Don Everly’s death at the age of 84 brings down the curtain on the Everly Brothers, the vocal duo that defined the rock’n’roll duet and the sound of adolescent angst. Their unmistakable harmonies drew on 700 years of Scottish Borders misery, taken via the Appalachians to express late 1950s teenage confusion. Revived on annual tours for more than half a century, these sounds were stilled in concert by the death of Phil, the younger brother, in 2014.
Like Elvis and Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers came up with the blueprint of how things would be, and in later years were bitter at receiving less credit for this than rock’n’roll’s solo greats. It typified their knack of snatching sourness from the jaws of sweetness.
They could not complain at their initial success. After one difficult session for Columbia, yielding the rare 1956 single Keep A’Lovin’ Me/The Sun Keeps Shining, they signed with the New York label Cadence, later switching to the newly formed Warner Bros Records. From 1957 to 1965 they had 28 hits in the British Top 30, and comparable success in the US.
Their first Cadence single, Bye Bye Love, was a million seller and US No 2. Wake Up Little Susie, their second hit, was a US No 1; All I Have to Do Is Dream another, also topping the UK charts. Bird Dog and Problems were US No 2s, and (’Til) I Kissed You, written by Don, a UK No 2. Other hits included Let It Be Me, Take a Message to Mary, Like Strangers, Crying in the Rain and the UK No 1 Walk Right Back.
Don, born in Brownie, Kentucky, and Phil, born two years later, to Margaret (nee Embry) and Ike Everly, were duetting long before rock’n’roll, on their parents’ radio show on KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa. They had attended Longfellow elementary school in Waterloo, Iowa, where Ike was a coalminer, before in 1944 the family moved to Shenandoah, and the brothers finished their school days at West High, Knoxville, Tennessee, where the family had settled in 1953.
The boys were seasoned professionals by the time they poured out their magic vocals on to a run of hits that married hillbilly harmonies and Nashville nous, their full-chorded acoustic guitars embracing Bo Diddley’s exotic rhythms to create the rock’n’roll end of country music’s rich, commercial sounds.
Many of their hits, including Bye Bye Love, were written by another duo, Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, but the brothers wrote plenty themselves. Both penned the phenomenally successful debut single on Warner Bros, Cathy’s Clown, which achieved an almost unprecedented nine weeks at No 1 in Britain in 1960 and was another US No 1. Phil wrote When Will I Be Loved; as well as (’Til) I Kissed You, Don wrote Since You Broke My Heart, and So Sad (to Watch Good Love Go Bad).
They had the gravitas to cover other artists’ crucial songs, from Little Richard’s Lucille, given a keening, slow-motion vocal fall, to the blues classics Trouble in Mind and Step It Up and Go, and Mickey & Sylvia’s Love Is Strange. Don, taken through the Maxwell Street market in Chicago as a young boy by his father, was ever after aware of gospel and blues. In an era of pretty pop, the Everlys sought a tougher sound on records such as The Price of Love (1965) and their extraordinary revival of the standard Temptation (1961), which pre-figured Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”. But, like Spector’s River Deep, Mountain High, the Everlys’ Temptation was (by their standards) a flop in the US, and The Price of Love a bigger one.
Then there were the Beatles, whose “new” harmonies made the Everlys old-fashioned overnight. Made redundant before they were 30, Don and Phil felt, wrongly, that the Beatles had stolen from them without acknowledgment – John and Paul admitted that they had taken inspiration for the harmonies on Please Please Me from Cathy’s Clown.
Sidelined further by prog rock, Don and Phil tried first to sound like Simon and Garfunkel, and then their influential 1968 album Roots which, with the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, marked a step towards the emergence of “country rock”.
Don continued to write songs: Human Race (1970), the cri de coeur I’m Tired of Singing My Song in Las Vegas on the album Stories We Could Tell (1972), and most of the magnificent ignored solo album Don Everly (1971), a compelling collection that sings of human frailty with profound compassion (yet which, Phil told a biographer, he had felt as a betrayal, “like cheating on a marriage”).
