Before We Was Fab: The Everly Brothers, “Poor Jenny”
The musical legacy of the Everly Brothers is a rich one, and in fact their influence is felt to this day. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better duo in modern pop music, outside of perhaps Simon & Garfunkel or maybe Hall & Oates. In fact, over their long career Phil and Don Everly scored 35 Billboard Top 100 singles, 26 of them Top 40. The Everly Brothers hold the record for the most Top 100 singles by any duo, and trail only the aforementioned Hall & Oates for the most Top 40 singles by a duo.
It’s just so easy to be captivated by Don and Phil’s brilliant close harmonies and romantic lyrics that every once in a while they sneak some pretty abrasive stuff in there. And it’s one of those numbers that has captured my attention of late. Oh don’t worry, I didn’t unearth some lost foray into psychedelic rock or anything disturbing like that. Rather, it’s one of those curios of popular music that pop up from time to time — a fun, bouncy tune married to some rather harsh lyrics.
As 1959 dawned, the Every Brothers were stars. Since signing to the Cadence Records label in early 1957, the brothers had already notched two #1 singles in the U.S., in addition to ten Top 40 songs — not to mention four #1s on the Hot Country & Western Sides chart. Their now trademark blend of country and pop styles proved hugely successful, and 1958 was the group’s biggest year yet. For their first American single of ’59, Cadence issued “Take a Message to Mary” (b/w “Poor Jenny”). While the A-side is a typically pretty effort from the duo, it’s “Poor Jenny” that is the real gem.
For those used to songs like “Cathy’s Clown,” “Let It Be Me” or “Bye Bye Love,” this probably seems a bit jarring. I don’t know if the proper phrase to use on “Poor Jenny” is ‘barn-burning shit-kicker,’ but I’m gonna go with that here. This thing cooks for its entire two-plus minute running time, and those chord changes are just phenomenal. As prime example of great period songwriting and performance, this is one of the better ones from the late ’50s. Interestingly an alternate, unreleased take of “Poor Jenny” reveals that it almost made it onto vinyl as a much slower song, and I think this version lacks the same oomph.
But stop for a second to listen to the words, and you may be shocked at what you hear. Jenny isn’t just some poor girl who got dumped for someone prettier, or who sits at home on Saturday night pining away for some high school Romeo. Perhaps a more accurate title for this song would be “Jenny Got Screwed.” Here’s a sample of the lyrics written by the husband-and-wife pair behind many of the Everlys’ greatest hits, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant:
I took my little Jenny to a party last night
At ten o’clock it ended in a heck of a fight
When someone hit my Jenny she went out like a light
Well Jenny had her picture in the paper this mornin’
She made it with a bang
Accordin’ to the story in the paper this mornin’
Jenny is the leader of a teenage gang
Her eye was black, her face was red, her hair was a fright
She looked as though she’d been a cryin’ half of the night
I told her I was sorry, she said, “Get out of sight”
Man, that’s pretty rough. If a mainstream act released this song now, you better believe it would be the tune that launched a thousand angry blog posts. And that’s all I have to say on that topic.
Released in March 1959 (Cadence 1364), “Poor Jenny” entered the Hot 100 on March 30 at #69, just eight spots behind “Take a Message to Mary.” It stayed on the A-side’s heels for several weeks, eventually peaking at #22 on May 4th. (“Take a Message to Mary” topped out at #16 a few weeks later.) It fared a little better in the U.K., where it reached #14 to become the group’s eighth Top 20 single over there.
The rest of the Everly Brothers’ story deserves more attention than I could give it here, but I suspect I’ll be returning to the pair at least once more on Before We Was Fab. In parting I’d just like to mention an outstanding cover of “Poor Jenny” by Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe. It was released as part of a bonus 7″ LP — Nick Lowe & Dave Edmunds Sing The Everly Brothers — on the great album from Rockpile, Seconds of Pleasure.