Phil was the warm one. Phil knew how to have fun and be open. Phil created harmony. And, even though the role I played in his life could only be termed “peripheral,” Phil Everly’s passing rocked me back on my heels in ways that I simply didn’t expect and I can’t seem to let the moment pass without comment.
I had the honor/burden of supervising the recording side of the Everly Brothers’ much-heralded reunion in the ’80s, which ensued after years of bad blood between them. The obituaries will document the glory years of the ’50s and early ’60s and the very public break-up in the ’70s. But then, in the mid-’80s, something unexpected occurred and the Everly Brothers reunited to much critical acclaim and commercial success. Three albums were produced – EB ’84, Born Yesterday, and Some Hearts – along with a couple of chart hits (one courtesy of the pen of Paul McCartney), a Grammy nomination or two, and sold-out concerts around the globe.
Birthing these records was no easy feat. Material was a problem, motive was a problem, the whole vibe was a problem. It became a by-law of working with the Everlys that Don would only do things for “the art” and Phil would only do things for “the money” and these two objectives intersected rarely but created friction constantly. Convergence was…elusive. Still we soldiered on because the journey mattered not at all in the face of the ultimate goal – more Everly Brothers.
I realize now in retrospect that even though I attended numerous recording sessions over the course of these three albums, and even though I was the de facto producer of one track – the Everly Brothers’ collaboration with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys on a remake of “Don’t Worry, Baby,” I never was privy to a vocal session of theirs. That was always done in secret. And, for what it’s worth, I can’t imagine what must have transpired before tracks were laid down. I’m only certain that it couldn’t have been smooth sailing. I suppose Dave Edmunds, their producer for the first two comeback records, was there for those vocal sessions, and the session engineer as well, but for me it was all alchemy – two distinctly different and incompatible personalities somehow magically fusing into that one sound that would then be presented to me in playback form, fully realized, for my “approval”- which was never withheld.
Once the decisions were made and the product was in the can, all the fussing and bickering would end. Then it became a matter of settled law. In the space of about three years, from 1984 to 1987, I must have seen the Everly Brothers perform 30 or more times, and every performance was electrifying. This is true in all the usual ways, of course. The Everlys consistently prided themselves on their outstanding backing bands and the reunion ensemble was no different. The staggering Albert Lee on lead guitar, rocker Pete Wingfield on the keys, and Nashville session great Larrie Londin on drums made for a sure-fire, can’t-miss combo. But beyond all the trappings was a vocal blend like none other – not even among other vocal acts that included siblings. To my mind, the Louvins can’t touch it, the Delmore Brothers are mere antecedents, and the Andrews Sisters don’t even count. The Everlys’ execution was beyond seamless. It was telepathic. Watch a performance of Everlys acolytes Simon & Garfunkel, for example. Art’s eyes will incessantly and invariably wander to Paul’s lips and vice versa in an effort to anticipate and match the timing and the phrasing of the song at hand. Not so with Don and Phil. Either they were so practiced in their delivery (which I truly doubt) or else so chromosomally linked that song phrases simply burst forth precisely in sync.
That was part of the beautiful mystery to me. After getting to know their work habits as I did the question always returned: “When did they take the time to perfect that?” I know in my gut that the answer was, “Never.” Still, there it was, night after priceless night. All the workaday drama would melt away the moment the stage lights came up. Then there would appear that natural phenomenon known as “The Everly Brothers.” And even though the two hadn’t sung together in years and more than likely never would again, that miracle in two-part harmony is what has now been cast asunder and the loss is monumental.
I’m reminded of a story that Phil Everly told me on the morning after the two brothers attended a dinner party at Paul Simon’s place on Central Park South. The boys were in town to add backing vocals to the track “Graceland,” a cut which would ultimately loom large in Simon’s legend. That evening’s dinner guests included Paul McCartney and Billy Joel. Billy, feeling completely overwhelmed and flustered, begged Sir Paul in advance to forgive him for any idiotic comments that he might make as the evening progressed. “After all,” he exclaimed, “you’re Paul McCartney!”
“Well, how do you think I feel?” Paul replied. “Those are The Everly Brothers!”