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The Everly Brothers
Wake Up Little Susie
“We got halfway across the floor and ‘Bye Bye Love’ by The Everly Brothers came on — and it stopped us in our tracks. We sang together, so we knew what two-part harmony was, but this sounded so unbelievably beautiful. ... Ever since that day, I decided that whatever music I was going to make in the future, I wanted it to affect people the same way The Everly Brothers' music affected me on that Saturday night." Graham Nash, with Allan Clarke (Hollies) on their first experience hearing the Everly Brothers. (1)
“I went bowling in Jamaica (New York) with Paul (Simon). We had to take a transfer to change buses and over the speaker on the bus driver’s radio was ‘Chu-ka, chukka, chu chu chu.’ And both Paul and I said ‘These guys are the greatest...how do they harmonize?...who are these people?’” Art Garfunkel, on his first reaction to the sound of the Everly Brothers. (2)
“They were the country side of rock and roll.” Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. (2)
The Everly Brothers influence was far-reaching. It’s been reported that John Lennon and Paul McCartney based their vocal arrangement of Please Please Me on the Everlys Cathy’s Clown. (3)
The Everly Brothers story begins when Don Everly was born to Ike and Margaret Everly on February 1, 1937 in Brownie, Kentucky. Two years later, Phil Everly was born in Chicago on January 19, 1939. Ike was a musician who previously worked in the Kentucky coal mines for a living. Ike developed the basics of a hot thumb-picking guitar style (he would later pass on to the celebrated Merle Travis) from a local black guitarist by the unlikely name of Arnold Schultz. Polishing that style after work and on weekends led to a radio spot on local station KXEL with a country group known as the North Carolina Boys.
With radio the dominant form of entertainment, Ike and family bounced around the Midwest looking for opportunities, eventually spending most of the boys’ childhood in Shenandoah, Iowa. Ike Everly had a show on KMA and KFNF in Shenandoah in the mid-1940s, first with his wife and then with their sons. The brothers sang on the radio as "Little Donnie and Baby Boy Phil." (4)
Don recalled the show. “It was just a ten- or fifteen-minute show, part of another show, actually. I had a little theme song: Free As a Little Bird As I Can Be. We started working as the Everly Family in the early mornings, and that lasted for a long time. We brought Phil in. He was too young to sing harmonies at first, so he just sang lead and I sang harmony until he learned how. Dad did it. He sat us down every day, and we would rehearse and practice all day long. We also played a local barn dance on Saturday nights, and occasionally we’d get up on the back of a flatbed or pickup truck with speakers and go play for various little harvest-jubilee-type things. We never made a lot of money at it, but enough to get by.” (5)
Live music was dying out with the rise of television and records. It was time for another move and another gig. This time the destination was Knoxville, Tennessee. Ike was enamored with Nashville’s Chet Atkins, some one who as a guitar-picker, had made the big time. The year was 1954 when Atkins visited Knoxville. Ike made it a point to visit Atkins and introduce him to his boys, who by this time were writing their own songs. Atkins expressed an interest in the brothers. “We drove over to Nashville to Chet Atkins house,” recalled Phil Everly. “We recorded some things at his house and he told us, ‘I’ll publish them if I can get them recorded,’” finished Don. (2)
Atkins placed Don’s Thou Shalt Not Steal with Kitty Wells, a major country star since she’d scored with It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels two years earlier. In 1955, Anita Carter cut another of Don’s songs, Here We Are Again. Don Everly, still in high school, was suddenly showered with more money – from royalties – than either he or his parents had ever seen in one place. (5)
1955 was a transition year in both music and in the lives of the Everly family. The radio spun records from the likes of Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. Live radio shows were a thing of the past as both Ike and Margaret were retooling their livelihoods—Ike as a barber and Margaret as a beautician. Don graduated from high school and knew exactly what he wanted to do. “I was never really good at school, and here I had made a thousand-some dollars in royalties from my songs. So, as soon as I graduated from high school, we (the family) packed the car up and high-tailed it for Nashville.” (5)
Phil enrolled at Peabody Demonstration School while Don took a job at Hill and Range music publishers. The duo began auditioning around town as an act. They met Don Law, an A&R man at Columbia Records and recorded four songs—two of which, Keep A’ Lovin’ Me and The Sun Keeps Shining—were released as a single on February 6, 1956 and went nowhere. (5)
Photo courtesy Getty Images/GAB Archive.
