A letter from Chet

Don Everly was interviewed for the Grammy Foundation on the topic of having Kitty Wells record one of his songs, “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” The salient point here is that Don, who wrote the song at age sixteen, saw it become a Top Twenty Country hit while he was a senior in high school.

In the Grammy Foundation video, Don seems careful not to say “Chet wrote to me.” Instead, he uses the passive phrasing, “a letter came from Chet.”

A lady on a certain Web site categorized this letter as “the beginning” for The Everly Brothers. I would argue that the beginning of that act lies further back (childhood appearances together) or further forward (recording together), but that is not what I find interesting about the letter.

The letter intrigues me because it doesn’t mention Phil.

Chet letter to Don Bert Poyck copy
Chet Atkins’s letter to Don Everly, July 28,1954

Chet Atkins and the music business. In the video, Don tells us that he and Phil traveled to Nashville (from Knoxville) to visit Chet and sing some of Don’s songs for him. Don was seventeen, and Phil was fifteen. Don was about to enter his senior year of high school.

Chet Atkins was many things in addition to being one of history’s greatest guitarists. He was also an RCA artists-and-repertoire man, a record producer, and a mentor to many fine musicians. As Chet states in a 1983 BBC documentary: “I know talent when I see it. I know a good song when I hear it.”

But at the time he wrote this letter, was Chet impressed with the talent of The Everly Brothers, or was the talent he saw the talent of Don Everly? And was Don, at the point of receiving Chet’s letter, still looking at the possibility of a solo career?

I would say that evidence supports a “yes” answer to both questions. In Nashville in 1954, every entrepreneur in country music was looking for the next Hank Williams, a solo performer who for the most part wrote his own material but had the musical chops to put over the work of other writers as well.

The big money was in owning the recording masters and publishing the music, which included licensing it for jukeboxes and sheet music sales. (In this era, a large percentage of young middle- and upper-class females played piano.) In short, the bulk of the profits went to the owners of publishing houses and to record companies–NOT to the performing artists. To the people running the music industry, public performance was a necessary evil rather than a source of revenue. Personal appearances and radio play developed buyers for records and sheet music. A handsome young man or a beautiful young woman was a crowd pleaser, but the days of huge crowds and high ticket prices were far in the future.

Could Chet have been envisioning something along the Hank Williams line for Don? Don certainly did want a solo career, and it appears that Chet Atkins was intent on mentoring Don as a songwriter. There is at least one other letter from summer 1954 from Chet to Don. That letter, which does suggest the possibility of recording Don and Phil together, features commentary on songs Don sent to Chet after the visit to Nashville. Chet explains that he and another arranger made some changes to some of the songs, but it emphasizes that Don is becoming a good songwriter as he cautions Don to work a bit more slowly.

It is important to remember that Chet’s correspondence was with Don, not with Ike, not with Ike and Margaret, and not with Don and Phil together.

Parental influence. Ike Everly presented his sons to Chet Atkins as a duo, but Chet focused on Don, whose talents were far more developed and whose young life was dedicated solely to becoming a country music star. Margaret Everly’s vision was for her sons to perform together. They could be tap dancers or singers, but she wanted them to be a duo.

Margaret treated her sons as fraternal twins in order to impose an equality between them, and she tried to instill a “sharing” ethic in them in order to create a lasting bond between them.

The forced equality demanded that Don be held back and Phil be pushed forward. This worked to the detriment of both sons in their youth and may well have contributed to some of the enmity later in their lives. When Little Donnie became so popular at KMA that he was given his own fifteen-minute show, Margaret pushed Phil into the act. A master of ceremonies for one program recalled a tiny Phil bursting into tears at the microphone. (Ike carried him away to comfort him.) In order to give Phil a place in the act at a tender age, it was necessary to have him memorize lines from Ike’s trusty joke book.

Male siblings born two years apart are not fraternal twins. My father and one of his brothers were born on December 7, 1919, and December 7, 1921, respectively. Daddy was always the “older brother” that Uncle Pete admired and went to for advice, but they did little together in their lives as children, adolescents, or adults. Their early playmates and companions were their own classmates at school, their interest in the opposite sex developed at different times, and each made life decisions according to their personal preferences, individual aptitudes, and different experiences.

Margaret’s “sharing” demand meant that Don and Phil received one set of Christmas gifts and hold toys and other possessions in common. They slept head to foot in one bed. Even the clothing the brothers wore, aside from the nearly matching outfits Margaret put them in as tykes, came from a shared wardrobe.

When the boys were teenagers, Phil quickly became the taller and slightly heavier one, so newly acquired clothing fit him rather than Don. Below is a photo of The Everly Family performing on the Cas Walker radio show. Don is wearing new-looking jeans that have been folded up at least two inches from the ankle. Shortly after the brothers’ first success, Phil was quoted in a fan magazine saying that when Don got married and left to live with his first wife, he left all the joint collection of jeans to Phil. It was a puzzling comment for American teenagers accustomed to having their own clothes.

The Everly brothers, Phil, left, and Don, perform on the Cas Walker Show on March 8, 1954, with parents, Ike and Margaret. (Van Winkle Collection / TAMIS-McClung Historical Collection)

It is important to note that from the beginning, Margaret’s sharing ethic included halving the resources of her older son and giving the confiscated half to her younger son. When Don earned money for radio appearances or the sale of his “Little Donnie” photos, the money (so the legend goes) was used to purchase bicycles for both boys.

Margaret’s dominance. Margaret was unquestionably the dominant will in the Everly household. Felice Bryant was said to describe Margaret as “the balls of that family.” Although Margaret’s childrearing was a disaster as far as the future relationship between her sons and her own relationship with each of them, she invested everything in her personal dream vision, and what either of her sons wanted to do with his life was apparently of no consequence as far as she was concerned.

Don’s plans collided with his mother’s, and Margaret ensured that her plans won. Given Don’s comment regarding leaving The Everly Brothers—that at some point a person asks himself if he did what he wanted or only what his parents wanted—there is little doubt that he felt pressure from his family to perform with Phil.

It seems implausible that Phil himself could have or would have pressured Don when they were teenagers, but it is very likely that Ike supported Margaret’s position. It also appears that, given what she had to say when the breakup came, Margaret at no point had any compunction about her treatment of Don.

Events in Don’s last year of school. “Thou Shalt Not Steal” was a hit for Kitty Wells a few months after Don received the July 28 letter from Chet and signed the songwriting contract. The Everly Family was dropped from Cas Walker Show at about the same time. When Don received the first royalty check for “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” which amounted to $600, Margaret, almost certainly with Ike’s assent, took the check from Don and held onto the funds.

Many sources assert that the Everly parents valued education and insisted that their sons finish high school. For most working class families in post-World War II America, high school graduation marked the beginning of an independent life for a son or daughter. 

Don had, by his own accounting, little interest in school, but he persisted at it long enough to graduate high school. Late in his last term, he says, he was getting A’s in Art and Mechanical Drawing and F’s in everything else. He has said that a school administrator told him that he would have to go to summer school if he wanted to go to college, but that they would otherwise graduate him. Don says he told them he was not going to college and that he was going to Nashville to attempt to get on the Grand Old Opry. 

[It is reasonable to ask why a school administrator would think an indifferent student would go to college at all. At least one early fan magazine article quotes Phil as saying that Don had won a scholarship to study art, so that may be the explanation. Don’s high school art lines a wall of Margaret’s house as of this writing. Don clearly had an aptitude for the graphic arts, and he has said that being a cartoonist was the only non-musical profession that he ever considered at all.]

As a high school senior and a proven entertainer and songwriter, Don should have been able to take the money he had earned and, at the end of the school year, head to Nashville, just as he told friends and the school administrator he would do. Although the $600.00 from his first songwriting royalties seems slender to us today, in the mid-1950’s it would have been far more than many a hopeful talent had in his pocket, and Don would be able to expect additional funds as Chet placed other songs for him.

[At some point prior to The Everly Brothers becoming a recording success, Don had earned $1800 in songwriting royalties, but it is unclear what the actual amount of his royalties was at the point he graduated high school.]

Margaret acts to forestall other possibilities. But after Don’s graduation, Margaret made her move. She used Don’s songwriting royalty money to secure union cards and performance wear for both her sons. Once again, Don’s success was “shared” with Phil, just as everything in his childhood had to be shared with Phil—Christmas gifts, toys, the five dollars per appearance Don earned from his father’s radio show and for the Little Donnie Show, the money earned from selling Little Donnie photos to fans, and even the clothing the brothers wore. When the boys were teenagers, Phil quickly became the taller and heavier one, so any newly acquired clothing fit him rather than Don. There is a photo of one of the last Everly Family appearances from the Cas Walker radio show. Don is wearing new jeans that have been folded up at least twin inches from the ankle. 

As Margaret made her plans during Don’s senior year, she did something that I find very telling: she put an end to Ike’s career, sending him to barber school. And I say that Margaret made the decision because every source I have ever read says that she made all the decisions in the Everly household.

