If you've been in the lobby of the Bijou Theater downtown, you've probably noticed the gallery of paintings that constitutes the East Tennessee Hall of Fame for the Performing Arts—James Agee, Dolly Parton, John Cullum, Roy Acuff, David Keith and the others. But you won't find a picture of a couple of skinny, jug-eared guys who are among the most beloved artists ever to live in this area. No, for a gander at their picture, you'll have to visit another wall entirely.
There's been a picture of a family wearing cowboy suits tacked up on the wall of the old Longbranch Saloon on Cumberland Avenue as long as I've been going in there. There's a tall, rough-cut man with a wild swoop of hair seated behind a demure, smiling woman. Flanking them are a couple of grinning kids, obviously related, wearing cowboy hats and holding guitars almost as big as they are.
One night I just had to ask. "Oh yeah, that's the Everly Brothers," the barkeep answered, shaking a rag in the direction of the snap. "They used to live around here."
I was hooked. The premier brother act from the early days of rock 'n' roll—the twined voices behind hits like "Bird Dog," "Wake Up Little Susie" and "When Will I Be Loved"—had lived in my hometown. But you'd probably never learn more about the subject no matter how thoroughly you combed local libraries and newspaper morgues or quizzed even the most trivia-obsessed drinking companions. In fact, you can open just about any one of the numerous biographies of the Everlys and come up with at best a page or two on Knoxville. They went to West High, they were on the radio, they left for Nashville ... the rest is history. Even in the excellent and extensively annotated Everly boxed set Heartaches & Harmonies (Rhino), the Everlys are in and out of Knoxville in a paragraph.
It was obvious that there had to be more to the story. And there was.
Ike Everly had mined coal in the Muhlenberg County area of western Kentucky he and his wife Margaret called home, but Ike manhandled a guitar far better than a pickax. (He and a man named Mose Rager pioneered a style of thumb-picked guitar playing that they taught to a local guy named Merle Travis, who would in turn popularize it for practically every country and bluegrass musician who followed. But that's another story.) By the time their first child, a boy they named Donald, was born in 1937, Ike was ready to try his luck at music full-time.
In those days, radio featured live music and comedy, and Ike and Margaret did short segments on the radio first in Chicago (where a second son, Phillip, was born in 1939), then in Shenandoah, Iowa. After Don joined the act at age seven, and Phil followed, they were billed as the Everly Family. They played daily half-hour shows of country and old-time music, featuring Ike’s the jovial brio and amazing guitar picking, Margaret’s steady support, and the beginnings of Don and Phil’s precocious harmonies—the sound that would later define their music.
But the ’50s were bringing a lot of changes to radio and the music business. Now that the wartime rationing of materials was over, records were being pressed at, uh, record rate. At the same time, radio stations were beginning to find it more economical to pay one person to play those records than to pay ten people to play live music. Then there was this guy from Memphis—but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Suffice it to say that the local live radio shows that had been the métier of the Everly Family for over a decade seemed to be fading, at least in the Midwest.
"We were familiar, of course, with the Grand Ole Opry, and of course that was really the big time," Don Everly recalls from his home in Nashville. "We had also heard about WROL in Knoxville, so we packed the car up and left in September of ’53. We came down, auditioned, and got the job on Cas Walker's show—$90 a week for all four of us."
The Everlys soon established themselves on the local airwaves as down-home favorites, performing a live half-hour show every weekday morning, plus an afternoon show on Wednesdays. The family moved into a little red house on Sutherland Avenue where Jason's Cafe stands now, and Don enrolled as a sophomore in the Class of ’55 at West High School just down the street. Phil would join him there a year later.
"I loved West High School," Don recalls. "The people were so friendly—a little bit of that Southern hospitality. And in Iowa I think they always considered me a guitar-playing hillbilly anyway. When I got down to Knoxville, I seemed to fit in a little bit more."
The Everly brothers may have gotten closer to their family roots in the South, but they had taken to a few uptown ways during their sojourn in the Midwest. Don and Phil entered West High sporting twin ducktail hairdos, pomped high and glinting with hair-oil sheen.
