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Phil Everly: An appreciation

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Assessing the significance of the Everly Brothers is easy.

They were among the initial inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its inception in 1986. Their close harmony singing and classic songs influenced everyone from The Beatles to Simon and Garfunkel on up to Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones, who in November released Foreverly, a remake of the Everlys’ classic 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.

Phil Everly, who sang tenor and played guitar, died yesterday at 74, reportedly from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was two years younger than his brother Don Everly, who sang baritone and also played guitar in the historic duo. Together they also were awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award along with induction into the Country Music and Vocal Group Halls of Fame.

“I don’t know what to say,” says Linda Ronstadt, “except that he and his brother were a cornerstone of rock ‘n’ roll and expanded the regional duet traditions of the Blue Sky Boys and the Louvin Brothers into a huge facet of the international phenomenon that was American popular music.”

Ronstadt, of course, was one of countless artists to cover the Everly Brothers, most notably with her big 1975 hit “When Will I Be Loved,” a cover of the Everlys' 1960 hit single. The song was written by Phil, who wrote other Everly classics with Don (including "Cathy’s Clown”); for his part, Don also wrote Everly hits including "('Til) I Kissed You."

But the Everly Brothers are also justly famous for recording such hits as as “Bye, Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream”—all written by the legendary husband-and-wife songwriting team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, whose son Del Bryant is president of Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), the American performing rights organization.

"Phil Everly was the master class in harmony,” said Bryant in a statement. “His contributions to music are profound yet understated just like good harmony itself. And knowing him for nearly 60 years, I can say with all certainty that the only thing sweeter than his voice was the man himself."

Peter Asher, who as part of the British Invasion hit-making duo Peter & Gordon were often called “the Everly Brothers of the British Invasion” (they included the Everlys' hit "Crying In The Rain" in their concerts), went on to produce Ronstadt’s “When Will I Be Loved” among many other hits and hit artists.

“Every close harmony duo recognizes the immense debt they owe to the Everly Brothers,” says Asher. “The Everlys were the very best and we all know it.”

When Asher and partner Gordon Waller first met the Everly Brothers, “it was an act of homage,” Asher continues.

“We had been singing their songs and copying their harmonies from the day we got together,” he acknowledges, then echoes Bryant. “I got to know Phil quite well and he was a man as charming, kind and smart as he was musically brilliant. A couple of years ago when I got to produce and host a Buddy Holly special for PBS, one of the highlights for [heavily Everlys-influenced former Hollies member] Graham Nash and I was when we got to sing two lines of [Buddy Holly hit] ‘That'll Be The Day’ with Phil, our idol. He was not very well even then, but sounded as thrilling as ever.”

For John Alexander, former senior editor/producer at Reader’s Digest Music, “Phil and Don Everly's musical legacy is beyond compare.”

“Everyone knows how much the Everly Brothers influenced the Beatles--the British Everlys--and their amazing run of hit singles from 1957 to 1962,” says Alexander, who regularly included Everly Brothers hits in his many Reader’s Digest Music compilation sets. “But what many don't realize is the enormous impact the Everlys had on helping to introduce country music to a popular audience. Their Kentucky roots ran deep and their early recordings included many classic country covers. Their cover of Gene Autry's ‘That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine’ remains a definitive version. And, interestingly, their last charting single was a collaboration with Johnny Cash and Rosanne Cash on Jack Clement's ‘Ballad Of A Teenage Queen’ in 1989.”

Looking back at the Everlys’ early Cadence label hits, Alexander adds, “Their Cadence catalog, along with all the monumental hits, also includes many underrated gems like the prison lament ‘Take A Message To Mary,’ the heartbreaking dying son's plea to his mother to ‘Put My Little Shoes Away’ and the brutal murder saga ‘Down In The Willow Garden.’ For Warner Bros. they recorded one of the all-time great tragedy ballads ‘Ebony Eyes,’ which made it to No. 4 on the pop chart because of their hauntingly beautiful sibling harmonies.”

Fellow rock ‘n’ roll great Lou Christie recalled growing up with Everly Brothers music in the ‘50s in Pittsburgh.

“One of the great memories was looking forward to hearing the next Everly Brothers record,” Christie said in a statement. “From Day One, hearing their steely voices blend and breathe together was their Kentucky sound that we couldn't get enough of. Their influences played on through many bands from the ‘60s--The Beatles, The Hollies, or anyone who could find Phil or Don's part.”

Nancy Sinatra tweeted, “Touring with Phil and Don was one of the thrills of my life.”

Contacted after, Sinatra said, via email, “Phillip was the shy one, the one who was mostly in the background, who deferred to Donald. We tried to feature him more in our shows because the audiences loved hearing his solos. At times I got to sing standing in between them, and being surrounded by those beautiful voices was heavenly. I tried my best to blend with them, especially on ‘Sweet Dreams,’ but it's not as easy as it sounds, to try to be an Everly Brother--but fabulous fun.”

For Andy Paley, who with brother Jonathan had his own legendary “brother” pop vocal duo in the 1970s as The Paley Brothers, “Phil Everly had one of the most beautiful voices ever recorded. The Everly Brothers records are never going to be topped by anyone.”

The Paleys did make a go of it, though, in covering the Everlys’ 1961 single “Stick With Me, Baby.” More recently, Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones released Foreverly.

“I am saddened by the news of the passing of Phil Everly,” Armstrong said via Twitter. “The Everly Brothers go way back as far as I can remember hearing music. Those harmonies will live on forever.”

Said Jones, in a statement, “The Everlys had a huge influence on all kinds of musicians. The high harmonies Phil sang were fluid and so beautiful and always sound effortless in a way that just washes over the listener. He was one of our greats and it's very sad to lose him."

But the Everly Brothers sound transcended music genre.

“It was irresistible,” says Corky Siegel, renowned Chicago blues harmonica/pianist and co-leader of the historic ‘60s Siegel-Schwall Band as well as head of the groundbreaking Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues ensemble.

“It was deep, beautiful, sweet and energetic, and filled with incredible positive energy,” he says. “There’s no way that it’s not reflected in anything I’ve done since it took my whole heart and soul—along with those of every other teenager I knew in high school.”

Concludes Asher, “No two voices can ever vie with the Everly Brothers as a duo, and no high harmony singer will ever compare to Phil. He was the best, and will be sorely missed in every way.”

Lou Christie is now preparing to “pull out all of their records to hear and capture the memories they gave me,” he said, naming among them, “Bye Bye Love," "Bird Dog," "I Wonder If I Care As Much," "Wake Up Little Susie" and "Crying In The Rain."

Meanwhile, Rockin’ John McDonald, venerable host of Madison, Wis. listener-sponsored radio station WORT-FM’s long-running Saturday night rock ‘n’ roll show I Like It Like That, promises to devote next week's two-hour slot entirely to the Everly Brothers.

“Phil Everly was part of the most influential vocal duo in rock history,” says McDonald, restating the obvious. “The Everly Brothers were an inspiration to The Beatles, The Hollies and Simon & Garfunkel. Their harmonies influenced an infinite number of rock and country artists.”

“My only problem,” he adds, “is that I have only two hours.”

Subscribe to my examiner.com pages and follow me on Twitter @JimBessman.

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