site logo

The Everly Brothers Biography

Last updated: 03/13/2014 04:10:45 AM


"Music was their recreation as well as their communication," says the Reverend Ted Everly, speaking about his father Leonard and his uncles Charlie and Isaac (Ike). "But they couldn't read music so they played by ear." With practice, the three brothers soon became highly accomplished at playing guitar in a thumbpicking style that was common in Muhlenberg County. On August 31, 1935, at age 27, Ike Everly married the girl next door, Margaret Embry. Their first son, Isaac Donald, was born on February 1, 1937 in Brownie, Kentucky which was a little town about two miles east of Central City. Soon after Don's birth, the family moved to Chicago where a second son, Phillip, was born on January 19,1939.


Following the lead of their older brother Ike, Charlie and Leonard retired from the back-breaking work in the coal mines of Muhlenberg County, and also moved their families north to Chicago. Along with Ike, they took their country-style singing and playing into the night clubs of Madison and Maxwell Streets which were full of honky-tonks and bars. "I remember my father playing in Chicago in a country western honky-tonk with pool tables and a little bandstand," Don recalls. "I can also remember the smell of the place... the old cigars and beer. As far as I know, my father had the first electric guitar on Madison Street. He would work the honky-tonks, and they'd open the doors and the place would fill up. He was working with his brothers and they sang in harmony which was really a tradition in country music... families singing together." Even though Ike was an established performer in Chicago, he and Margaret wanted their sons to be raised in a small rural community. So, in 1944, Ike got a job with radio station KASL in Waterloo, Iowa. He felt that radio would eventually create a future for him and his family. Ike tried to persuade his two younger brothers to also take up careers in radio, but they chose to remain in Chicago and continue to perform in the clubs there.


In 1945 Ike moved his family again when he joined the staff at radio station KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa. At the young ages of 8 and 6, Don and Phil began to perform on their parents' live radio show. By his example, Ike instilled in his two sons his own love for music. He encouraged them to sing and he taught them to play guitar. "When we were kids," Don recalls, "the first thing people wanted us to do was sing. People would come over and say, 'Come on, Don and Phil, sing us a song.' " At KMA the brothers were introduced to listeners as "Little Donnie" and "Baby Boy Phil." Margaret often joined Ike and "the boys," as they were called then, and four-part harmonies by the family were common. By 1950 the radio show had become known as "The Everly Family Show." During the summer of 1952, the family accepted a job at WIKY in Evansville, Indiana so they prepared to leave Shenandoah. "I didn't want to go," says Don. "It gave me a sense of stability, like the kind you read about in Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor. The Midwest is wonderful. It's like its own ocean. I love the Midwest... the farming communities. It's part of me." Phil stresses, "America cannot afford to lose the people of the Midwest... the breadbasket of the world. It's not only their ability to grow things that's important, but their ability to grow people." Radio stations were beginning to find it more economical to pay one person to play records than to pay a group of people to play live music, so "The Everly Family Show" began looking again for a new home after being at WIKY for only a year. "We had heard about WROL in Knoxville, Tennessee," says Don, "so we packed the car up and left in September of '53. We came down, auditioned, and got the job on Cas Walker's show for $90 a week for all four of us."


There were others before him, of course, but the first famous Everly Brothers fan was Chet Atkins. Back in 1955, Chet would buy The Everly Brothers a cup of coffee and a piece of pie almost every time he'd see them in Nashville. "People knew we were Chet's friends," explains Don, "so they didn't run us out of town." "One thing that impressed me when I met those kids was that they were so intelligent," says Chet. "Don and Phil used proper English and I just thought they were a cut above... intellectually and education-wise."