"The ducktails and the long hair, I took to that. The black and the pink, the turned-up collar, and that whole look—that was me," Don Everly recalls. "And it still is, to be perfectly honest with you. I don't have the ducktails now, but I've got the turned-up collar. It was an attitude, but it wasn't a bad one."
The brothers' hair certainly got them, well, noticed. "I thought of them as just standard kids ... with too-long hair," recalls Joan Parker McReynolds, a classmate of Don's. "Back in those days ... Well, when Elvis Presley came on the scene, everybody said, 'That man is wicked.' And all the other guys didn't have that much hair. So there was an element of questionability about these boys because of these huge, voluminous hairdos."
Their hair made the brothers notorious in other ways as well. During Phil's tenure on the lower rungs of the basketball team, his mop inspired an incident which would have kept him in the minds of his classmates even if he hadn't wound up on The Ed Sullivan Show.
"As Phil would run up and down the court, his hair would be floppin' everywhere, getting sweaty and stringy and falling in his eyes," local businessman Gene Easterday recalls. "Coach [Walter] Ganz told him he was going to have to have his hair cut. Phil said he couldn't because he was in his father's act. And Coach Ganz, just off the wall, said, 'Either you're going to cut it or wear a hair net …'
"Phil was kind of a jokester, so the next game, he showed up with a hair net. He had the girls falling out of the stands, cause he'd be running down the court and he'd just stop and pull that hair net out and stuff his hair back up in it when it'd come loose. He was just doing it to aggravate Coach Ganz."
Easterday has lot of fond memories of the Everlys. A year ahead of Don at West, he drove a two-tone gray ’51 Chevy two-door, while the brothers rode around town in a two-tone green version. The three of them became friends, parking their twin cars side by side in the parking lot in front of West every morning before school, hashing with other buds about, of all things, music.
"They'd argue for country and western music, and we'd argue for popular music," Easterday recounts with a chuckle. "I guess they proved their point one way or another ... Or I guess they proved my point, cause they were more popular in popular music than they were in country music when they first started.
"They were just typical guys," Easterday repeats, echoing nearly everyone I spoke with. "Phil was more outgoing, the fun-lovin' type, and Don was the quieter, more serious of the two."
And what about the fraternal tensions that would escalate into a full-scale split for 10 years in the ’70s? Did they fight? "No more than any other brothers, no. They were typical brothers—most of the time they got along fine. Occasionally one or the other would cross the other's path, but it would never last long."
Easterday says that the Cumberland Avenue strip was the big hangout back then. In the days before the Long Branch, Evil Eye Video and the Sunspot Cafe, there were hot spots like Ballis' Poolroom, the Booth Theater and Karns Drugstore. There was a little record store right up from the Campus Barber Shop, so you could tend to your coif and check out the new sounds in one trip. Don Everly has similar memories of life after class.
"The pool hall, the drugstore and the record shop. I had a girlfriend, so drive-ins and dances. We had quite a little social life there at West High. It was just like the ’50s scenes like you used to watch on Happy Days. That's very typical. The girls had their social clubs, and the boys had theirs. They would have dances and there'd be box suppers and that sort of thing. It was sort of structured fun and pretty innocent and very good."
Then They Met Chet
Like a lot of high school students, then and now, when they weren't out with their friends the Everly brothers spent a lot of their spare time mooning around the house, playing guitar. But unlike most of their fellow teen musicians, Don and Phil had been professionals for half their lives. And they wanted to keep playing music for the rest of their lives. During their time in Knoxville they took the first important steps towards that goal.
Chet Atkins played the Tennessee Valley Fair the fall the Everlys arrived in Knoxville. Atkins and Ike Everly had been corresponding, and certainly knew of each other's reputations as hot pickers, though Ike definitely had the seniority. So Ike brought his boys down to the fairgrounds to meet Atkins. The family was still struggling, and Ike and the boys couldn't afford admission to the show. They ended up having one of the most fateful conversations of their lives through a chain-link fence near the backstage area.
