Think a little about what fans of The Everly Brothers know about their mother, Margaret Everly, who is, as I write this, approaching her ninety-seventh birthday.
Have you ever seen a photo of Margaret at any of her sons’ many weddings? No. Did the brothers call her out on stage or point her out in the audience at their famous Reunion concerts? Did they even cover for the fact that they did not introduce her by just dedicating a song to mama back in Nashville? No.
And yet Margaret was brazen enough to give an interview to a Nashville television station (see below as posted on YouTube by EBI, which was The Everly Brothers fan club until the brothers severed relations with the group in the 1990s). The interview, which took place during the reunion publicity in 1983, does not disclose that Margaret and her sons were not on speaking terms.
Margaret also leaves us with the impression that she and her husband performed duets before their sons began performing, which is not correct. Don performed with Ike before Margaret did. Margaret revealed elsewhere that the Wilcox Gaye recorder mentioned in this interview was a machine she purchased to practice her own singing—because Ike said she did not sing well enough to be on the radio.
How many mothers sacrifice one son’s dreams to forge a future for another son—at a point when the second son is too young to know whether he wants that particular future? And how many mothers can you name who believe that they have a right to determine what their sons do for a living—even after the sons are in their thirties? Yes, Margaret is that rare exception to what you believe you know about motherly love. (You can read more about this side of Margaret in A letter from Chet.) After her sons became famous, Margaret told the world about how her sons shared everything, and they did: she permitted them to have only one bicycle, one dinner jacket, one wardrobe, and one toothbrush. This was supposed to keep them bonded together.
Reflect on what you know about Margaret Everly. She was bold and unique, even if not entirely endearing.
“Sweet Betsy from Pike”? Margaret is part “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” who “crossed the wide river with her husband Ike.” At seventeen (apparently), Margaret bravely left her mining town home in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, with an infant son on her lap, joining her miner-turned-entertainer husband who had already moved to Chicago with two of his brothers. Margaret there gave birth to a second son and finally crossed the Mississippi River with Ike and the boys into far-off Iowa.
In the folk song, Ike panics on the journey, crying out in fear, “My dear old Pike County/I’ll come back to you.” Betsy responds,”You’ll go by yourself if you do.” Margaret was strong and hard working and determined and goal-oriented. Very goal-oriented. She ruled her home, and she ruled her husband. Her sons? You don’t even need to ask, do you?
The primary goal in Margaret’s life was seeing her sons become famous entertainers—as a duet. They could have been tap dancers or singers. What they performed did not matter, but she wanted them performing together.
Yes, Margaret was part Sweet Betsy From Pike. And she was also part stage mother. Maybe mostly stage mother. And she was all boss. And when her sons became stars, Margaret was a loose cannon. This problem stemmed in part from the fact that Margaret was and remains a chronic liar. She created a history for The Everly Brothers that was at times far from reality. Don and Phil probably had difficulty keeping Margaret’s “facts” straight.
When the brothers were professionally established, they did everything possible to keep their mother out of the public eye, and once their father passed away (in 1975), they kept their distance from her. In fact, Don may never have spoken to her again except through attorneys, and he’s lived only a few miles away from his mother for about forty years. The cherished notion of Phil’s fans that he looked after Margaret and called her and visited her frequently is probably pretty far from the truth. I say that because Margaret is the source of that idea. Has anyone seen a photo of her and Phil together that was taken after 1975? Photos of Phil’s kids playing at Grandma’s house? Had any existed, Margaret would have gotten them in the public eye long ago.
In one interview Margaret was asked about her communication with her sons during the years that they were not performing together or speaking to each other. Her response is a priceless bit of Margaretese. She says that “Phil would call,” but “Don was married,” so, of course, he “had a wife to talk to.” Fascinating. “Phil would call” could mean that he called her on Mother’s Day and her birthday (in November). Or maybe not that much, or maybe not every year.
One of the general misconceptions many Everly fans hold is that Don and Phil were born to a performing couple. In truth, by the time The Everly Family Show was disbanded in 1954 in Knoxville, Tennessee, the members of that family had worked as a unit less than ten years, and Margaret was the last to be included as a performer.
Margaret, like Lucy Ricardo of the legendary “I Love Lucy” television show, was always trying to get into the act. Ike told her that she couldn’t sing well enough to be on the radio, and she did not play an instrument while in Iowa, although she eventually learned to play bass fiddle. Margaret did not appear on the radio in Chicago and Waterloo, and it was only Ike who was hired at radio station KMA in Shenandoah at the time they moved there.
A second misconception was that Ike and Margaret moved to Iowa to be able to rear the boys in a rural environment. That’s Margaret’s story. The truth was that the job Ike landed as a staff artist at KMA in Shenandoah was a choice position. Shenandoah is a small town with an amazing history. During World War II and immediately after the war, the town benefitted as its two rival radio stations and their “seed king” owners grew wealthy.
