Sunday, January 05, 2014

Phil Everly, 1939-2014

Phil Everly, the younger of the Everly Brothers (at left in photo) died Friday, less than a month shy of his 75th birthday.

My introduction to the Everlys was in 1957, when I was in sixth grade at Eglin Air Force Base Elementary School, in the piney woods of the Florida Panhandle. Each Wednesday afternoon we'd leave our classroom and go to the "cafetorium," where the folding tables and benches had been moved against the wall, leaving a row of seats on each side of the room and a dance floor between. One of the younger school staffers served as DJ, playing 45 RPM  records on a portable player. This was our weekly "social dancing," meant to prepare us for the teenage world we were about to enter. It was in fact an introduction to the loss of innocence, mine included.

I had a crush on a girl named Jamie. Unfortunately for me, she was "going steady"--a status evidenced by a ring hanging from a chain she wore around her neck--with Ronnie, the biggest boy in our class. During social dancing Ronnie and Jamie would gather with several other steady couples--I thought of them as the "Cosmopolitan Set"--on what ipso facto became the power side of the cafetorium. I would be with hoi polloi on the other side. Whenever the DJ would start a slow number, often the Everlys' "Maybe Tomorrow", which was the "B" side of their second big hit, "Wake Up Little Susie" but got a fair amount of play because the DJ liked to mix fast and slow songs, a sweet girl named Karen would manage to be standing in front of me. I would take hold of her and fox trot her over to where the Cosmopolitans were dancing. We had been taught the convention that a boy, and only a boy, could compel an exchange of partners by tapping another boy on the shoulder. Jamie and Ronnie were always protected by a phalanx of lesser Cosmos, so getting to Jamie involved several partner exchanges until I got to reach up and tap Ronnie, who would release Jamie with obvious distaste. I would get to hold her close and shuffle my feet for a few blissful seconds until Ronnie's knuckles rapped my shoulder and the partner swaps would unwind until I got back to Karen. That Karen put up with this over a number of dancing sessions, and that I was willing to make her put up with it, retrospectively amazes and appalls me. Karen, wherever you are, I hope you've had a very good life.



In 1958 my dad retired from the Air Force and we moved to Tampa. On our first visit to Britton Plaza--a 1956 vintage shopping center that I still visit whenever I'm in Tampa because it's home to the Tapper Pub--we went into Neisner's, what was then called a "five and dime," and I heard "Bird Dog" (video above) for the first time over the store's P.A. system. After that, the Everlys continued to be part of the soundtrack of my pre-teen, teenage, and early adult life. Their close harmony lent itself to romantic ballads like "All I Have To Do Is Dream", an anthem for hopeless lovers (something I've been more often than I should have; Jamie was just the first of many), but they also could do edgy songs like "Bird Dog" and like "Poor Jenny" (video below), which became a favorite of mine for its catchy, frenetic tune and its hysterically implausible lyrics:



I've always thought of the Everlys as Kentuckians, but as the Times obit says, while the family's roots and older brother Don's birthplace are there in Muhlenberg County, eulogized in John Prine's "Paradise", they moved to Chicago before Phil was born. After that they moved to Shenandoah, Iowa, where the brothers grew up and began their singing careers on their father's local radio show.

Goodbye, Phil. You were one of the last of the surviving pioneers who built rock and roll from country and blues roots. I'll miss you.

Update: Thanks to FB/BHB friend Arthur Boehm, here's an audio clip, with still of the record label, of Phil singing "The Air That I Breathe" solo, arranged by Warren Zevon, before the Hollies made it a hit: