Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits
For the past few months on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we’ve discussed the rockabilly movement from various perspectives. We’ve covered the country artists fighting for survival as well as songs made from those on the outside. We’ve even examined this movement from a business executive’s perspective. As far as what this feature is concerned with, though, we’ve yet to cover an artist or act that bridged the gap between country and rock. As such, it’s fitting we close this discussion with the Everly Brothers.
Born in Brownie, Kentucky (Don in 1937 and Phil in 1939) to Ike and Margaret Everly, the brothers shared parents who were popular country and gospel performers throughout the mid-South. When they retired in the mid-’50s, Don and Phil headed to Nashville, Tennessee. Unlike other artists, the brothers just sort of found themselves caught in the middle of the whole rockabilly movement. Fortunately for them, their voices and own sound fit the mood of the era quite well.
In artistic terms, Don and Phil took the brother duet tradition a step further by adding Bo Diddley riffs, teenage anxieties and sharkskin suits. Yet the core of their sound was steeped in country brother harmony. Before that, Don was trying to make inroads as a songwriter, penning “Thou Shalt Not Steal” for Kitty Wells, “Here We Are Again” for Anita Carter, and more. A contract with Columbia Records, however, only yielded one single.
No, if anything, the brothers needed a helping hand beyond their natural talent. That help came from Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, Nashville’s first professional nonperforming songwriters. What makes Music Row different among other American commercial music centers is that it houses a music industry built around people who spend their days writing songs for other people to sing. We know it’s tough out there. Even the songwriters who score a hit don’t get a guarantee that the song will be remembered on down the road.
But the Bryant’s songs bridged a gap just as the brothers did – one of quality and artistic integrity. Today, the songwriting duo have had hits recorded by Charley Pride, Linda Ronstadt, Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison and more, but their most iconic songs were hits by the brothers.
The tales surrounding the songs of this feature are odd, just as the duo themselves. They were traveling musicians. According to their son, Dane Bryant, “They did pickup jobs here, pickup jobs there. They would book themselves out as a duo. They would play schools. They would sing songs together, and then Dad might start playing the violin, play some real dry classical piece, and Mom would go out in the audience and heckle. He once got them booked on a South American cruise, a two-month cruise, and Mom said, ‘Well, what are we gonna sing?’ Dad said, ‘Well, we know one Italian song together, we can do that, and we’ll learn the rest of them on the boat. Once they pull off – they’ll be stuck with us!’
They didn’t go on that cruise after all.
They did, however, catch their big break when Boudleaux ran into a friend of a fiddler who said he was going to sing country music in Nashville. That friend had even met Fred Rose, meaning Boudleaux had his own shot at meeting the famed producer. Rose wondered if Boudleaux could come to Nashville, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Though for as much as Rose helped to launch the songwriting duo off the ground, it was his son, Wesley, who played a critical role in connecting them with the Everly Brothers. In the latter half of the ’50s, Archie Bleyer decided to move his Cadence record label into the country field. The most successful publisher at the time was Acuff-Rose, so Rose put Boudleaux with him. Bleyer was mostly interested in the brothers, acting as a middleman between the two parties. The song he first showed them, “Bye Bye Love,” was written for duo Johnny and Jack, but they turned it down. Then it almost wound up in Porter Wagoner’s hands. But that acoustic guitar intro on the song was integral to the brothers’ sound, meaning it was always going to be their song one way or another. Fortunately for them, Cadence was known as a pop record company, so it naturally received pop play in addition to country play, helping the brothers to explode in popularity. Heaven forbid, after all, that anyone knew you were recording in Nashville during this time. No, despite Nashville eventually edging out Los Angeles as the second largest recording center in the United States in 1963, no one wanted anyone to find out they had recorded something there, which is a conversation about country music’s image I’ll save for another day.
