08 January 2014

Plenty of Everly Brothers Songs to Discover

I was sad to hear about the death of Phil Everly over the weekend. No musicians have given me more pleasure than him and his brother Don. Their 1950s hits for Cadence ensured that the voice of the American teenager was central to rock’n’roll music, but their harmonies (and the guitar licks Don usually came up with) made those songs last.

Of course, one downside of classics is that they become familiar. Almost all those early Everly songs are about teenage love or (more often) heartache, or they’re self-consciously quaint Americana. Phil helped to build that repertoire by writing “(Girls, Girls, Girls Are) Made to Love” and “When Will I Be Loved?”—crystalline in their emotion but subtle. Luckily, their main songwriters, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, could draw variations on the main theme. “Wake Up, Little Susie” played the awkward end of a teenagers’ date for tragedy; “Poor Jenny” played it for farce.

But after the Everlys signed a giant contract with Warner Bros. and then lost the Bryants’ services, their catalogue turned toward the maudlin. The tempos slowed, the tears jerked. The singing was still wonderful, but those early-1960s records aren’t my favorites.

And then the hits dried up. The Everlys also hit some personal rough patches. Those things happened around the time that the Beatles arrived in America; ironically, the brothers had two more good years on the British charts. Yet they continued to write and record songs together through the late 1960s and into the early ’70s, first for Warners and then under a new contract with RCA.

And a lot of those songs are terrific. In what turned out to be his last interview, with Paste magazine, Phil Everly ruled out ever recording or touring with Don again but added:
Have you heard our Pass the Chicken and Listen album? It’s a strange damn title, but Chet Atkins produced it. So for anybody who’s actually interested in our stuff and wanted to hear something, they ought to listen to that album. It’s a very interesting album. I don’t sit around and listen to our stuff at all—it’s just what I remember. And my favorite song on the thing is called “Lay It Down, Brother.” But whenever people talk about Don and I recording again—which almost everybody usually mentions—I always say ‘Well, there’s plenty of things that you haven’t heard! Plenty of things out there to discover!’
Casting around for a hit or an older audience meant the Everly Brothers got away from the formulas of their early career. Their love songs became more mature. “Up in Mabel’s Room” (co-written by Phil) is on the edge of blue. “Woman, Don’t Try to Tie Me Down” is caddish. They tried the quasi-medieval “Lord of the Manor,” the singer-songwriter confessional “I’m Tired of Singing My Song in Las Vegas” (by Don), even mild psychedelia. Nothing like their big familiar hits, but all immediately identifiable as Everly Brothers recordings. And all fresh to the ears.

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