"I was writing songs, and so Chet said if we got to Nashville, sure, he'd listen to some of our songs," Don recalls. "So we went to Nashville that summer, and played some of the songs for Chet, and he liked ’em! He had a few suggestions, but he was encouraging, and he said he'd publish them if he could get them recorded."
Though Atkins was not yet the all-powerful force in Nashville that he would soon become, his encouragement gave the boys hope. While they waited for their big break, they continued their schooling, playing their shows on WROL and picking at a few school functions and parties. Their musical life was low-key enough that several former classmates I spoke with for this article say they didn't even know the brothers were on the radio. "I played at a couple of assemblies—maybe once or twice," Don says, "but really I just stuck with my writing, which is what I was doing a lot of."
By the time his senior year rolled around, Don's writing started to pay off, big-time. Kitty Wells had decided to cut one of those songs he had left off with Atkins all those months before. Miss Kitty Wells, the Honky-Tonk Angel, the number one female country star in the whole damn USA, was going to record a song that he, Don Everly, had written. "Thou Shalt Not Steal" would hit the Country Top Ten that year.
"When you look at a record with your name on it for the first time, that means you're in the record business and you are a songwriter, and that is the most important thing," Don says now. "I was just a teenager. It was a real important step for me. It gave me a lot of confidence."
Though they sang lots of songs sweeter, many remember the Everly Brothers primarily for 1960’s number one hit "Cathy's Clown." It's not hard to hear why. The song's jaunty march-like rhythm and wailing harmonies make the lyric picture, of a doormat getting walked on by his conniving beloved, indelible. Well, that Don-penned smash might have ended up as "Mary's Clown" were it not for his high school girlfriend, a West student named Catherine Coe.
There are a lot of disagreements and vague memories about Don and Catherine, including their own. He says they met in art class; she says they met on a blind date. Several friends paint him as being somewhat of a ladies’ man; she insists they dated almost the whole time they were together at West. No one disagrees that they were a couple for some time.
Now married and living in Florida, Catherine Coe Kennedy seems somewhat reluctant to talk about the subject. She has only vague memories of going to the movies with the gang, going to football games, attending dances and parties thrown by the various student social clubs. She remembers a near crash on an icy road averted by Don's expert driving. She remembers Don and his brother playing a "rock-and-roll thing" at a party "It was the first time I'd heard them play that kind of music—it went over very well," she recalls.
Whatever problems they might have had during Don's turbulent senior year, they resolved them all by graduation. The one division they couldn't defeat was the miles between his dreams of Nashville and her plan to stay in Knoxville, so they parted ways. Nevertheless, she says it never fazed her when she heard her name jump out of the chorus of one of her old boyfriend's hits.
"I didn't even realize it for years," she says. "I didn't connect it with me at all. They'd been gone several years and met lots of girls by then—and not just little Tennessee girls. I didn't find out about it having anything to do with me until six or seven years ago."
As for Don's part, he is at pains to point out that he just used the name, that the song is in no way a comment on their relationship. He just happened to be thinking of his old flame one day while working on songs, and "'Catherine's Clown' didn't sound right."
The music to go with the Everlys' ducktails was rolling across the state from Memphis by the summer of 1954. A God-fearing white kid with long, greasy hair and a pimp's wardrobe had seized on an old blues tune as a goof and found it to his liking. But for the flipside of "That's Alright Mama," Elvis Presley picked on Bill Monroe's hallowed "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Elvis wasn't the only Tennessee boy catching a bad case of rockin' pneumonia and having trouble respecting the already-fluid boundaries between country music and "race music."
"Phillip and I were singing country stuff on the radio show, but as we were teenagers, we're going to be influenced by what was happening in the music scene at that point," Don remembers. "I'd been exposed to rhythm and blues, because my father played rhythm and blues. And then right up from the Campus Barber Shop was a record store. I went in there and listened to Bo Diddley, and my life wasn't the same after that."
