any of their '80s songs on tour. And, while their older tunes are often teen anthems about bird dogs and late dates with Susie, Don says he's still happy to sing them.
"I've done 'Cathy's Clown' for 35 years," he said. "If you don't stop doing that it never goes away or seems strange to sing. And that's what people come to hear. You have a show to do and you take them here and take them there and bring them back to another place. You keep the moods changing. It's like Tony Bennett said, it took him 35 years to get a good set and he's not about to change it now.
"And don't forget," Don continued, "we have a really good band. And I think we have some good songs. They have strong melodies. Rock-and-roll lyrics aren't much, but they're still fun to sing."
One witness to their ability to sing in the '50s is Robin Luke, who had a Top 10 hit in 1958 with "Susie Darlin' " and is now a professor and head of the marketing department at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo. He met the duo in 1958, when he was living in Hawaii.
"I also did some other shows with them," Luke recalled. "I kept running into them on the road and got to be friends with them. We were all very young then, but it was clear they were really talented. . . . They were very good guitarists. But they had a sound when they sang that is only genetically possible, that sound they got was something only two brothers singing could get."
That singing is still enjoyable for many fans, a fact that gives producer Sandoval high hopes. Asked who the boxed set was designed for, he says he's not sure, "but I hope that a lot of people who haven't heard all this work before and didn't realize how good they were, beyond 'Wake Up Little Susie,' will realize just how much good music they made. We want to find a new audience for them. We see this as a discovery process for both old and new fans."
While Rhino works the box set, the Everlys will do occasional performances. ''It's a good life," said Don. "I don't have to work, but I want to. To be able to (pay) this band that I want and to do this, I've got to make some good money. It's a great band, and it's a luxury in my life. To be on the bus and working with these people, it's given me a midlife I wouldn't have had any other way.
"We meet at the airport and these guys come in from England and other places and we're all friends and hang out together," Don continued. "It's a lot like going to camp. You get away from everyone, leave the women at home, and go away for three months. It's a nice life."