After being rejected by a number of labels and executives, the Everlys met Wesley Rose, son of owner Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose Publishing. The firm initially prospered publishing songs by Roy Acuff, one of the owners and country star, Hank Williams. Wesley promoted these country hits and placed many of them with mainstream performers such as Tony Bennett. When Elvis Presley took the pop market by storm, Rose was busy signing other songwriters such as Roy Orbison and Marty Robbins. Rose promised a recording contract to the Everlys if they would sign with him as songwriters. Don was already on the Hill and Range roster but was able to quietly slip out of that deal before he and Phil signed with Wesley Rose.
Archie Bleyer was the owner of New York based Cadence Records and wanted a piece of country music. On the advice of Rose, Bleyer signed the Everlys to a three-year contract. Bleyer liked the duo’s music but was more interested in a tune that he had been pushing for some time. The song was Bye Bye Love, written by a husband and wife team named Boudleaux and Felice Bryant.
Boudleaux and Felice (born Matilda Scaduto) met in 1945 while she worked as an elevator operator in the Schroeder Hotel in Milwaukee. Boudleaux Bryant, a classically trained violinist from Georgia, had been lured to the city to work with Hank Penny's Radio Cowboys and was, at the time, playing jazz in the hotel's cocktail lounge. Felice later recalled, “I had dreamed of Boudleaux when I was eight years old. When this man was walking toward me I recognized him right away. The only thing that was wrong was that he didn't have a beard, although he grew one for me later. In the dream we were dancing to our song. Only it was our song.” They eloped just days later. (6)
The newlyweds bounced from place to place until they settled in Boudleaux’s hometown of Moultrie, Georgia. It was here he gave his wife her pet name and where their writing career began. Fred Rose liked one of the songs they sent by the name of Country Boy and gave it to Little Jimmy Dickens who took it to #7 on the country chart in 1949. Two songwriting careers were born.
According to Del Bryant, son of the songwriting duo, “My parents were the first songwriting duo and team of professional writers in Nashville. By 1957 when the Everlys arrived, my parents had many hits. They wrote everyday. My brother and I were in the back seat of the car one day driving to a home site where we were building a new home. There was a light drizzle and the windshield wipers were going. Dad started Bye Bye Love to the rhythm of the wipers.” Felice finished the story. “He said listen to this—bye bye love, bye bye happiness, hello (something), I think I’m gonna cry or die. I was really impressed.” (2)
Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.
No photo credit found.
Though the song appeared as divine inspiration to the Bryant’s, selling it to an artist wasn’t. “Bye Bye Love was shown over 30 times before it was ever cut,” Boudleaux recalled. “It was even shown the very morning of the same day the Everly Brothers heard it in the afternoon. When it was turned down, the fella said, ‘Why don’t you show me a good strong song?’ So, nobody really knows what a good song is.’” (7)
“I listened to it and said, ‘We can do it,’” recalled Don Everly. “It was as simple as that.” Phil was a bit more pragmatic. “I would have sung anything. Anytime we had a chance to record, I knew we were going to make $64—and $64 sounded real important to me at the time.” (2)
When Archie Bleyer, Wesley Rose and Boudleaux laid out the song for the Everlys, Don made a suggestion for the guitar parts. “I was very interested in black music as well as country music. I believe putting the two together made rock and roll. I fell for the sound and rhythm of Bo Diddley. When I mentioned to Archie about incorporating that rhythm into our songs, he said, ‘Well, why not put it into Bye Bye Love?’ I said, ‘I never thought of that.’” (2)
Recorded in Nashville in March of 1957, some of Nashville’s top session musicians including Chet Atkins, worked on Bye Bye Love for hours with the Everlys but something was missing. At this point, another story developed about that famous guitar riff to open the song.