Shenandoah seed kings and radio stations. KMA was owned by Earl May of the Earl May Seed Company. Earl May Nursery and Garden stores still prosper throughout Iowa and in neighboring states. I shop at one of them in my town. At the time the Everlys moved to Shenandoah, May and his rival of a few blocks away, Henry Field (of the Henry Field Seed Company), controlled the bulk of the seed market for the surrounding midwest and plains states, the states that constituted America’s “breadbasket.” Field owned KFNF.
The rival seed kings each built a powerful, state-of-the-art radio station. The stations broadcast local and national news, live music, and many syndicated radio shows. The radio stations, both very powerful for their era, were designed to sell seed and other products to their geographically widespread audiences. The listeners were almost all full-time or part-time farmers or the denizens of small towns that catered to the farm economy. This is why you can still hear recordings of Margaret selling rat poison and patent medicine to remove corns from the feet of people accustomed to physical labor.
Ike’s job was to play guitar all day long: he played openings to introduce syndicated and local shows, he played and sang commercial jingles, he accompanied singers, and he performed on programs that showcased the staff artists as a group. Some of these staff artists also worked as a band that Ike led, The Hawkeye Rangers, which performed live at local venues.
[I have held in my own hands the old fiddle case Ike’s band used to collect “request money.” It’s irrational, I know, but when visiting Shenandoah, a fan feels a connection to the Everly family, whether it is through holding something of Ike’s or standing in the tiny house the Everlys once inhabited.]
Little Donnie and the beginning of the family act. The Everlys moved to Shenandoah because Ike landed the job at radio station KMA. (The last year the family lived in Shenandoah, or “Shen,” as the locals call it, the Everly family worked at KFNF.)
Don once said he was a “has been” at age ten. Don was so musically precocious that he was singing and playing guitar at a very young age, and Ike’s staff artist friends got the idea to have him on their show. He was a hit from the beginning. People called the station or sent in requests for “Little Donnie” when they placed their mail orders for products sold on the air. The station manager joked that the kid was a star, and he paid Don five dollars per appearance. Considering that Ike’s salary was about seventy dollars a week, a couple of appearances a week by Don boosted the household income significantly. In time, Don had his own weekly time slot, a fifteen-minute cutout of a larger show on Saturdays, referred to simply as “The Little Donnie Show.”
Margaret asserts herself in Phil’s interest—and her own. Basically, Margaret tried to bring up her sons as fraternal twins. She wanted them performing as a pair, and she started them out as tap dancers, which may be why Phil later complained that he hated to dance. If Don was to be on the radio, she wanted Phil there also, and Phil was pushed into performing at a very tender age. A master of ceremonies for one of KMA’s variety programs recalled a tiny Phil bursting into tears when placed in front of the microphone to sing. He also recalled that it was Ike, not Margaret, who rescued Phil and soothed him.
Ike drew heavily from a joke book he had acquired, and he began modifying some of the jokes so that Phil could memorize some of them. This put Phil in the act.
From there it was only a short leap for Margaret to suggest that the entire family would be available for a sum of about twenty dollars a week more than Ike was being paid. Given the number of appearances Don had been making, it was not going to cost the station much, if anything, more than what they had been paying out. At first, Margaret read commercials and the boys appeared on Saturday or after school. Gradually Phil and Margaret began singing, also.
What eventually evolved into The Everly Family Show aired very early weekday mornings and ended before the boys’ school day began. The show played to housewives listening to the family radio while serving breakfast and beginning their chores, and to farmers starting their workdays in their barns, where they listened on battery-operated radios as they milked their cows and fed other livestock. Ike continued to work the entire day, and Margaret read commercials at times other than the family show as well.
Margaret was at least ten years younger than Ike. She was a very beautiful young woman in her early twenties when the Everlys arrived in Shenandoah. The radio station program guides and the local newspaper often featured photos of the radio stars, and Margaret made a pleasant addition to those publications. As to her singing on the radio? Well, as Don put it, there were no actual parts worked out, “We just all sang at the same time.”
Particularly in the first years in Shenandoah, Margaret worked as a waitress and at other odd jobs. While Ike (and the family) were paid as well as anyone in their line of work, musicians were plentiful and the Great Depression had conditioned Americans to work for very little. The family was poor.
However, they were not so poor once Margaret started revising the family history.
At home in Shen. For some of the time the family lived in Shenandoah, they lived in the one-room house that is on display next to the local historical society. This was not, of course, its original location. In fact, the dwelling’s original location wasn’t where the Everlys lived.
