"We had a very difficult life together, we did," the 77-year-old Don Everly said of the fractured relationship with his younger brother, Phil Everly, with whom he was part of arguably the most successful and influential vocal duo in the history of rock music as the Everly Brothers.
Speaking for what he said was the first time since Phil's death at 74 on Jan. 3, Don said, "I always assumed I would go first, because I was the oldest. It was a shock to find out he was so ill."
In recent years Phil had battled chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, the condition that was listed as the cause of his death. The disease was the outcome from decades of cigarette smoking.
"It's a terrible thing," Don said of COPD. "I quit smoking in the '60s, around 1967 or '68, and he did too. But he started again after we broke up, and smoked until 2001," a reference to the infamous and spectacular public dissolution of their sibling harmony act onstage during a 1973 performance at Knott's Berry Farm.
Lung disease of another kind was common in the coal-mining country of Eastern Kentucky, where the Everly family hailed from. "My father died of black lung," Don said of Ike Everly, an accomplished guitarist who not only gave his sons a valuable education steeped in traditional folk and country music, but also was said to be an influence on such esteemed country guitarists as Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.
Everly spoke in conjunction with this week's announcement that the Everlys' 1960 hit "Cathy's Clown" had been selected by the Library of Congress as one of 25 additions to the National Recording Registry, a compendium of historically and culturally significant audio recordings singled out for preservation in the library's archives. It is one of just 400 recordings chosen from more than a century of audio recording history dating to the late 19th century.
";It's wonderful," said Don, who lives in Nashville. "I'm very proud. It's the most interesting thing that's happened in a long while."
So significant were the Everlys in the early days of rock 'n' roll that they were among the first 10 artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when the institution drafted its initial group of honorees in 1986.
The brothers eventually reunited a decade after the Knott's breakup and recorded an acclaimed live album, "The Everly Brothers in Concert," as well as three more studio albums of new material in the '80s. They also toured extensively during the decade, and continued to perform together periodically after that.
But they remained estranged in recent years, which according to sources close to the family resulted from their vastly different views on politics and life. Their music was the one thing that they shared closely.
"I felt so bad for Phil," Don said of his health struggles in the last several years. "I'm not over it. I really feel sad. I think about him every day. I always thought about him every day, even when we were not speaking to each other. It still just shocks me that he's gone."
"He was a great singer, Phil," he said. "We did that all our lives — it's almost like we could read each other's minds when we sang."
Told that their 1958 album "Songs Our Daddy Taught Us" had been reissued on CD recently, Don said, "We were leaving the label we were originally on [Cadence Records, to sign a lucrative new deal with Warner Bros. Records]. We needed to give them [Cadence] one more album. We didn't want to cut a bunch of rock 'n' roll things they could release, so we decided to record a simple album, just me playing guitar and a bass guitar, with all the old songs we grew up with. That sounded like a good idea."
Even though it may have been recorded to fulfill contractual obligations, "Songs Our Daddy Taught Us" became a rootsy classic that introduced new audiences to such folk and country standards as "Barbara Allen," "Roving Gambler" and "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine."
"It's funny how those things can happen later," Don said. "I just wish Phil was around to hear it."
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