Don and Phil Everly gained fame as a pioneering rock ‘n’ roll group in the late 1950s and early 1960s singing in perfect harmony about such subjects as teenagers falling in love.
What many Chattanooga area residents may not realize, though, is that a few years earlier they were just regular teenagers themselves living up the road in Knoxville and trying to find their way while attending that city’s West High School.
Following the 74-year-old Phil Everly’s death on Jan. 3 in California from heart disease, several of his 1957 West High classmates were tracked down and asked about the singers.
Most recall that Phil and his older brother were popular at school, but more for their personalities than any musical skills that were just starting to manifest themselves.
“They were very well liked at school,” remembered Matthew McClellan, the proprietor of the M.S. McClellan clothing store in Bearden. “There was nothing to dislike. They were very pleasant guys and didn’t feel like they were cool, although they dressed in a cool fashion. They were just good guys.”
Jim Biddle, who remembers having his locker near those of both of the brothers, also has warm memories of the brothers, particularly of Phil.
“Everybody liked him,” he said. “He was a really friendly fellow. I had high regards for him.”
Among Phil Everly’s other classmates was the late Chattanooga attorney Hal Clements.
While Phil Everly and his brother later became known for rising up the music charts fast, Biddle remembers that, at West, Phil was known for going around a track swiftly as a sprinter.
“We were on the same relay team at West and we won a lot of races at that time,” said Mr. Biddle. “He was a great track runner.”
Although Phil Everly and his brother, a 1955 West High graduate, left Knoxville to follow their music career before Phil could graduate, Phil also participated in junior varsity or B team basketball for the Rebels.
And a popular story related to him in that sport involves a net. But it dealt with his ducktail-style hair, not the kind on a basketball goal.
“When Phil was on the basketball team, the coach said you are going to have to get your hair cut,” remembered classmate Oliver Chavannes. “The coach said we can’t have it flopping around.”
So a hairnet apparently became the compromise.
The varsity basketball coach at West at the time was future University of Tennessee baseball coach Bill Wright.
Mr. Chavannes, who went into management for JC Penney and worked for a period at Eastgate in Chattanooga, grew up in a Sequoyah Hills home at Scenic Drive and Southgate Road. His father, lumber company official and 1940s-era Knoxville mayor Ed Chavannes, had installed a basketball goal and large recreation room with a pool table.
As a result, a number of neighborhood youngsters would be there at any one time, and Mr. Chavannes remembers that the Everlys came by on occasion.
“They were both real good guys,” he remembers.
Sequoyah Hills is much like the Riverview area of Chattanooga, as it also features larger and older homes and is close to the Tennessee River.
Fellow classmate Charlotte Smith Petty, who knew the brothers only casually, said the girls generally liked Phil and Don.
“They were popular,” she said. “They were obviously very different because of their talent and appearance. But they fit in well and people really liked them.”
Mr. McClellan recalls that the brothers liked some of the girls, and the girls liked them, but that the girls’ parents were a little reluctant to have their daughters dating blossoming musicians with distinctive hairstyles and appearances.
The Everly family apparently came to Knoxville about 1953 or 1954 from Iowa and soon began appearing regularly as the Everly Family country singing group on Knoxville grocer Cas Walker’s radio show.
The only Knoxville city directory on file at the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville that has a reference to them is the one from 1956. It says they lived in one of the three apartments at 641 Scenic Drive in Sequoyah Hills in what today appears to be an older-style and large white home, near the Chavannes residence.
The directory also says that the father, Isaac M. “Ike” Everly, was a barber at the Varsity Barber Shop, which was then operated by Mrs. M.W. Hoskins. Although that barber shop is still in business at 1723 Cumberland Ave., the business at the time was located in a now-razed building farther west on the Strip at 1833 Cumberland Ave. at a site now occupied by Regions Bank.
Because the family was trying to make some additional money to support their music career, the mother, Margaret E. Everly, was a beautician at the Forest Hills Beauty Shop. Operated by Mrs. N.L. Oliver, it was located in a still-standing home at 4623 Chambliss Ave. in Bearden halfway between the new UT intramural fields and the high-rise 414 Forest Park apartment building.
Mr. McClellan remembers meeting the Everly brothers for the first time about 1954 in the popular Ballis Pool Hall on Cumberland Avenue. At the time, they were living in the Fort Sanders area, he recalled.
Around 1955, he ran into Don Everly, who gave a glimpse into the brothers’ future stardom.
“He said he was leaving town and had written a record,” Mr. McClellan recalled. “He said it was to be the B side of a record by Kitty Wells.”
With the initial help of Chet Atkins, both of the brothers eventually moved to Nashville, signed record deals with Cadence Records and later Warner Bros. Records, and turned out such hits as “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have To Do Is Dream” and “Cathy’s Clown.” A number of sources say the latter song was inspired by Don Everly’s 1955 West High classmate, Catherine Coe.
Dave Williams, an Athens, Ga., music historian who has studied this era, calls the Everly Brothers a very important group.
“They brought harmonies to rock music, similar to what the Beatles did a few years later,” he said. “And they were one of the many acts that took advantage of Elvis (Presley) being away in the Army in the late 1950s.”
Although the Everly Brothers were known for their harmonies on the stage, it was not always like that off the stage, as they separated their music career for about 10 years before reuniting in 1983.
Mr. McClellan said he would occasionally run into the brothers, including not long after their professional career began and he was in Nashville while in the Army at Fort Campbell.
“Here comes a guy down the street wearing a Derby hat and a Chesterfield coat and a walking stick,” he said. “As we passed, I realized it was Don Everly.
“I yelled at him, and he wanted me to come out to their house and see Phil. They lived in West Nashville in a nice neighborhood. It was just like old times.”
Mr. McClellan saw them again in Nashville and during an early 1970s’ trip he took to Las Vegas. He also visited with them during a concert they gave at the Tennessee Theatre in recent years. And each time, they inquired about former West High friends, he added.
“Every time we hooked up, it was, ‘What was so and so doing?’ ” he said.
During the last reunion organized by classmate Sam Lyle, Phil Everly was unable to attend but sent a note full of well wishes.
Mr. McClellan and several of the classmates do not remember the brothers performing at many West High School-related music or social functions while in school, if any.
They also say they knew the brothers were good singers from their work on Cas Walker’s radio show, but they never realized they were future world renowned stars who would end up in both the Rock and Roll and and Country Music halls of fame.
But Phil and Don Everly did enjoy great success, and many fans far from Knoxville have been remembering them as well in recent days.
One British fan, for example, wrote on his personal website Wednesday that Phil Everly had been one of his heroes and that he tried to emulate him when his music career was getting started.
“Years later when I finally met Phil, I was completely star struck and at the same time extremely impressed by his humility and gentleness of soul,” the man wrote. “I will always love him for giving me some of the sweetest musical memories of my life.”
The fan’s name? Paul McCartney.