In the spring of 1957 their producer, Archie Bleyer, proudly announced The Everlys' first Cadence label single with a half-page advertisement in Billboard magazine. In its April 20th issue, Billboard said, "The Tennessee teenagers have a distinctive, appealing sound and could click big in the Pop as well as C & W field." " ' Bye Bye Love' (by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant) had been kicking around Nashville but nobody had done it, so we took it," says Don. "And we had a song called 'Give Me A Future.' We took the arrangement off that and put it on 'Bye Bye Love' and it just seemed to work." "Bye Bye Love" enjoyed a 22 week run on the Billboard pop charts, peaking at #2 where it sat for 4 weeks. The two songs which denied it the #1 spot were Elvis Presley's "Teddy Bear" and Pat Boone's "Love Letters In The Sand." All the same, "Bye Bye Love" went #1 country and #5 R & B and the record became The Everlys' first million seller.

The release of "Bye Bye Love" sent The Everly Brothers spiraling towards stardom and, on May 11, 1957, the boys fulfilled a lifelong dream by appearing on the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. When they sang "Bye Bye Love," they got a huge ovation from the crowd of 4,000 and Roy Acuff had to call them back to take a bow.

With "Bye Bye Love," a hit formula had been discovered: Boudleaux's rhythms, Felice's lyrics, Don's guitar intros, and Phil's harmony. The Bryant songwriting team began composing songs tailored to The Everlys' harmonies while providing the expected and important Don Everly solo somewhere in the middle.

Their next hit, "Wake Up Little Susie," was recorded on August 16, 1957 and Don provided the song with a distinctive intro guitar hook. This time nothing would stop The Everlys from reaching the very top of the charts. "Wake Up Little Susie" hit #1 during the week of October 14th and it stayed # 1 for four weeks. It was their first record issued in a picture sleeve, and it became their second million seller. After recording "Wake Up Little Susie," Don and Phil hit the road for a 78-city tour of mostly one-nighters that began on September 6th and ran through the 24th of November 1957. Called "The Biggest Show of Stars for '57," it was a package tour which included some of the all-time greats of rock 'n' roll: Chuck Berry, Buddy Knox, The Drifters, Paul Anka, Fats Domino, The Crickets (although Buddy Holly wasn't famous enough yet at that time to have his name listed in front of The Crickets), Eddie Cochran, LaVern Baker (the only female on the tour), Frankie Lymon, Clyde McPhatter, and Paul Williams Or chestra. Don and Phil also performed at the Alan Freed Christmas Show that year at the Paramount Theater in New York City.

"Boudleaux Bryant was a classical violinist but he loved country music... he played it and wrote it," says Chet who played guitar on The Everly Brothers' early recordings. "He got into a thing of writing these little songs with lines such as 'dream, dream, dream.' They were almost like lullabies, you know, which fitted The Everly Brothers perfectly."

"I remember hearing 'All I Have To Do Is Dream' on an acetate with Boudleaux's version on it," recalls Phil. 'And I said, at the time, they could have put Boudleaux's out and it would have been a hit. It's just a great, great song. It's beautiful. Boudleaux was the main man who wrote all the great songs for us, and we love him." When Boudleaux passed away at age 67 in June 1987, Chet Atkins said this about him, "Boudleaux changed the direction of music all over the world through his songs for The Everly Brothers." "All I Have To Do Is Dream" was recorded on March 6, 1958. Don and Phil premiered the song on American Bandstand and Dick Clark introduced it as "their next #1 record." "Dream" did indeed reach #1 and it stayed at the top of the charts for 5 weeks. It became their third million seller. The "Dream" single was quickly followed by the release of their first album in April of 1958. It was simply called The Everly Brothers but most fans refer to it as "they're off and rolling", referring to Archie Bleyer's statement printed above the album's title on the front cover."Bye Bye Love" began a string of 26 Top 40 singles for The Everly Brothers whose worldwide record sales have now topped 40 million.

Having sung on their parents' live radio show, Don and Phil were already showbiz professionals and ready for the limelight by the time they recorded "Bye Bye Love." Reflecting on the success of their early Cadence recordings, Don says, "We had fulfilled every wish and dream... everything I had ever thought of. I wanted to get on the Grand Ole Opry... well, I was on the Grand Ole Opry. I was working the New York Paramount, and I was traveling around the world... all in the space of a year. It happened really fast."

