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Being A Teenager In The 1950s Was Hard. The Everly Brothers Understood

In the 1950s, when they were barely adults themselves, Phil (left) and Don Everly took pieces of musical traditions and created songs that gave voice to a new youth culture that balanced, with all the awkwardness of teenage life, on an edge between anxiety about and hope for the future.
Michael Ochs Archives
Getty Images
In the 1950s, when they were barely adults themselves, Phil (left) and Don Everly took pieces of musical traditions and created songs that gave voice to a new youth culture that balanced, with all the awkwardness of teenage life, on an edge between anxiety about and hope for the future.

The last weeks of this stifling August have offered a profound lesson about creativity, music history and the magic of being part of something larger than yourself. The deaths of Tom T. Hall, Charlie Watts and Don Everly prompted reminiscences about these key popular music players — one a songwriter who helped invent the late-20th-century Nashville point of view; one the drummer behind one of the central bands of the classic rock era; and one whose close harmonies and rhythm guitar interplay with his brother set the tone for rock and roll itself. The loss of Don Everly (who died at age 84 last Saturday), felt particularly poignant, signaling the near- if not total demise of the cohort that made what once felt like a teenage trend into an anchorage. Guitarists praised Everly's rhythmic innovations on rockers like "Wake Up Little Susie"; songwriters marveled at the heartrending insight in ballads like "It's Just Too Much." Always, though, the tributes returned to the main point: the collaboration between Don and his brother Phil, who'd died in 2014. Their harmonies and telepathically sympathetic work in the studio remains rock's greatest example of two hearts beating as one.

I grew up listening to the Everly Brothers' hits, as did many people bent on absorbing the history behind rock and soul — Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones, for example, who recorded an Everly's tribute record in 2013, or Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, whose vocal blend reflects that of the siblings. Yet only in writing my 2017 book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music did I come to realize the crucial role the Everlys played in defining not only the sound, but the spirit, of early rock and roll. Tracing the ways in which this music spoke for the generation of youths who would go on to define the rock and soul era, I discovered that especially for white, middle-class teens — the ones that the coalescing rock and roll industry would tap for its public image and main target market — Everly Brothers songs were not just pretty trifles; they were a main reflection of their deepest longings and anxieties.

Invited to deliver a keynote address at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Music Masters week honoring the Everly Brothers in 2014 — just months after Phil's death — I wrote the essay from which this tribute is excerpted. Later, I'd incorporate elements of it into the manuscript for Good Booty. I pulled it out again when I heard the news of Don's death and realized that the story it records, of songs capturing "the sound of young people thinking," still resonates — especially right now, when teenagers' interior monologues enter the mainstream via artists like Billie Eilish and the Kid LAROI. Those artists can thank Don and Phil for establishing the precedent. Music is always made in dialogue with multiple interlocutors, and there's no greater example than the Everly Brothers, harmonizing with each other, with their collaborators, and with the kids whose minds they read.

Everly Brothers music was the sound of young people thinking. It gave sonic shape to the motion of emotions, especially the ones that kids tended to keep to themselves: yearning, self-doubt, resentment, shaky hope. Don and Phil Everly were creating something new out of pieces of different musical traditions, just as adolescents were combining their own insights, adults' presumptions and the new experiences of a nascent youth-oriented leisure economy to craft new identities. "Basically," Don told the Everlys biographer Roger White, "there was nothing Phil and I could emulate. "There was rock 'n' roll, pop, country. They were all going in different directions and people weren't aware of what different records were going to do. Neither was I." The way Don felt about music, many teens felt about their lives.

The Everly Brothers created songs that were metaphors for the unmoored feeling — a feeling full of potential, but also terribly frightening — that defined the middle-class, mostly white teenage experience in the 1950s and early 1960s. (Doo-wop, the urban sound pioneered by Black teenagers a decade earlier, tapped into similar feelings of dispossession, made uniquely powerful by the influence of gospel and an extra dose of boldness, necessary in Jim Crow America.) From the first startling moments of the Everlys' first Cadence Records single, "Bye Bye Love," on into the Warner Brothers years and a shift toward the more somber transitions of complicated adulthood, the Everly Brothers carried their listeners from crawling to walking by musically embodying the process of making life up as you went along.

What, beyond the subject matter of their songs and the harmonies few could emulate or explain, made the Everly Brothers so distinct? I think it has to do with being in-between. Their innovations didn't simply cross musical boundaries and popular cultural moments; they melded those elements, finding new formulas in which they could coexist with and complement each other. Everly Brothers music comes alive within transitions. It transforms the awkwardness of adolescence into an exquisite reveal of self to self.

Writing in the Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, Kit Rachlis came close to describing the specific magic of the Everlys when he noted that "they were dreamers, seeking not the ideal woman, but the ideal — or perhaps more accurately, the idealized — relationship. And it was in their wonderful harmonies, which glistened with such delicacy and moved with such buoyancy, that they found the perfect metaphor for that relationship." The harmonies were at the core of this metaphor, but the whole of each great Everly Brothers song pursued it.