During a break, Bryant who attended the session heard Don produce a guitar riff that captured his attention. Asking what it was, Don replied that it was from a song he’d written titled Give Me A Future, which featured his Bo Diddley-inspired riff. Added at the song’s opening, Bye Bye Love now had the missing puzzle part that became the backbone of the song. (8)
Del Bryant remembered, “The team in New York for Cadence Records made a mistake with Bye Bye Love and sent it to all radio stations—both country and pop stations.” (2) When pop stations saw that it was from Cadence, a pop label, they believed it was another pop song and added it to their rotation.
Released later in March, Bye Bye Love debuted on Billboard Country Chart on May 13, 1957—the Pop Chart one week later. (9) (10) The song raced up both charts hitting #1 on the Country side for seven weeks while landing at #2 on the Pop side on June 22nd behind only Love Letters In The Sand by Pat Boone. (11)
The boys hit the road to promote the song. But it was focused mainly on the country audience in Mississippi and Louisiana with bluegrass artist Bill Monroe. Phil recalled the tour. “It was so crazy. We all rode in Bill’s limo – thirteen people in this big old Cadillac. The stage was just a wood platform, and the tent cut it in half, so ‘backstage’ was actually outside, in the dark, and there was a slit where you would step through to go on.” (5) Don remembered the tour fondly. “It was a wonderful experience, that tour with Bill Monroe. (Cajun stars) Jimmy C. Newman and Rufus Thibodeaux took me to my first shrimp boil; I got my first beer down there, saw the Gulf of Mexico for the first time. I remember in Gulfport, Mississippi, we arrived late at night and stayed in one of these wooden shingled places right on the beach. I got up the next morning and walked down to the ocean – I had never seen it before in my life. We got ninety dollars a week apiece and we were in hog heaven.” (5)
The Everly Brothers perform Bye Bye Love on The Ed Sullivan Show on March 4, 1957.
Photo courtesy of CBS/Getty Images.
At the end of the tour, the duo experienced two defining moments. “Driving back to Nashville, when we got within radio distance, they had this pop station on in the car – and it was playing our record. That was, like, big juju. It really was,” Phil noted. (5) But it was an appearance on May 10, 1957 on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry that convinced them just how far they came. “To me, the Opry was the top of the mountain,” recalled Don. After they finished Bye Bye Love, the boys received a huge ovation that brought them back to center stage for an encore. “We sang a chorus, walked off the stage and they brought us back. It was just wonderful.” (8)
Sometime during the summer of 1957, there was a break in the Everlys touring schedule, which meant a trip to the recording studio for a follow-up song. The singing duo looked to the writing duo for inspiration. “Their stuff fit us like a glove, because it was designed to fit,” said Don Everly. “Boudleaux would sit down and talk with us. A lot of his songs were written because he was getting inside our heads—trying to find out where we were going, what we wanted, what words were right.” “They were masters,” added Phil Everly. “Anybody would be a fool not to watch how they did it. That’s the level where you wanted to be. I learned more from them than from anybody.” (7)
Felice Bryant recalled a morning when Boudleaux was up very early. He was pacing on the main floor of the house, singing the words, Wake Up Little Susie to himself. His voice, accompanied with the creaking floorboards woke Felice. As she shook off the effects of a night’s sleep, she realized that her husband had come up with something very special. She jumped out of bed and rushed downstairs, knowing full well that once Boudleaux realized what he was singing, he was more than capable of finishing the song on his own. She wanted a piece of this one, which clearly had potential to be a huge hit.
As was their custom, the couple discussed the lyrics Boudleaux had dreamed up so far and Felice sensed they were a little too risqué for 1957. So, she cleaned it up by placing the couple at a drive-in movie theater and added the bridge….”the movie wasn’t so hot…it didn’t have much of a plot…we fell asleep, our goose is cooked, our reputation is shot.” (8)
Phil discussed the special relationship he and Don had with the Bryants. “We had to start thinking of another single. We didn’t want to be a one-record act. Boudleaux brought in Wake Up Little Susie with holes in it for (our) guitar work. He knew that this would work. That’s the power of what we had from Boudleaux and Felice. They started designing (songs) for us.” (2)
Wake Up Little Susie was recorded on August 16, 1957 at RCA’s Nashville studios and released on September 2nd. (12) The song debuted on the Billboard Country, Pop and R&B chart on September 30th and worked its way up to #1 slot on each chart. (9) (10) (11) (13)
The Everly Brothers perform Wake Up Little Susie on The Perry Como Show on December 7, 1957.
Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Susie was a monster hit. But it had some unexpected help along the way. Because of the lyrics, it was banned in Boston and other places. “My father was thrilled,” commented Del Bryant. “At that time when something was banned, it really has a tendency to spark interest and explode. Wake Up Little Susie did just that.” (2)
''I remember when it happened,'' recalled Don. ”They called and said it had been banned in Boston, and I said, ‘What?’ I was naive in those days. To me, they just fell asleep at a movie. Everybody else took it like some big deal. It’s what people read into it, isn’t it? Today you say that innocent little song was banned in Boston, and somebody’s going to ask you, ‘Where were people’s heads?’'' (14)
It’s rare when lightning strikes twice in the same place. How about three times? On March 6, 1958, the brothers stepped into the RCA studio in Nashville and completed All I Have To Do Is Dream in just two takes. With Chet Atkins providing tremelo-style chords, the ballad was a departure from the fast-paced Bye Bye Love and Wake Up Little Susie. “The song took us from being just an act and projected us to a long-term future,” Phil said. (2)
The song was released in April, entered the Pop chart on April 21st and the Country and R&B charts just a week later. On June 2nd, Dream became the only single ever to be at #1 on all three of the Billboard singles charts simultaneously. (15)
The Bryant/Everly combination was good for three more top ten songs before the brothers departed Cadence when their three-year deal was finished. In 1960, unhappy with their low royalty rate, negotiations for a new deal with Cadence broke down. Warner Brothers, the movie conglomerate, was looking to branch into the recording industry. They made a big splash when they inked the brothers to a ten-year, one million dollar deal, reported at the time to be the largest of its kind.
The hits were still coming as evidenced by Cathy’s Clown, a self-penned hit that sold over two million records. After nine singles on Cadence, seven of which sold over one million copies (six written by the Bryants), the boys moved out of their Nashville comfort zone and segued into a new era with WB.
More changes were in the air. Not only a physical move to California to expand into acting, they chose new material by different writers. They chose Lucille by Little Richard as the flip side to Don’s So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad), Ebony Eyes penned by John D. Loudermilk and Walk Right Back written by the Crickets, Sonny Curtis. All but Lucille reached the Top Ten and from all appearances, the Everly Brothers stock was rising.
Wesley Rose maintained conflicting interests with the duo as he served as both their manager and was president of Acuff/Rose Publishing, which hired the Everlys as songwriters. Rose advised the boys against choosing songs by writers outside the A/R roster, as the company didn’t receive any publishing royalties. But Don and Phil grew weary of Rose and his insistence on using A/R product. When Rose objected to the release of Temptation, another song outside the A/R realm, they fired him as their manager.
As can only be described as a fit of vengeance, Rose denied them any publishing rights to A/R published songs. That meant no more access to the Bryants and even to songs they wrote and would write as they were still signed to the publisher as songwriters. No doubt this shortsighted move cost all involved millions of dollars and changed the course of the Everly Brothers. This move was the beginning of their end. By the time Rose came to his senses and lifted his blacklist with the boys three years later, the magic was gone.
Sensing they would be eligible for the military draft, they enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve figuring they could still maintain their careers much better than a straight two-year enlistment. Warner Brothers had a few singles in the can while the boys were in basic training.
Publicity photo courtesy of the Everett Collection/REX.
Using outside writers, the Everlys still had hits including two Top Tens in 1962 with the Carole King and Howard Greenfield composed Crying In The Rain and That’s Old Fashioned (That’s The Way Love Should Be.) (10) These two songs would be their last trip to the top of the charts. They would have seven more songs hit the Pop chart but only Bowling Green in 1967 would dent the Top 40. (10) The two songs were also their last entries on both the R&B and Country charts.
