Classic Music Review: The Best of the Everly Brothers: The Millennium Collection

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The Everly Brothers had a tremendous influence on rock ‘n’ roll because of their magnificent harmonies. As their career progressed, they started writing more of their own songs and proved to be very capable songwriters. They could have had an even greater influence had the nature of the music business not intervened and stymied their progress.

What happened can only be described as bizarre. After signing with a major label, they dumped their manager. Unfortunately for them, the manager ran the publishing company that owned the rights to their songs. For the next few years, their output consisted of mediocre covers and other songwriters’ material so they could avoid paying royalties to the publishing company. During this time they also enlisted in the military, limiting their visibility in the public eye.  As it turned out, of the twenty-seven singles released from 1963-1970, not one made it into the top 30. Speed addiction and brotherly conflict finished them off until their reunion in the 1980’s.

Despite their influence on many, many rockers, The Everly Brothers fell more on the toe-tapping side of rock than the hip-shaking side. Their music generally falls into that gray area between country, rockabilly and pop. You wouldn’t call any of their songs real ass-kickers or overtly sexual. They weren’t rebels: they appealed to mom and dad as much as the kids at the malt shop. None of this is meant to be a knock on them or their style: on the contrary, The Everly Brothers are to be cherished for their focus on melodic, harmonic rock. Together with Buddy Holly, they helped expand rock ‘n’ roll’s early boundaries beyond its groove-based R&B foundation. The source of the harmonies that characterized the sound of many of the groups in The British Invasion can be found in the music of The Everly Brothers, as Paul McCartney, Allen Clarke and Graham Nash would happily confirm.

The insanity of the music business continues to exert its influence on The Everly Brothers’ catalog to this day, and all of their compilation albums are problematic. Some include only their work from the 1950’s at Cadence Records, and I’m sorry, if “Cathy’s Clown” is not on an Everly Brothers collection, I don’t want anything to do with it. The flip side is also true: there are collections that feature only songs from their Warner years, which means no “Wake Up Little Suzie” or “Bye Bye Love.” A collection called The Very Best of the Everly Brothers released in 1964 would be the perfect starter set if not for two flaws. The Everly Brothers couldn’t access their original recordings due to the legal mess they were in, so they had to re-record several of the Cadence hits that made them famous. It also has the absolutely putrid “Ebony Eyes,” so it’s a non-starter for me. I regret having to do this compilation because it apparently has become a collector’s item: be prepared to spend over $250! I’m glad I got this collection for Christmas back in 2003 or I wouldn’t be writing an Everly Brothers review!

“Bye Bye Love”: You know what’s so wonderful about this song? Two guys and two guitars: as simple an arrangement as you can get. And those voices! This was their first hit record and they sound as sweet and tight as anyone ever had or will. Don sings with the confidence an old trouper on the solo vocal and the guitar rhythms and fills are measured out perfectly. Kids of the day must have watched them on the TV and thought the guitar was the coolest thing they’d ever seen: it could make music and keep the beat at the same time! You could rock out in your room, with a friend, or all by yourself! If they did catch them on TV, they might have seen this clip, where they are introduced by a guy named Julius La Rosa. Who the fuck is Julius La Rosa? Well, he was the summertime replacement for Perry Como. My generation responds: “Who the fuck is Perry Como?”

I don’t have time for this. Let’s listen to these very young boys give the audience of very young girls their very first orgasms:

“Wake Up Little Suzie”: While they were getting a foothold in the music industry, Don and Phil were very fortunate to have hooked up with a country songwriting couple named Felice and Boudleaux Bryant who supplied them with some of their greatest hits. Like “Bye Bye Love,” this hit topped both the pop and country charts, making The Everly Brothers a very valuable commodity in the music business. Best of all, it was banned in Boston! “Suggestive” lyrics! Hmm. The evidence is damning:

  1. They don’t realize how late it is until 4 a. m. Uh, that’s way past curfew, kids.
  1. Their friends are going to say, “Ooh la la.” Uh, oh. Whenever Americans try to speak French, something wicked and nefarious is in the works.
  1. Most damning is the line, “Well, Susie baby looks like we goofed again.” They’re repeat offenders! And you’re going to tell me that they fell asleep at the drive-in twice? Two young people with hormones raging at full intensity in one of those humongous cars of the 50’s where there was room enough for a foursome? Ban this filthy smut, Boston!

Before we fling this filth into eternal hellfire, I want to rave about the strong and danceable rhythm despite the absence of a rhythm section and the stop time harmony on that suggestive faux-French phrase, “Ooh la la.” The Everly Brothers used harmony with great dramatic effect—not by trying to overdo it, but using techniques like stop time to focus the listener’s attention on the seamless melding of two beautiful voices. Like “Bye Bye Love,” the arrangement is pure and pristine., and to dramatize the superiority of the recorded version, listen to this clip from The Ed Sullivan Show where some idiot decided it would be nice to have the house orchestra accompany Don and Phil. It wasn’t.

“All I Have to Do Is Dream”: As much as I love the stripped-down version of The Everlies, it’s hard to argue with the decision to have Chet Atkins join the party for this recording. Chet was an Everly family friend and great supporter of the boys as they tried to break in to the record business, and it’s nice to have a friend who happens to be one of the great guitar pickers of all-time. Chet lays back on this one, though, supporting the boys with a series of strategically-placed tremolo chords that enhance the dreamy ambiance. The drums are also very subtle, allowing us to enjoy the sweet melding of Don and Phil’s voices. The pure beauty of this song is stunning; listening to it three times through caused tears to well up every time. I love the way they pull back very slightly on the word “want,” like they don’t want to force themselves on the girl, or that the emotion is a bit difficult to express, or that they knew that they were going to get stuck on first or second base anyway. This song must have resonated deeply with the horny teens of the era, sadly hitting their hormonal peaks before The Pill made going all the way a viable option: all you could do is dream! The Bryants wrote one of the prettiest songs in popular music history and the Everlies delivered a clean and sensitive performance that is sheer perfection.

Here’s a clip from a UK tour combining “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and “Cathy’s Clown.”

“Bird Dog”: While I love the rapid strums and general groove of the song, I cringe at the lyrical conventions of the era that transformed women into inanimate possessions of chest-thumping wannabe he-men with no hair on their chests. It was no surprise to me that the female half of the Bryants took no credit for writing this song; this is all Boudleaux. Forgiving the sexists of the past for their shocking insensitivity and ignorance, Don and Phil sound great and the song rocks with more authority than their first two hits. While I would have kicked both of the male combatants in the nuts and started looking for someone with a little more class and a lot less neanderthalism, that’s beside the point. Who knows? Maybe if I had hit my teens in the 1950’s I would have happily prepared for the lifelong servitude of housewifery and oohed and aahed whenever a boy drooled, grunted or had the guts to put me in my place.

Not bloody likely.

“Devoted to You”: The melody is a bit more mechanical than “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” but Don and Phil sound so good they can overcome comparatively weak material. T. S. Eliot would blanch at the Latinate syntax that gave us the line, “I’ll adore your charms sublime,” but being less sensitive than the great poet, I simply respond with a “tut-tut.” One thing I do love about this song is the guitar on slight vibrato: the tone is perfectly lovely. “Devoted to You” was actually the B-side of “Bird Dog,” but made the top 10 in its own right. Proof positive that no compilation is perfect, the next song should have been “Problems,” an upbeat number about first-world teenage angst with hot guitar rhythms that is a much more enjoyable listening experience than “Devoted to You.” Let me correct this omission immediately!

“(‘Til) I Kissed You”: After a few less successful releases, The Everly Brothers came back with another classic, this time written by Don Everly. For some reason, my ears focus more on Phil’s high harmony than Don’s baritone melodic line, especially when he comes back after Don’s solo parts on the “nnhhh.” Those solos are perfectly offset with a slight pause and a rhythmic change that add to the song’s drama and appeal. I love the tom-tom rolls that move things along and Chet Atkins’ always professional support. The melody is lovely, the harmony exquisite, the progression constantly compelling—I don’t know how anyone could not love a song like this!

“Let It Be Me”: Oh, I have a LOT to say about this song! The original is of French origin, written by Gilbert Bécaud (“Monsieur 100000 Volts”) and Pierre Delanoë. To say the translation of this song was sanitized, sterilized and neutralized is the understatement of the century. A brief comparison of the first two verses will suffice:

Original French Translation Let It Be Me
Comme l’argile Like the clay I bless the day I found you
L’insecte fragile The fragile insect I want to stay around you
L’esclave docile The docile slave And so I beg you
Je t’appartiens I belong to you Let it be me
De tout mon être (Over) my whole being Don’t take this heaven from one
Tu es le seul maître You are the only master If you must cling to someone
Je dois me soumettre I must submit Now and forever
Je t’appartiens I belong to you Let it be me

Only Puritanical Americans could turn Story of O into a fucking Disney movie. The original is a beautiful, passionate expression of submission and the burning desire to be possessed! The adaptation is June Cleaver kissing Ward on the cheek as he heads out for the office! The original is for adults! The adaptation is for three-year olds! Double harrumph!

