Tuesday 20 March 2018

Neil McCormick: Everly Brothers set the template for harmonies

Following Phil Everly's death, Neil McCormick pays tribute to some of the best-ever singing in pop music

Phil Everly (left), brother of Don and one half of American duo The Everly Brothers, died on January 3 aged 74
Phil Everly (left), brother of Don and one half of American duo The Everly Brothers, died on January 3 aged 74

Neil McCormick

PERHAPS the saddest thing about Phil Everly's death is knowing his voice will never align with his brother Don's again.

The Everlys were the essence of harmony, the most human and potent of all musical techniques, two voices singing complementary melodies so perfectly joined in rhythm, phrasing, nuance and tone that they blend seamlessly into a new melody, almost as if the two voices don't so much become one as three. It is, at its best, something supernatural. And the Everlys were the best.

They had the advantage of being brothers, the very shape of their voices a genetic match, and all the experience of their lives contributing to this near-psychic mirroring.

Don took the low parts, Phil took the high, baritone and tenor, singing at intervals a third apart and conjuring up what Graham Nash has called "a ghost harmonic".


There was always something spooky about the Everlys, with their dreamy looks and ethereal singing.

They arrived in the public eye on the first wave of rock and roll but by adding the plaintive lilt of country and the spectral harmonies of folk, they expanded and transformed this crash of sexual, rhythmic delight into something richly romantic, opening up lush new vistas of pop sound.

The songs that made them famous resonate down the years: Bye Bye Love, Wake Up Little Susie, All I Have to Do Is Dream, Wishing, Cathy's Clown, Walk Right Back.

The effect they had on other musicians was immeasurable. The harmonic blend of The Beatles was really John Lennon and Paul McCartney chasing that Everly Brothers sound. Simon and Garfunkel started out as an Everly mimicking duo. Alan Clarke and Graham Nash of The Hollies thought of themselves as a British Everlys and Nash carried that across the Atlantic to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, joining the dots with the sunshine harmonies of the Seventies west coast singer-songwriter generation, from The Mamas and Papas to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris to the banked harmonies of the Eagles.

Wherever you hear harmonies in pop music, you can hear the Everly Brothers.

We know that it wasn't always easy being an Everly Brother. They grew up singing with their father and mother, performing on stage when the younger brother Phil was just five years of age, and were bound together for life, professionally as well as personally, expected to join in sweet harmony even when they weren't getting along.

There were long periods when they sang their parts but wouldn't talk to each other on stage and a 10-year split from 1973-1983 when each performed solo. But family bonds are strong, and music heals wounds. They got back together because they belonged together.

And even now that Phil has finally left the stage, all of us touched by their magic will be able to hear them singing in our dreams.

This is music that will be passed on as long as there are voices to sing it.

Irish Independent

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