Recently a friend who has the advantage of being an astute student of the music business from the outside – the advantage being that he doesn’t have to rely on the music business to make a living – threw out the trial balloon statement that what we should be looking for is the next Everly Brothers.
My friend had recently purchased a box set retrospective of their career and, in reading through the liner notes, came to realize what a touchstone their sound was to not only nascent rock ‘n’ roll but also to the generation that followed. Lennon and McCartney referred to themselves as the English Everly Brothers early on in their careers. Simon and Garfunkel invited them share the stage for their 2003-04 “Old Friends” reunion tour. Neil Young, in his induction speech for the brothers at the very first Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, said that all of the bands he had ever been in had attempted (and failed) at trying to duplicate the Everlys’ harmonious sound.
Of course, not only would any attempt to duplicate the Everly Brothers sound be difficult, for reasons I’ll explain, but when you know their story, you realize just how much perseverance and timing played in their success. And since you can’t predict timing in the music business, let’s call it by its real name – luck.
What I’m getting at is that there’s no sense in trying to emulate the Everly’s path (or that of any successful musical artist) as all those same stars are not going to align for you in the same way as they did for them. But there are some overlying lessons we can take away from their story that were signposts on their journey for us to look out for in the careers of budding new artists.
In fact, I can come up with ten things to shoot for if you want to be the next Everly Brothers.
START EARLY – Not much you can do about it now, but it sure seems to be helpful if an older person in your family had some musical ability and exposed you to singing and musical instruments in your childhood. The brothers started playing guitars and singing together when they were like 6 and 8. Don’t wait until you’re 25 to decide on a career in music. Not in this century anyway.
HAVE FAMILY SUPPORT – The Everly’s dad was a musician and radio DJ and he would have the boys perform on his radio show. That would certainly help get over any stage fright later on. Eventually, their parents bet everything they had and moved the boys closer to Nashville. You as an artist can’t do this on your own in your formative years; you have to have help – musically, emotionally and financially. Family is the best place for those things when you’re starting out. If there’s no family emotional and financial support available, maybe you should consider an alternate career path in the world of fast food or some related service industry.
DEVELOP A DISTINCTIVE SOUND – You have to stand out from the other 200,000 or so out there (a made-up but not unlikely number). Being brothers and singing together for over ten years certainly made for a blend of voices that cannot be duplicated in an easier manner or in less time.
Don (the elder by two years) sang the lower parts and almost all of the sections where there’s only one lead vocal. Phil sang the higher and what is usually regarded as the harmony part. But in reality, neither one was singing a standard harmony part, which generally follows the lead melody line but wouldn’t hold up as a melody on its own. Instead, they utilized what’s known as diatonic thirds, so that each of their parts would stand alone as a melody line. And there’s the secret! I guess that might have helped Neil Young’s bands to have known that.
OPEN OUT OF TOWN – All artists need to go through a period of learning their craft. The best place to do that is away from the big media centers where first impressions mean everything. The boys lived and performed in a couple of tertiary markets with their radio DJ dad (Shenandoah and Waterloo, Iowa, and later in Knoxville). If you’re in New York, LA, SF, Nashville or Austin, leave town. Go make your initial mistakes somewhere else and come back when someone who should know tells you you’re ready.
THEN GO WHERE THE MONEY IS – Once you’ve achieved that distinctive whatever and you’re really good at it (great would be better, but don’t wait for perfection), then it’s time to be seen and heard by people who can take you to the next level. BTW, initially, what people SEE is more important than what they HEAR, but you have to have the goods to back up the visual. The boys had both. The family moved to Knoxville, just down the road from Nashville.
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF – The boys attended West High School in Knoxville starting in 1953 and were playing out every chance they got. Not many in Knoxville were convinced that they were going to make it. “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,” a former classmate told Metro Pulse magazine in 1995. “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.” You can hear the drawl.
BE PATIENT AND PERSISTENT – Everything will take longer than you anticipate. Get used to it and don’t give up. No less than Chet Atkins, certainly THE most respected musician and A&R guy in Nashville at the time, saw them in Knoxville and took them to Nashville in 1956. He got them signed to Columbia, and supervised the recording of their first single. It bombed and they were dropped and went back to Knoxville, tails between their legs. But they didn’t give up.
SHOWCASE WHENEVER AND WHEREVER YOU CAN – When the boys returned to Nashville for a second round, they would hang out in the alley behind the Ryman, so that when the Grand Ole Opry performers would leave after the show to go across the alley to get something to eat, the brothers would sing and play for them as they walked by, in hopes of getting noticed by someone important.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO BUILD A TEAM AROUND YOU – Finally Chet Atkins gave them a second chance in 1957. He took them to publisher Roy Acuff who knew that Cadence Records in New York was starting up and wanted new young talent. Roy hooked the boys up with his A-list songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant and they starting recording with Chet’s best session musicians. You will need people like Chet and Roy take your act to the next level. You cannot do it on your own. They have the connections and they have the money. The record business has changed, but connections and money still rule
KEEP EVOLVING YOUR SOUND AND ARTISTRY UNTIL IT WORKS – The Chet Atkins-produced recording session for The Bryants’ “Bye Bye Love” was going nowhere until the brothers added a variation of a Bo Diddley guitar part they knew to the intro. Don and Phil’s awareness of Bo Diddley (their Dad’s barber in Knoxville played Bo incessantly in his shop) took their decidedly country sound into the realm of RnB, thereby creating a new sound – rock ‘n’ roll with harmonies. That intro was the icing on the cake. You knew it when you heard it.
WRITE YOUR OWN SONGS AND KEEP YOUR PUBLISHING – Although they were no slouches in writing hit songs for themselves (“Till I Kissed You” (Don), “Cathy’s Clown” (Don and Phil), and “When Will I Be Loved” (Phil)), they didn’t fare so well in the publishing area apparently. Nashville was (and still is) all about publishers and the boys were exclusively signed to Acuff/Rose and were instructed to only record song published by their benefactors. When the brothers broke with that tradition, they were blackballed and legally kept from recording their own tunes for a number of years. That’s where the “keep your publishing” advice comes from.
KEEP YOUR OVERHEAD DOWN AND STAY AWAY FROM ADDICTIVE ACTIVITIES – That’s a quote from James Taylor who further observed that there were many young singer/songwriters determined to follow his path to fame who decided that the best way to do that would be to get hooked on heroin as well. James advised to avoid that step.
Both Everly’s reportedly suffered from an amphetamine addiction, among other bad habits, which severely curtailed any career development after the late 60s. They should have listened to James.
There you have it – the ten tips to aspiring artists and to managers who are considering getting involved with those aspiring artists. Does it really work that way every time? Nope, not even close.
As a caveat, in The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that all the advice about following in the footsteps of the successful whatevers by duplicating their methods ignores the fact that hundreds if not thousands of others have used those same tactics and not been successful. Which means that the only difference between the two outcomes is that the successful ones had a series of lucky events (and had books written about them) and the others didn’t.
Luck. At the end of the day, that’s all it is. Luck.
So good luck out there!
“When opportunity knocks, you have to be ready.” – Bruno Mars
Larry Butler is a music business consultant based in Los Angeles. You can find him at www.diditmusic.com