I have no quarrel with The Everly Brothers’ performance, which is up to their usual standard of excellence. But beyond the castration of the original, I really don’t like the syrupy strings: such ornamentation is completely unnecessary when you have Don and Phil Everly supplying the vocals.

“When Will I Be Loved”: Phil Everly gets a chance to compose a piece and slams it into the upper deck. The melody is beautifully relaxed, lingering on the notes so they fall behind the beat to give the song a sweet, unhurried feel and allow Don and Phil to really let their voices rise in harmony. You have to love the staccato guitar attack between the verses and the bridge, a hint of the song’s potential power. While Linda Ronstadt’s version is nice, I love the more laid-back feel and toned-down arrangement of The Everly Brothers’ rendition.

“Cathy’s Clown”: At this point in history, The Everly Brothers’ appearances on the chart reflect a ping-pong match between old and new record companies. Cadence released a few songs from the vault after “Cathy’s Clown,” which was their first hit for Warner Brothers. My absolute favorite Everly Brothers song of them all, the power of this song is off the charts, hitting me in the gut every time I hear it. The opening cadence excites the listener with its sense of anticipation, and the fabulous decision to have Phil hold the high note while Don descends the scale is incredibly dramatic and effective. The Beatles thought so, too, and used the concept with similar effect on “Please, Please Me.” The change from the almost processional feel of the chorus to the samba-tinged rhythms of the verses is executed perfectly, and my love for the little touches in music is completely satisfied by the piano chords in the verses that fall on all the right beats. Don Everly’s solo vocals are unusually sexy for him, marked by slight tendencies toward the blue notes and quick glissandi that give me the shivers. The standard cultural expectation that men have to show the world how tough they are and never reveal weakness (“I’ve got to stand tall/You know a man can’t crawl”) is absurd, but those were the times and dominant females like me were still in the closet or doing the daily ironing instead of guiding men to their rightful place: on their knees. It’s still a great song, worthy of a second video . . . take it away, Dick!

“Walk Right Back”: This Sonny Curtis song features music in the verses that is very reminiscent of something you might hear in a Doris Day movie as she stoops to pluck a daisy from the garden without getting a spot of soil on her white dress. The choruses, with the toms pounding away, are much more exciting, but the whole is oddly unsatisfying due to the structural disconnection. Don and Phil sound pretty sweet, but this isn’t my favorite.

“Crying in the Rain”: One of their last entries into the Top 10, “Crying in the Rain” reveals a feature of their Warner Brothers work that leads me to prefer their Cadence recordings: the arrangements tend to be too busy and a tad too slick. Although more the more intricate arrangement style worked extraordinarily well on “Cathy’s Clown,” the splashes here are rather annoying. This would have been much lovelier with Don, Phil, their guitars and maybe someone on the claves.

“On the Wings of a Nightingale”: This simply had to happen: the greatest melodist of his generation writes a song for the greatest harmonists of their day. Paul McCartney grew up a passionate fan of The Everly Brothers, and their influence on the sound of The Beatles cannot be understated. Paul returned the favor in 1984 by giving Don and Phil a song that was absolutely perfect for their still potent talent. While they would continue recording and performing together, this song is special as a symbol of rebirth and healing after too long a period of brotherly conflict. The image of The Everly Brothers united and raising their voices in soaring harmonies as they drive down the highway in an open convertible is exactly how I want to remember them, and exactly how I want to close this review.

5 responses

  1. […] Latest Classic Music Review: The Best of the Everly Brothers […]

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  2. Very nice review. Your concluding paragraph is perfect, and is how these pioneers should be remembered.

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  3. I listened to the Everly Brothers after reading your review….
    It had been such a long time.
    Some friends came over and I broke out the bottle of Leoville Barton
    I had saved for a special occasion .

    Both the wine and the Everlys were that good.

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    1. That sounds like a great evening. Léoville Barton was a perfect pairing!

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  4. […] The Everly Brothers, The Millennium Collection […]

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