These were perilous decades, especially for Don, the more temperamental and creative of the pair, whose drug adventures probably loosened an already shaky grip on reality. After a childhood paraded as a cute novelty item, dressed as if he were a twin, in cowboy clothes, his only sample of “normal life” was a spell in the Marines (of which he was proud) in the middle of being half of a pair of teen idols: one of the world’s most influential, well-loved and successful acts – and then, suddenly, one of the most passé.
The Everly Brothers split up in public acrimony, their last performance together on 14 July 1973, in Buena Park, California, at which Phil hurled down his guitar and stormed off stage, leaving Don to finish the concert alone.
On two other occasions Phil managed without Don. In 1962, on tour in Britain, a drug-fuelled Don tried to throw himself from a hotel window and Phil had to perform solo on the remaining dates. And then, recording a solo album in 1983, right at the end of the brothers’ bleak 10 years of separation, Phil brought in Cliff Richard, and on one track they duetted as if Don could somehow be replaced. Phil and Cliff’s She Means Nothing to Me was a Top 10 UK hit, just to compound the enormity of the “betrayal”. Don saw it as nothing less, though it was he who had actually dissolved the brothers’ lifelong professional partnership.
It was a further trauma for both to discover that separately, no one cared that much about either of them. But in 1983 they staged a moving reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
They still sang exquisitely, and a small segment of their shows offered songs learned from their father, whom they worshipped, and the Kentucky guitarist Mose Rager: authentic old-time country material. Don played loving, intense guitar, though sparingly in latterday performances. Singing lead, he lived in the spontaneity of the moment, his phrasing inspired, warm and free. He was an artist. But they hardly dared stray from their teenage hits. Besides, to have done so would have meant having to rehearse together.
Off-stage, Don was a glutton for life and a connoisseur. He had always seen the latest film; he read widely; he was interested in modern art and, on a modest scale, collected it. An avid explorer of restaurants, he loved to talk of food and to cook it. On tour, the Anglophile rock star would rise early and roam the towns he found himself in. These explorations made his professional duties tolerable, as he would deftly concede. At showtime in 90s Croydon, he realised he had forgotten to change into his stage clothes. Told he looked fine, he answered: “No, I better change. That suit knows the words.”
In 1957 Don married Mary Sue Ingraham. Their first daughter, Mary, died in infancy; their second, Venetia, shared a name with the Hollywood starlet Venetia Stevenson, who in 1962 became Don’s second wife, following a divorce. He and Venetia had two daughters, Stacy and Erin, and a son, Edan, and divorced in 1970. In 1975 he married Karen Prettyman, and they divorced eight years later. His fourth wife was Adela Garza, one of a singing-twins act from Nashville. When they married in 1997, he was 60 and she was 28.
His friends included the writers Garrison Keillor and Lucinda Lambton, the painter Peter Blake and his wife Chrissie, and the Nashville guitarist and producer Chet Atkins, who had been a family friend throughout the brothers’ lives and had helped them obtain recording contracts at the start of their careers.
Moody and irresponsible, Don could be ruthless, rude and self-centred, warm, generous, very charming and excitable. He had, in fact, “lots of the qualities of a child”, as Chrissie put it, qualities that helped to make him one of the formative voices of rock’n’roll.
Shocked by Phil’s death in 2014, Don told the LA Times: “I always assumed I would go first, because I was the oldest. It was a shock to find out he was so ill.”
In 2016 he campaigned for Hillary Clinton during the presidential election.
He is survived by Adela, his children Venetia, Stacy, Erin and Edan, and his mother.
• Don (Isaac Donald) Everly, singer and songwriter, born 1 February 1937; died 21 August 2021
• This article was amended on 23 August 2021. Shenandoah, the home of radio station KMA, is in Iowa rather than Ohio.