"Bye Bye Love" made Phil and Don instant idols, topping the country and R&B charts and hitting No. 2 in pop. Why is this song so engaging from the very first chords? One reason might be because it's actually two songs. "We had been working on the session for some time and although the boys were singing the song really well, there seemed to be something missing," songwriter Boudleaux Bryant told White. "We were having a break and Don started strumming something which made me listen." Don was playing the opening chords from "Give Me a Future," one of his first compositions — a lick that revealed his fascination with the chug-chug beat of Bo Diddley. Adding this percussive R&B element to Boudleaux and Felice Bryant's country-flavored composition gave it a different shape and motion: Don's rhythm guitar embodied the song's spurned young lover stopping in his tracks, doing a double-take, realizing his straight-ahead future, with this baby anyway, has been compromised. "The song came alive," Phil said of what happened with those chords attached. "It made people pay attention to it."

It also made it possible to locate Blackness within the Everly Brothers's sound from from beginning, making it more interracial than many people realize. Though part of Nashville's country music scene, the brothers had always been actively engaged with the blues, a trait they got from their guitar-playing father, Ike. "Country's not the right word for what he played. It was more uptown, more honky-tonk. I'll tell you the right word for it: blues. White blues," Don told Kurt Loder in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview. Ike's finger-picking style can be traced back to the turn-of-the-century African-American guitarist Arnold Schultz, whose swing and sophisticated chording, as scholar Robert Cantwell has noted, had all the earmarks of jazz. Ike Everly influenced Chet Atkins, the Everly Brothers' mentor, and of course he also influenced his sons. Integration is embedded in the strum of that guitar. "Finally, the guitar was cool," Don told Colin Escott of those early days. "But Elvis didn't have the kind of voice I liked, nor a sound I liked. I was listening to Ray Charles, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and Bo Diddley."

Like the mixed-up feelings of young love itself, the guitar in "Bye Bye Love" goes in many directions at once. Escott described it in his chapter on Don Everly in the book Tattooed on their Tongues: "The arrangement used four guitars: Phil played in regular tuning, Don played a guitar tuned to an open G chord with a capo way up on the neck and a Nashville session man, Ray Edenton, played in a regular tuning, but with the G strung tuned up an octave. Chet Atkins was also on hand to play electric guitar fills. The end product had the local pickers sitting up nights. 'All the guitar players in Nashville were trying to figure out how to do it,' says Don." Later, Paul McCartney would say the harmonics of Everly Brothers songs were the one code too intricate for him and John Lennon to crack.

Of course, country music is central to the sound too — especially country's seriousness. As Escott writes in his liner notes to the Classic Everly Brothers boxed set, Everly Brothers songs transpose the weightiness of murder ballads and tragic family laments to matters like backseat necking and prom night. This was appropriate, because in the 1950s the intense societal focus on the emotional state of the teenager caused the everyday choices of teenagers to be a public matter of overwhelming import. Felice Bryant once said that the Everlys' music was virginal, but in fact, it's more like losing your virginity, over and over: that choice, so private and so irrevocable, to grow up.

In the mid-to-late 1950s there was almost a panic, not just about teenagers, but about the heavy burden of adulthood. Many grown, married people felt lost — scattered from their childhood homes after the Great Depression, which made clear the fragility of prosperity, and then traumatized by war. "Frequently a most serious element from the adolescent's point of view is that his parents are also groping," Katharine Whiteside Taylor wrote in the 1938 book Do Adolescents Need Parents? "For perhaps the first time in history, adolescents and parents alike are facing similar problems in adjusting to a rapidly changing world." Some parents never recovered their equilibrium.

Interactions with parents in Everly Brothers songs are often almost comical; the bounce of "Wake Up Little Susie" suggests a caper, not a genuine walk of shame. Such lightheartedness symbolically diffused the very real tensions between parents and children that inevitably arose as teenagers fulfilled society's mandate to remake themselves. Worse, parents were encouraged to use their interactions with their teens as a form of self-improvement. "Tis much to indicate that the teen years — the years of adolescence — are the most critical years in the life cycle today," wrote the sociologist Paul H. Landis in the 1955 guide Understanding Teenagers. "This span of years, which we call adolescence, is all-important, for it is the adult generation's last great chance to influence the new generation. And in a sense, this period is as critical for the parent as it is for the teen-ager himself."

Everly Brothers' music showed listeners, young and older, that the most fraught moments of intimate conflict, whether internal or with family and other loved ones, could include grace and lightness.

