The Everly Brothers were one of the most important acts in all of American music. There is a reason they were first ballot inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and are in the Country Music Hall of Fame as well. Though some consider their music mostly within the rock realm, the home base for their career was Nashville, and country songwriting duo (and fellow Country Hall of Famers) Felice and Boudleaux Bryant wrote most of their big hits like “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream.”
But all great things must come to an end, and that’s what happened 50 years ago today, July 14th, 1973 in a rather spectacularly catastrophic fashion. It was the culmination of years of turmoil and conflict between brothers Don and Phil Everly, as well as conflict with the country music industry.
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Unlike many of their contemporaries, the career of The Everly Brothers seemed to hit a brick wall in the early 1960s, and they never really rekindled their popular magic later in life. The country music industry was to blame, and it led to a deeper conflict between the two siblings.
The well-known guitar player, producer, and country music executive Chet Atkins was a close friend of the Everly family dating back to before the brothers were a duo and were known more as a family band with their father Ike. Chet brokered the brothers’ first record deal with Columbia in early 1956, and also introduced the brothers to Wesley Rose, son of Fred Rose, who was the well-known songwriter and founder of Music Row publishing house Acuff-Rose. Wesley Rose also became The Everly Brothers manager.
In 1961, the brothers had a falling out with Wesley Rose. At the behest of Rose, they only used Acuff-Rose writers, including Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. But as time went on, The Everly Brothers wanted to record other songs. Wesley Rose adamantly refused, so the brothers dropped Rose as their manager. At the time, Acuff-Rose had a virtual monopoly on all the best songs and songwriters in the music business for the type of music The Everly Brothers played. The duo’s falling out with Wesley Rose meant they no longer had access to ‘A’ list song material.
Both Don and Phil Everly were songwriters as well, and wrote many of their own songs. However, in a strange twist of fate only fit for Music Row, because the brothers were still signed to Acuff-Rose as songwriters, the falling out with Wesley Rose meant that the brothers lost access to their own material as well, and any material they may write in the future.
So The Everly Brothers began recording cover songs, and started writing under a collective pseudonym of “Jimmy Howard.” However, when Acuff-Rose sniffed out what was happening, the publishing house brought legal action against the brothers and obtained the rights to those songs as well. Between 1961 and 1964, one of American music’s most brilliant and popular bands was resigned to singing cover material, and their popularity plummeted.
In 1964, the conflict finally abated with Acuff-Rose, and The Everly Brothers began to record their own material again, along with resuming work with Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. But not only had popular music in America mostly passed them by, due in part to the turmoil, both brothers were now addicted to amphetamines. Don Everly was also taking Ritalin, and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized due to his addiction issues.
By the late 1960s and the release of their album Roots, The Everly Brothers were beginning to turn things around, and remained popular in England and Canada. They were also announced as replacement hosts for The Johnny Cash Show for a stint. But behind the scenes, things were beginning to fray between the brothers. Don released a solo album in 1970, but it was mostly unsuccessful. So they began recording together again for RCA, but the entire time, Don was ready to break away from his brother to be a solo artist.
All of this led up to what was announced as the final performances before a two-year break for The Everly Brothers set to take place at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California on July 13th and 14th, 1973. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion for the brothers who knew some space would do them good, and wanted to keep things amicable. But that’s not exactly what happened.
The July 13th performances went fine, but by the time Don Everly was set to take the stage on July 14th, he was clearly drunk. He was slurring words and forgetting some of the lyrics to the songs—something unheard of for Don Everly even in his worst state. Warren Zevon happened to be playing keyboards for them at the time, and recalls of the evening,
“I’d seen Don perform with the flu and a temperature of 103. I’d never heard him hit a sour note or be anything short of professional in front of an audience. But, this night, he walked onstage dead drunk. He was stumbling and off key and I remember Phil trying to restart songs several times. It was embarrassing.”
As the crowd started jeering, Don Everly lashed out at the them, and at Phil. Embarrassed and frustrated, Phil slammed his guitar down on the stage, smashing it. As he walked off the stage, he said to the promoter, “I’m really sorry, Bill, I have to go. I can’t go back on stage with that man again.”
Surprisingly, Don tried to continue the show, telling the crowd famously, “The Everly Brothers died 10 years ago.”
Don Everly later recalled to Rolling Stone,
“I was 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 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.”
Though the hiatus was supposed to only last a couple of years, it would take another 10 for the brothers to reunite on stage at at the Royal Albert Hall in London on September 23, 1983 in a concert that was recorded for an album and a cable special. Meanwhile, their infamous breakup on stage would go on to define the spectacular destruction of a band in public.
The Everly Brothers would continue on and off for the rest of their lives. Phil Everly died in 2014, and Don Everly passed away in 2021. Despite the turmoil the brother duo experienced, they left a legacy that crossed genres and generations, and is still lasting today. There’s nothing like the blood harmonies of The Everly Brothers, no matter the bad blood that came between the brothers at times during their legendary career.