With all those teen hormones and jungle beats racing through their veins, its not hard to see why the younger half of the Everly Family might start to find the traditional family show a little constraining. By the time that Elvis was beginning to scandalize the rest of the nation, the brothers were itching to inject some more of that rockin', rollin' feeling into what Don describes as "duets, quartets, solos and a hymn at the end for the shut-ins." But Cas Walker, grocer, politician, impresario and local legend, was not a man to brook controversy. Not on his show.
"Their daddy and mother was country music," the ailing but still feisty Walker recalls from the easy chair in his Gaston Avenue home. "But [Don and Phil] started to play all this ... I call it jumpin’-up-and-down music.
"I had all different kinds of music [on my show], but I called it 'country music,' and it is country music, and the Good Lord didn't mean for it to be any other way. I said you can't have that jumpin’-up-and-down music on my show—it won't sell no groceries.
"I don't want it to sound like I'm making fun of it, I didn't mean to downgrade anybody. I tried to be fair about it. But I told ’em that I couldn't have none of this jumpin'-up-and-down music. That's the bad thing about anybody in the public eye—you can't tell them what to do."
No one I spoke with can (or will) elaborate on what exactly the Everlys did or didn't do, or what was the last straw. And even Don uses phrases like "sort of fired" and "sort of canned" to describe what happened next. But for whatever reason, the Everly Family found themselves out of work at WROL.
"One day he just decided we weren't quite suitable," Don says now. "Actually, he kept calling us Yankees—he didn't think we were Southern enough."
Walker will only say that the Everly Brothers have somewhat misrepresented their "firing." "They was very much for me, but then they come back and tried to correct it," he maintains. "These boys have went out and give some good stories—I didn't resent it. But I think it came out all right."
It did indeed come out all right, but not without some struggle. Ike and Margaret, having seen the writing on the studio wall, had already enrolled in barber school and beautician's school, respectively. But being forced to leave WROL was a tremendous blow—after all, every member of the family had lost a job simultaneously. Don remembers that he went down to the Tennessee Theater on Gay Street, sunk down in a seat under the deep blue dome, and sat through Three Coins in a Fountain, barely noticing Clifton Webb and Dorothy MacGuire from the depth of his depression.
All I Have to Do Is Dream
Things didn't look too good for the Everly Family. Not only were they out of a job, but it was going to be hard to find a similar gig to replace it. Rumor has it that Ike took work as superintendent/ custodian of the apartment house on Scenic Drive they had moved into six months after arriving in Knoxville.
"That kind of radio we were doing, that half-hour family show was plain old dying," Don says. "There wasn't really anything to regret—it was just gone."
"We had been somewhere one day and we were going down to their apartment," Easterday says. "When we got there and walked up on the porch, Don checked the mailbox, and he was real happy. There was a check in there from Chet Atkins." The royalties for Kitty Wells’s recording of Don's songs had finally come through—to the tune of a couple thousand dollars, a big chunk of change in 1955.
"That was the money that really saved us," Don says. "Our savings were gone, Mom and Dad were still in school, and that check just covered us enough to get us through. It was really a godsend—I don't know what we would have done without it."
Ike finally secured a job manning the shears at the Campus Barber Shop, but Don and Phil were already looking beyond the confines of Knoxville. That spring, the boys began to harden their resolve: they would go on to Nashville to try their luck as a duo as soon as Don graduated.
"I think it was just mutually agreed upon that if the boys could become teenage heartthrobs, why, they could advance a lot quicker," says Easterday. "I think [Ike and Margaret] just figured the boys had a better chance than they did. After all, they'd been at it for years."
"I wasn't that great a student, and I was being rushed into university rush parties my senior year," Don recalls. "Mr. Love, the principal, called me into his office, and he asked, 'Don, are you planning on going to college?' I knew what he was talking about—my grades. And I said, 'No'—and it was the first time I admitted to myself that I wasn't going—'No, we're going to Nashville and try to get on the Grand Ole Opry.' So he said, 'Well, I'm going to graduate you, but if you were going to college you'd have to go to summer school.' But he was very sweet. I really appreciated that I got to graduate with my class.