This might be clearest, musically, in "Cathy's Clown," the duo's first single for Warner Brothers and the most memorable No. 1 hit of 1960. What grabs the listener first about "Cathy's Clown" is that harmony line – what the pianist and author Chris Ingham calls a "distinct 'pealing' effect," as in a bell pealing, that results from Phil's static upper harmony interacting with Don's descending one. It's the sound of someone getting stuck in a moment even as he shows the world he can keep moving. It's the sound of emotional damage. "Cathy's Clown" is a teen song that deals with adult themes — cheating, male pride, knowing when to move on — while still capturing the profoundly dislocated feeling that overcomes the heart the first time it is bruised.

Musicologists have identified "Cathy's Clown" as an important stepping stone in popular music. Jay Summach called it one of the first rock-era songs that goes beyond the simple verse-chorus verse structure in pursuit of both narrative development and that particularly resonant feeling of masculine pride dented by rejection. "As each pattern comes to completion, there is a sense of a new pattern," he writes. The guitarist and composer Rikky Rooksby singled out the song's rhythm, noting, "Unlike much chart music in more recent times, the function of rhythm [in "Cathy's Clown"] has nothing to do with dancing — it is entirely emotional, he expression of an inner conflict within the speaker, and his determination to triumph over circumstance." Don Everly has said that Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite," which served as the soundtrack to a cigarette commercial in his youth, was a partial inspiration, and indeed beneath its cardigan "Cathy's Clown" has the gravitas of an art song.

The momentum in "Cathy's Clown" can't be resisted, yet the harmonies and Phil's grave voice on the verses set up a pull against it, a tidal sense of doubt about love and its consequences. As the 1950s progressed, such doubts came more and more to the forefront in American culture. Teenagers were still told that their destinies were tied up in marriage and family, and working class kids, especially, began pursuing these roles very early. But many began to question things. The music of the Everly Brothers honored those doubts by showing that the experience of being in your head, of dreaming different possibilities and thinking things through, was a profound reality as relevant to the maturation process as was the pull of tradition or the influence of adults.

The Everly Brothers charted the vicissitudes of the teenage heart like no other duo, but they had peers. They were close with Buddy Holly and traded songs with him; while the Everlys perfected the adolescent interior monologue, Holly played around with the notion of what it meant to be articulate. His playful, almost childlike way of singing, echoing the exploratory twang of his guitar, mimicked the stop-and-start expressive rush of a young lover arguing his case. His version of"Wishing,"a song he wrote for the Everlys but which they never recorded, shows how subtle elements, like the more improvisatory nature of Holly's singing and the more shambling beat, turned a song that the Everlys would have made into an exquisite fantasy into a pledge, and extrovert-in-the-making's nervous, happy claim.

Two other major musical streams complement the early accomplishments of the Everly Brothers. Doo-wop embodied the group dynamics of teenagers in vocal arrangements that blended virtuosic competitiveness with harmonic mutual support. Girl groups, singing songs written by teams that would often include a young woman, similarly conveyed feminine aspirations and doubts, adding in an extra element of pathos, since girls' dating decisions could be so consequential in those pre-women's liberation times of pregnancy shame, early marriage and the tyranny of reputation. "The girl always stands to lose more than the boy," read the text of a 1954 guidebook. "The price may be high." The sound of the girl groups was formed from the mix of excitement and fear that the sexual double standard produced in female teens.

As teen idols, the Everly Brothers projected a sympathetic attitude toward girls, in a tone that for all its passion was gentler than the wild yelps of rockers like Elvis or even Holly. They also appealed to boys trying to sort out what an ethical, but still bearable, approach to sex might be. "We had more guy fans than Elvis did," Don told Roger White. "Back then it was all right to like the Everly Brothers, but the guys resented Elvis." Don speculated that because there were two brothers, the envy boys might feel toward one teen idol was diffused. But surely the way that Everlys songs offered both empathy and, by way of example, advice, was central to what male fans found valuable.

This is one secret The Beatles borrowed from the Everly Brothers. In"Please Please Me," the band's first No. 1 hit, Paul McCartney borrowed that static upper harmony style that made "Cathy's Clown" so special to add an element of ambiguity to what was otherwise a straight-up, aggressive seduction. It's the sound of a boy's uncertainty. That little element in "Please Please Me" preserves all of the complicating emotions in the situation the song describes, which might otherwise have vanished into the crash of Ringo's drumbeat. It represents what the Everly Brothers meant to so many artists influenced by them.

The Brothers themselves figured out how to apply their sound to mature topics as time went on. Though they may always be associated with the teenage heart, songs like "Empty Boxes" and "Stories We Could Tell" and Don's amazing 1984 composition "Asleep" remind us that, in many ways, all of life is a transitional time, a time for mistakes and recovery, for the process of building strength before acting, for dreaming. Be careful as a teenager, adults said in the 1950s – it will influence who you are forever. And they knew. What was less often said is that to be an adult is to constantly come back into contact with that frightening, thrilling sense that the self is still forming. Without it, we are no longer in motion. We have lost the part of us that is forever wishing, forever young.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 29, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Don Everly died at age 79. He died at age 84.
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.