Anyway, from then on, the hits written by the Bryants were tailored for the brothers. Take “Wake Up Little Susie,” for example. Felice says that one morning, Boudleaux was up very early pottering around on another floor of the house, which, at the time, wasn’t carpeted, meaning that the sounds he made echoed up to Felice as she was waking up in bed. Boudleaux was wandering around, singing mindlessly to himself. As Felice lay in bed, she realized her husband had unconsciously come up with something very special. She jumped out of bed and rushed downstairs, knowing full well that once Boudleaux realized what he was singing, he was more than capable of finishing the song on his own, and she wanted a piece of something that clearly had the potential to be a huge hit.
Several cities banned the record from being played on radio, jukeboxes and record stores. After all, the controversial lyrical content didn’t sit well with parents who thought their children were listening to “devil music” in the form of rock ‘n’ roll. The ban, however, thrilled the Bryants and the Everlys, as there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Remember, this was music marketed to a younger audience, an audience who had their own money to spend on what they wanted. Music was a must-have for teenagers during this time.
On March 6, 1958, the brothers stepped into the RCA studio in Nashville to complete their next big hit, “All I Have To Do Is Dream” in just two takes. The brothers went from being an “act” to a duo with a potential future.
The Bryant/Everly combination was good for three more top ten songs before the brothers departed Cadence when their three-year deal was finished. In 1960, unhappy with their low royalty rate, negotiations for a new deal with Cadence broke down. Warner Brothers, the movie conglomerate, was looking to branch into the recording industry. They made a big splash when they inked the brothers to a ten-year, one million dollar deal, reported at the time to be the largest of its kind.
The hits still came, but the brothers were ready to move on to a new chapter with Warner Brothers. This change also included penning material by different writers.
Rose maintained a connection with the duo as he served as both their manager and president of Acuff-Rose Publishing, which, while hiring the Everlys as songwriters, still equated to a strained relationship. He advised the brothers against choosing songs by writers outside the Acuff-Rose roster, as the company didn’t receive any publishing royalties. When Rose objected to the release of “Temptation,” another song outside the Acuff-Rose roster, the brothers, tired of the pressure, fired him as their manager.
In an act of vengeance, Rose denied them any publishing rights to Acuff-Rose published songs. This meant access to the Bryants was denied, along with songs they wrote and would write, as they were still signed to the publisher as songwriters. There’s no doubt this shortsighted move cost all involved millions of dollars and changed the course for the Everly Brothers. This move was the beginning of their end. By the time Rose came to his senses and lifted his blacklist with the boys three years later, the magic was gone. Sure, the rise of the Beatles took their thunder as well, but considering the Beatles looked at the brothers as an inspiration, the damage mostly came from that poor, unneeded riff between old friends.
The Bryants ran into their own trouble with Rose as well. The early deal the two had made with him was a bargain on his end. Despite featuring some money-making hits like “Blue Boy” for Jim Reeves, “We Could,” “Hey Joe,” and more, Rose didn’t have to give them any money for them. In return , he gave them a ten-year reversion on all the songs in the catalog from the date of copyright. In time, big hits like “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” and “Bird Dog,” among so many others, became among the most valuable copyrights in the Acuff-Rose catalog. In other words, those great copyrights eventually reverted to the writers, something which must have hurt Rose to see. He wasn’t happy when the reversions came due, and he did what he could to hang on to the copyrights, but the Bryants prevailed. The songwriters wouldn’t be screwed over on that day in Music Row.
Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll discuss the story of The Browns and “The Three Bells.”
This post was written thanks to the following sources:
- Information regarding the rise of both the Everly Brothers and the Bryants is credited toward How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A by Michael Kosser, specifically the chapter, “The Everly Brothers and the Bryants.”
- Information regarding the brothers was mostly taken from their biography in The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall and The Encyclopedia of Country Music (biography written by Colin Escott)
- Other good recommended articles are “Story Behind The Song: Wake Up Little Susie by The Everly Brothers” written by Kym Frederick and this one by Jerry Reuss.