According to waybackattack.com, the two went through a bout with drugs, though to what extent may never be common knowledge. During a 1962 European tour, Don overdosed on sleeping pills; at least that was the official statement. Phil had to finish the tour by himself. Other instances were reported with both brothers before they presumably got things under control. (16)
Because of their constant touring schedule, both Don and Phil had amphetamine issues. Don became “hooked” on speed thanks to a Ritalin treatment by a New York doctor and visited drug treatment centers over the next few years. With the help of months of psychiatric care he conquered his addiction in 1966, but not before an overdose of barbiturates led to an attempted suicide. Phil had similar treatments but the effect wasn’t as critical. (5) (17) He did have a powerful nicotine habit that would eventually present itself later in life. “People didn’t understand drugs that well then. They didn’t know what they were messing with. It wasn’t against the law: I saw a picture of my doctor with the president, you know? But it got out of hand, naturally. It was a real disaster for a lot of people, and it was a disaster for me. Ritalin made you feel energized. You could stay up for days. It just got me strung out. I got so far out there, I didn’t know what I was doing,” recalled Don. (5)
With the British Invasion in full swing by 1964 and no chart-toppers in the pipeline, Don and Phil subsisted on a series of tours. Constant touring through the remainder of the 60s and into the 70s presented a new set of problems. Though professional onstage, the pressures of travel caused strain in the personal relationship. “Just the pressures that led to that point in their life, just being together so much, every night and every day, not knowing what city you were in (while riding) on a bus, a plane or car somewhere to sing Bye Bye Love,” recalled cousin Ted Everly. (18)
Don cut to the chase. “We never got along. He was a Republican and I was a Democrat. I couldn’t believe it.” Musician Dave Edmunds added, “If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t guess they were brothers. They were totally different personalities. You wouldn’t get along with both. You would fall with one camp or another. I never knew anyone who was friends with both at the same time.” (2)
Phil also remarked on the tensions between the two brothers. “What we needed was to take a long vacation, to get off the merry-go-round. There were too many people making too much money off us, keeping us going. Things were too confused. We should have taken a long rest. But in those days we couldn’t. The tensions between Don and I … well, we’re just a family that is like that, I guess. Everything that was happening then contributed to it. But you could just as easily say that the tension between us existed from day one, from birth. And will go on forever.” (5)
In July of 1973, Don gave Phil two weeks’ notice to quit the duo: the Everly Brothers’ show at the John Wayne Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm near Anaheim on July 14th would be their last. “It’s over,” Don told a reporter on the eve of the gig. “I’m tired of being an Everly Brother.” The next night, Don got so drunk that a Knott’s manager stopped the show midway through the second of three scheduled sets. Phil, furious, stormed offstage, smashing his guitar to the floor before disappearing. Don carried on alone for the third set. When a spectator asked, “Where’s Phil?” he replied, “The Everly Brothers died ten years ago.” (5)
“It was a flip statement. I was a half in the bag that evening – the only time I’ve ever been drunk onstage in my life. I knew it was the last night, and on the way out I drank some tequila, drank some champagne – started celebrating the demise. It was really a funeral. People thought that night was just some brouhaha between Phil and me. They didn’t realize we had been working our buns off for years. We had never been anywhere without working; had never known any freedom. We were just strapped together like a team of horses. It’s funny, the press hadn’t paid any attention to us in ten years, but they jumped on that. It was one of the saddest days of my life,” Don recalled. (5)
For the next ten years, Don and Phil saw each other just once — at their father’s funeral in 1975. Don moved to Nashville and Phil continued to record solo in Los Angeles. One day in 1983, Don called Phil and suggested they may wish to consider a reunion concert. Phil was ready. “We rehearsed about a week, it sounded great and we just went out and did it,” Don remembered. At London’s Royal Albert Hall, the Everly Brothers staged their reunion concerts on September 22 and 23, 1983. It was such a success that it spawned a new album of songs recorded at the concert.