"If The Everly Brothers were starting out today they could still hack it," says Felice Bryant emphatically. "That sound is as alive today as it was in 1957. The time of that sound has not passed. I think that's an eternal sound." "Phil and I always sang, even when we were apart." says Don "That's what we do. Our father raised us to do this. I never considered doing anything else. I don't know how to function in any other world. I function in a world of music."

They joined the Marines in 1961 together and served until 1962. Eleven years later, they parted company and pursued successful solo careers. Then, in 1983, they reunited with a long-awaited concert at London's Royal Albert Hall. What Don and Phil contributed to the world of rock 'n' roll has influenced everyone who has come after them, and they have received numerous awards and accolades in appreciation for their contribution. In July of 1986, Don and Phil triumphantly returned to Shenandoah for a Homecoming Concert. The town organized a parade in their honor and "the boys" received handshakes, hugs, kisses, and carnations all along the parade route as they were greeted by their childhood friends. Iowa's governor was also on hand to welcome them back home and the event's organizer, Bill Hillman, dedicated "Everly Brothers Avenue" during a public ceremony. Also, in 1986, they were among the first 10 inductees into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and they received a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame that year.

The Everly Brothers returned to Muhlenberg County on August 25, 1988. They returned to their "hometown" of Central City, a little town in Kentucky about 92 miles the north of Nashville. Like in Shenandoah two years earlier, there was a welcome home parade to celebrate their return. Hundreds of people from all around gathered and waved at "the boys" as they returned to their roots.

"Some of the guys in the band have accused us of having too many hometowns! 'Oh, another hometown, huh'? they've asked from time to time," says Don with a laugh. "But we traveled around a lot! So we're from Iowa, and we're from Chicago. We're from a lot of places... from Nashville... and from LA." The celebration was organized because the townspeople wanted to show their appreciation to Don and Phil who had given Central City's Police Department a check for $7,500 to fund the purchase of radios for their patrol cars. Mayor Hugh Sweatt proclaimed that Central City's Chestnut Street "would henceforth be known as Everly Brothers Boulevard" and presented souvenir street signs to Don and Phil. There has been a Homecoming Music Festival in Central City each year since that first one in 1988. The main event on Labor Day weekend is the Saturday night concert held at the athletic field behind Central City's elementary school. Besides Don and Phil, John Prine has also been a regular performer. His parents were Muhlenberg County natives and his song about Paradise was recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1973.The annual Festival has featured such artists as Chet Atkins, Bo Diddley, Duane Eddy, Marty Brown, Thom Bresh, Tammy Wynette, and Marty Stuart.

The Central City Music Festival has evolved from a humble beginning in 1988 to an international event that has attracted up to 22,000 fans. Hundreds of dedicated volunteers give of their time and energy to make the event a success each year. Proceeds from the first three concerts enabled The Everly Brothers Foundation to meet its goal of establishing a perpetual scholarship trust fund in the amount of $100,000. The earnings from this trust guarantee that deserving Muhlenberg County students will receive financial assistance to attend college, and 53 $1,000 scholarships have been awarded through 1996. In addition to awarding scholarships, The Foundation has purchased 83 acres of land between the Western Kentucky Parkway and Everly Brothers Boulevard in Central City. Plans call for the development of an Everly Brothers Museum, an amphitheater, and classroom buildings for Madisonville Community College Extension.

In 1994 Rhino Records issued a 4-CD, 103-song box set called Heartaches & Harmonies which spans the entire recording career of Don and Phil. The box set includes some 40 tracks making their CD debut, 12 songs appearing in stereo for the first time, and two previously unreleased songs from the Warner Bros. period as well as a "Things Go Better With Coke" commercial.

In February 1997, The Everly Brothers received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Recording Academy. Other artists who have received this award include Barbara Streisand, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Chet Atkins, Fats Domino and The Rolling Stones. Don and Phil are far from being close to retirement.