While an outsider might not absolve Ike from blame for those decisions which injured himself and his offspring, there is nothing to suggest that his sons blamed him. It is apparent that both Don and Phil loved and respected their father, and that years later they would together attempt to resuscitate Ike’s career by making public appearances with him and having him join them on television programs.

I fully understand that live radio work was no longer an option for musicians, so the radio version of The Everly Family act was over for good. Certainly, Margaret’s going to beautician school to supplement the family income made good sense. By the time the radio work disappeared, the boys were old enough to shift for themselves after school without their mother being at home all day, and Margaret had no skill to market as an entertainer. But Ike was a highly accomplished guitarist. Why wouldn’t he perform on his own—as a session player in Nashville, in a band, or in honky tonks?

Furthermore, Don has said that at some point that he expected, when he grew up, to play rhythm guitar for Ike. Why didn’t an Ike-and-Don act, or a band formed around Ike and Don, become the next logical step? Partnership with Phil was not at all an appealing or even sensible future. As Don has said emphatically in the most recent BBC documentary on The Everly Brothers, he and Phil NEVER got along. (And as Don’s long-time close friend, Albert Lee, has insisted again and again, Don never wanted to be part of a duet with Phil.)

Ditching Ike. Margaret moved with her sons to Nashville to manage their lives. One can only imagine the level of Don’s disappointment as his own mother took a sledgehammer to his dreams.

Furthermore, although Ike had just trained to be a barber and had secured a job in that field in Knoxville, he was left behind as though there were no openings for barbers in Nashville. However, that distance did not satisfy Margaret, who soon sent Ike off to a more distant job in Indiana—working construction.

CONSTRUCTION? Ike was nearly fifty years old. It was not an appropriate time to begin working at heavy labor again. Why couldn’t he work at his trade as a musician in Nashville and keep a day job as a barber?

I believe Margaret felt the need to accomplish two things: (1) end Ike’s career to see that no Ike-and-Don show developed and (2) get Ike out of the way before Chet or someone else with clout suggested that Don should work as a solo act. Ike just might have agreed to either option, and keeping Phil in school in Knoxville would have been consistent with their educational plans for their sons.

Margaret wasn’t going to let anything stand in the way of her dream—not the parental commitment to having the offspring get high school educations, not her husband’s career, and not any potential influence from Chet Atkins or her husband.

Having Phil finish high school is no longer a priority. At the time of Don’s high school graduation, a brother act was certainly not in Phil’s best interest or in accord with the parents’ declared educational goals for their sons. Phil still had two years of high school to finish. He was clearly not ready for full-time career work, and by all accounts, he was a good student who enjoyed school, both the academic side and the extracurricular activities such as glee club, basketball, and track. With options like Berea College available and Phil’s outgoing nature, the younger Everly son could have gotten an undergraduate degree with its likely result of personal independence, a respected career, and financial security.

Instead of allowing Phil the maturing experiences of a normal high school education and continued associations with the friends and teachers he had begun only two years earlier, Margaret enrolled Phil in the Peabody Demonstration School in Nashville.

[Note: There are several schools bearing the name Peabody. The school Phil attended existed so that university-level students had a place to observe students and practice their teaching skills, as well as to permit university professors of education to run experiments and research projects. Such schools had more flexible rules for attendance and curriculum than regular high schools. Phil would eventually have to graduate from this school through correspondence.] 

Margaret’s dream was that her boys perform as a duo. Remember, this was her dream from the days when they were in primary school and she imposed tap dancing lessons on them. It was not a dream born out of their musical talent. We should also remember that in Phil’s case, the musical talent was still developing, and Margaret’s actions separated Phil from his teacher and mentor, Ike. Margaret did not act in her sons’ best interests. She acted to impose her will on her sons.

Margaret was implementing Margaret’s vision, and she was more than willing to sacrifice Don’s dream to her own. She clearly felt entitled to dictate to her both sons what their futures would be, and she had no compunction about risking Don’s resources, opportunities, and happiness in the service of her own desires.

As Margaret is much later quoted in Walk Right Back regarding Don having the audacity to free himself of the act known as The Everly Brothers, “They had been taught from babies on up that it was Don and Phil and it wasn’t Phil or it wasn’t Don” (WRB, 1st ed., 110). Don and Phil were thirty-six and thirty-four, respectively, when Don quit being an Everly Brother to live his life as Don Everly. Yet Margaret and Phil were outraged by Don’s actions.

Margaret had forcefully bonded her sons together all of their childhood and adolescent lives, and she never relinquished her personal vision. To Margaret, her sons were her chattel.