The Everly Brothers perform their Reunion Concert at London's Royal Albert Hall on September 22 and 23, 1983.
Photo courtesy of the Everly Brothers.
The Everly Brothers recorded one more studio album EB ’84 which culled two singles — On The Wings Of A Nightingale (written by Paul McCartney) and Born Yesterday. The Everlys continued to make appearances as guest artists on various albums after 1984.
Phil Everly died in Burbank, California on January 3rd, 2014 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, attributed to a lifelong smoking habit, stated his widow, Patti. “When I met him, he was 55 and taking nothing but vitamins. By the end he was taking 20 medications, hooked up to oxygen 24/7, and carrying it with him.”
Although Everly quit smoking in 2001, the habit had done permanent damage to his lungs and he started experiencing problems that eventually ended his singing career in 2004. At his last public appearance in 2011, at Buddy Holly's induction to Hollywood Boulevard's Star Walk of Fame, Everly was struggling to catch his breath as he addressed the crowd. “It went from mild COPD to severe. He skipped medium,” Patti Everly said. About her time with Phil, Patti said, "He was positive about enjoying life, cracking jokes, laughing and enjoying movies. He'd love to watch TV and drink a glass of wine. He read his Bible a lot." (19)
Don still copes with the loss of his brother. "I think about him every day, you know," said Don. "I wake up, and this thought comes to me. I have a bit of his ashes here at my house. And I go by, and pick the ashes up, and I sort of say good morning to him. That's a funny way to do it, but that's what I do." (20)
Looking back over the years and the importance he and Phil had with other artists, Don said, “One of the fondest memories that I have is that music," said Everly. "If someone came up and said they were influenced musically by us and they appreciate that influence, that makes me feel really good. I don't take it for granted." (20)
The Everly Brothers perform Bye Bye Love on The Julius LaRosa Show on June 22, 1957.
The Everly Brothers perform Wake Up Little Susie and Bye Bye Love on The Perry Como Show on December 7, 1957.
From the 1983 Reunion Concert, the Everly Brothers perform All I Have To Do Is Dream.
1) Memmott, Mark, NPR, Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers Dies; Transformed Rock n’ Roll With Brother Don, January 4, 2014, Link.
2) Harmonies From Heaven, DVD, September 9, 2016.
3) MacDonald, Ian (1997). Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties, Page 55
4) Pareles, Jon, New York Times, Phil Everly, Half of a Pioneer Rock Duo That Inspired Generations, Dies at 74. January 4, 2014.
5) Loder, Kurt, Rolling Stone, The Everly Brothers: The Rolling Stone Interview, May 8, 1986. Link.
6) Wadley, Paul, The Independent, Obituary: Felice Bryant, April 24, 2003. Link.
7) Hutchinson, Lydia, Performing Songwriter, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, January 14, 2015. Link.
8) The Nashville Network, The Life and Times Of The Everly Brothers, 1996.
9) Whitburn, Joel, Top Country Singles 1944-2001, Page 108.
10) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 232.
11) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Pop Charts The Fifties, Page 53.
12) Wikipedia, Wake Up Little Susie, Link.
13) Whitburn, Joel, Top R&B Singles 1942-1999. Page 139.
14) Hurst, Jack, Chicago Tribune, Everly Brothers Again Waking Up Nation To Innocent, Wonderful, August 3, 1986. Link.
15) Wikipedia, All I Have To Do Is Dream. Link.
16) Kirby, Michael Jack, waybackattack.com, The Everly Brothers, Link.
17) Rolling Stone Magazine, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll: The Definitive History of the Most Important Artists and Their Music, November 10, 1992, Page 83.
18) Everly, Ted, The Nashville Network, The Life and Times Of The Everly Brothers, 1996.
19) Schmitt, Brad, Tennessean, Phil Everlys widow shares the pain of his COPD death, October 27, 2014. Link.
20) Peterson, Mike, KMAland, Don Everly Remembers Early Years, January 29, 2016. Link.
Photo courtesy of the Michael Levin Gallery/Getty Images.
© 2019 Jerry Reuss