"The day after I graduated from West High, we got in the car and came to Nashville and started out. Mom stayed here and my Dad went to Indiana and was working up there for a year or so. But we stuck it out in Nashville."
They scuffled around Music City, hanging out at the Ryman, trying to get noticed. They scrimped and starved and wrote more songs. Finally, Chet Atkins helped them get a deal with Columbia Records resulting in a single called "Keep A-Lovin’ Me" in 1956. Never heard of it? Neither did anyone else at the time.
It would be almost another year before the brothers would hook up with Cadence Records and the songs of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. The successful songwriting couple and longtime Gatlinburg residents were shopping some songs around Nashville. One of them had been passed over numerous times by country big shots, but someone in the Everly camp liked it, and they cut it with Chet Atkins on guitar. "Bye Bye Love," released in march of 1957, would hit number one on the country chart, number two on the pop chart, and even number five on the R&B chart.
The Everly Brothers fulfilled and surpassed their original dream of appearing on the Grand Ole Opry. They rode a hot streak of hits that ran into the ’60s, recording some of the most-treasured love songs in the rock-and-roll canon (many of the finest written by the Bryants). As documented amply on the Heartaches & Harmonies box, they continued to record excellent music up through the ’80s.
In addition to their recorded contribution, they were a seminal influence on future generations of rock-and-rollers through those eerie velveteen brotherly harmonies. A sound so rooted in the country tradition yet so inalienably beautiful, it would echo again and again: in Britain of the early ’60s, L.A. of the mid to late ’60s, and Nashville just about any time of the day or night since ’57.
And you can still hear the real thing—they continue to tour the country year after year.
Back in Knoxville, people were astounded that those skinny, long-haired Everly boys had actually gone off and become famous like they said they were going to. "I knew they were good singers, and I knew they were trying awful hard at it, but I don't guess any of us thought that Don and Phil would go as far as they did," Easterday admits. "They did, though. They did. That was probably what allowed them to do it, cause they knew. They knew in their own minds that, buddy, they were going to make it. And I think that's why they did make it, because they worked really hard—they sure did.
And Don can finally say, after all these years, that "Cas Walker probably did us a favor by firing us."
Walk Right Back
The Everly Brothers' last official visit in Knoxville was in 1992. They played a show at the same Tennessee Theatre that Don had brooded in over 40 years before, singing the kind of pop songs they had first started doing a few miles to the west, the kind of tunes that might have gotten them escorted off of Cas Walker's show all over again—if he still had one.
By all accounts it was practically a West High reunion, with former classmates crowding backstage after the show to chat about old times with the delighted brothers. Don remarked on the last occasion he had been in the theater to the crowd during the performance, but now, as he says, "It's a bittersweet memory, because here I come back playing it many years later, very happy, my life's really good. I meet a lot of my old friends there, and they get to see me do what I was doing then."
Phil Everly actually came back to town once before, in the very early ’60s. According to Easterday, Phil ferried some musician friends over from Nashville in his Jaguar sedan. While his friends played a gig, he looked up Easterday and some other old buddies, and they spent a few hours catching up at the Tennessean (now Sam & Andy's). Then he dropped by Ballis' Poolroom to shoot a few games.
Some guys at the pool hall started calling up women that they knew to casually drop that they were currently crossing cues with the by-then world-famous Phil Everly. When the women called them liars, they'd drawl, "Wanna bet?" Then, according to Easterday, Phil accompanied his old cronies around town as they collected their dollar bets before he hopped in his Jag and jetted back off to Music City.
Don Everly says that while he hasn't really visited except to play the 1992 show, he has driven through on his way to the Smokies, pausing to look over the vanished places on the Strip where he once shot pool, where his father once cut hair, where he and Catherine might have tarried on a Saturday night, where the Bo Diddley beat once changed his life.
Stop by anytime, fellas.