Two-part harmony is about as far as I got in my autodidactic musicology classes. After all, I had a lousy teacher. I didn’t even know enough to re-string my guitar for leftie play, because the chords I taught myself were from sheet-music books and I thought that was how the fretboard was supposed to look. My torturous mirror-image F chord, requiring one finger to act as a bar across all the strings, is painful for rightie (that is, almost all) guitarists to watch. But then, they have their own carpal troubles with a G, which is easy as pie for me.
Harmony, though? Two-part. I had the ear and could even improvise. Get into three parts, though, like Peter, Paul & Mary, and you’ve gone beyond my music teacher’s abilities: Crosby, Stills & Nash sound absolutely magical. This two-part synapse was fried into my brain by Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers.
I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia while the transistor (i.e., wireless) radio was the hottest electronic toy. We went to the beach a lot. There were only two Top Forty stations in town: WNOR and WGH (the call letters stand for World’s Greatest Harbor). Grade-schoolers like me could walk up and down the beach and hear an unbroken stream of music, like the underscore in AMERICAN GRAFFITI: whenever one station went to commercial, all the little cigarette-pack-sized radios whirred to the other one. That was my education in late Fifties/early Sixties rock & roll. It was planted in the back of my mind, but it stuck, and now I can still remember every note of, say, that stuttering sax solo on the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak.”
The Everlys were kings of that scene. As was Sting much later, they were gifted with sharp, clear voices that cut through the muddy transmission of AM radio. They were pitch-perfect, and they meshed together so well that you couldn’t tell which singer was which Everly. We wouldn’t hear that again until Simon & Garfunkel, who modeled their sound on the Everlys and even included a live version of “Bye Bye Love” as their “so-long” piece on their final album together.
The last time I saw Phil, who passed away yesterday, was on stage at Madison Square Garden ten years ago. Their acolyte Paul Simon, who was touring again with his old partner and antagonist (which of them was really Don and which was Phil?), took a mid-show break, but not before announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers!” Their four-song mini-set destroyed the audience, most of whom hadn’t been around in the day. As I recall, they ended with “Bye Bye Love,” and their benefactors regained the stage to join in. But by that time I was weeping with joy and could hardly hear a thing.