I was drifting in and out of sleep last week, listening to the news, when suddenly eight words — at first sounding no different from the general run — slammed into my senses. ‘Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers is dead.’ For the first time I knew how it felt when ‘the earth stood still’. One of the two brightest flames of my youth had been extinguished. I was friends with both Phil and Don Everly for some 45 years and it was, to be sure, a dazzling friendship.
Beat this for its beginnings: it was 1960 and we met at midnight, boarding the Flying Scotsman at King’s Cross, surrounded by the thickly hissing steam from that great green engine. The sleeping car attendant, as neat as a pin in his starched white bum-freezer jacket, was standing by. ‘They say that some American singers, the Beverly, Everly or some such brothers are coming on board.’ He neither knew — nor I expect cared — that these were the men who were in the midst of altering the course of popular music throughout the world; the Beatles once called themselves ‘the English Everly Brothers’. Believe it or not, I happened to be armed with a tiny fake pistol with a report as loud as a Howitzer — my mother had given it to me to ward off attack — and it clearly was time for action. Never again would that tiny firearm be put to a better use. As the Everlys stepped over the steaming void between the platform and the train, I fired it over their heads while hollering ‘Hail and welcome to the Everly Brothers!’ They had to notice and they did, with star-spangled knobs on: the first instant of what looked like terror was quickly followed by excited laughter.
Within minutes the two Everlys, along with their backers — Buddy Holly’s Crickets and me — were all crammed into a single first-class, wood-lined, linen-sheeted sleeper, where we were to sing the night away. There was Jerry Allison (husband of the real ‘Peggy Sue’) drumming away on the corner washbasin; Joe B. Mauldin’s bass was thankfully in the adjoining sleeper; and then there was Sonny Curtis — who had just written ‘I Fought the Law’ — playing away on his guitar. Don and Phil were harmonising for all their heart-piercing worth. I first heard ‘Lucille’ in that sleeper and have fondly convinced myself over the years that it was written then and there for their star-struck new pal.
Let us dwell for a moment on a mere fraction of the popular music that in one way or another, had been created by these five men jammed into that tiny carriage: ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’, ‘Bye Bye Love’, ‘Cathy’s Clown’, ‘Bird Dog’, ‘(Till) I Kissed You’, ‘When Will I Be Loved?’, ‘Walk Right Back’, ‘Cryin’ in the Rain’, ‘So Sad’, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’. The ghost of Buddy Holly was of course with us; he was killed only the year before in a aeroplane crash and Phil Everly had been a pallbearer at his funeral.
The next week, back in London, Phil and I bought his first winkle-picker shoes in Carnaby Street. Swelling with pride that they were my friends, I took the brothers to the house of the great botanical artist and guitarist Rory McEwen; the dashing art dealer Robert Fraser was there, as was Christopher Gibbs. Peter Blake was already their friend. Those were heady days. Most intoxicating of all, though, was being burrowed into backstage life full of laughter and quick-wittedness; standing in the wings awash with Phil and Don’s soul-soaring harmonies, or otherwise sitting dizzy with delight in the best seats reserved for ‘the friends of the artists’. Never over the years did that exquisite pleasure diminish.
Thereafter we met whenever the brothers came to England, until in 1973 they had that fateful guitar-smashing break-up on stage at Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in California. Their sibling rows had been rife for years and it was no surprise that this nightmare of a place did for their act in the end; a 160-acre forest of rollercoasters and rides, so horribly fake that the very air you breathed seemed manufactured.
Ten years later there was a grand reunion concert, at the 5,250-capacity Albert Hall no less, and for two nights. Every seat was sold. I heard of it only by chance while I was in Oxfordshire photographing an Elizabethan home and, immediately downing tools, I was off, arriving at the Albert Hall in time to employ my intimately honed stage-door johnny tactics and to find myself in a seat on the stage but inches from my old friends. I won’t ever forget the surreal evocation of youth that night. The music didn’t just recall bygone days but submerged me into the very essence of being a 17-year-old again. Occasionally I tried to shake it off, but it was no good. It was the oddest warring of the senses.
In 1988, I was making a BBC film on the Great North Road and by the oddest coincidence found that we were to be in Edinburgh on the same day as the Everlys. So it was that viewers were treated to the unexpected sight of the Everlys and me relishing the glories of Edinburgh’s 1861 Café Royal as we celebrated our meeting, 28 years before, on the northbound Flying Scotsman.
My 47th birthday was spent in Don’s Cotswold vernacular manor house in Nashville. Dinner was a Chinese banquet on the ‘Strip’, along with all the Crickets most tunefully in song with their greetings. Another trump card was Don showing me the full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, cast in concrete with all the sculptures richly in place — as if Lord Elgin never got his toe in the door. For some publicity purpose I happened to be dressed as the Statue of Liberty. It was no mean moment, to find myself thus attired, in company with an Everly brother amid the pillars of the Parthenon in Nashville! Don Everly was particularly delighted by the company of my husband Peregrine Worsthorne: ‘You don’t meet guys like that on the road.’
Phil and Don’s lives and ours have been interwoven for years and in a multitude of ways: Perry and I went to Traverse City in Michigan to see Don’s then girlfriend’s grandmother, a star of the Gold Rush opera houses and still a great beauty in her nineties. Posters of her, with red hair to her waist were hung throughout the house.
The Everlys and I were last together during their sellout tour of 2005. It was to be a gala goodbye: cruising from Kensington High Street to the Albert Hall in a marble-lined bus, as well as gorging on dinner in Don’s hotel room, hung all around with tapestries. With his sensationally beautiful wife Adela and her sensationally beautiful twin sister Adelaida, we toasted our way through a vast Thanksgiving dinner which had been wheeled in on several tables, their white linen cloths draped to the floor
Sadly, there was no romance with either Phil or Don, though it got pretty near to it when Phil said that ‘I often wonder whether our teeth will end up in adjoining glasses!’ He once told me that whenever he was asked how to make friends in England, he always answered: ‘Take a train to Edinburgh.’