The little house was constructed as a motorway tourist cabin. In the United States, the forerunner of the motel was a property with a central “lodge” and anywhere from four to a dozen little cabin units. The cabins were a step up from camping out in a tent, but not a big step up. These shelters did not have plumbing, and few had heat. The lodges served as registration areas and usually had vending machines, a pay phone, and sometimes facilities for taking showers. The customers were mostly families taking summer vacations.
After World War II ended, better facilities were constructed to attract travelers, and few of the cabin courts survived into the Fifties. A local entrepreneur in Shenandoah bought some of these cabins, moved them into town, and rented them as housing to families as poor as the Everlys. By most accounts, the Everlys first moved into a trailer on someone’s farm property, but Iowa winters are brutal, and it made better sense to live in Shen itself, particularly because Ike was apparently a less-than-stellar driver, and the cheap (and very used) car he bought was at best problematic transportation to work. People said that he would sometimes drive to the next little town to turn the car around rather than execute a certain left-hand turn.
Visiting Shenandoah to see the house opened my eyes to Margaret. I learned that she was furious with the man who was responsible for the restoration of the home, a man she had communicated with and cooperated with many years. He explained to me that Margaret did not want anyone to know how poor the family was. Only days after viewing the house, I stumbled on an article based in large part on an interview with Margaret from the mid-1980s. Margaret laughed about how small the two-room house was. She also made reference to how, for the boys’ benefit, she and Ike moved to “an acreage” in the last years the family lived in Shenandoah. With what I know now, I would be surprised to find that the last residence was a tent on somebody’s farm.
The house next to the Shenandoah Historical Society is one room, not two.
The tiny house. I live a good three-hour drive from Shenandoah, and a six-hour round trip is a little more than my partially handicapped elderly body takes lightly, so I kept putting off making the journey. However, a friend from graduate school drives out to Iowa to see me almost every year, and we do an Iowa historical trip most times. (One such trip was to the Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly played hours before his death.)
So Lorrie and I set off to Shen, my trusty old Accord’s 6-CD player filled with EB classics, the Reunion concert, and Don’s solo albums.
I had called the historical society to check the hours the house could be viewed, and the woman who answered wanted to make certain that I understood that the house was only one room. “The family was very poor,” she said. I assured her that we wanted to see the house and were not expecting a mansion.
Fans familiar with photos from the EB Shenandoah homecoming will remember a photo of Don and Phil standing in front of a green-shingled house identified as their home in Shenandoah. The green-shingled house had two rooms because someone put an addition on it long after the Everlys moved out. That’s how Margaret got by with saying the house was a two-room house. However, when the house was restored, it was restored to the size it was when the Everly family lived in it and to white wooden siding rather than the green shingles.
The house is no bigger than a bedroom in an average working-class American home. There is no bathroom, so there must have been an outhouse (an outdoor toilet), and there was probably a well in the backyard. Lorrie knows antiques and the cultural history of the Midwest as well as a museum docent. She said immediately that the house probably had a woodburning stove with an attached tank that kept hot water available. The man who restored the house explained that Phil had described to him a sort of canvas sink that folded out from the back wall. That was how the family bathed.
How they slept or stored things, it is hard to imagine, but then, they didn’t own much. At the time of our visit, there is a small wooden dining set in the house that did not belong to the Everlys, but it helped give a sense of how crowded the place would be when the family gathered to eat or sleep. There was one bed in the house, a twin bed, that definitely belonged to the family. It still has the original delivery label pasted on a slat underneath, with Ike’s name and address on it. The wooden headboard has a carved Conestoga Wagon on it. I wondered if the brothers, who slept head to foot in the same bed, argued over who got to be closest to the Old West scene.
I really wish every one of Don’s and Phil’s fans could stand inside the house at least once. Being there, I thought of something Don said in some talk show interview. In a response meant to evade the usual question about why he and Phil did not speak for so long, Don began by saying that it was “complicated—you have your life growing up together and your life working together and . . .” He just left it hanging, and the host of the show pushed on to something else. I wonder what the brothers really thought about their early poverty. Was the relationship stronger or more affectionate before wealth and fame complicated life? Standing in the tiny house, I thought about the lyrics to Don’s marvelous song, “Turn the Memories Loose Again”:
I don’t look like that picture, but I know it’s me
And I don’t sound the way that I did then
But I can sing an old song made famous way back when
And I can turn the memories loose again
I never thought of money; they just told me it was there
A brand new car for a brand new millionaire
But fame can be a feather that’s caught up in the wind
And I can turn the memories loose again
Dreams that disappeared can come alive today
The love you thought was gone still lingers in a song
I’ve seen the world from windows of buses, cars, and planes
Success can be a freedom or a chain
I don’t regret one moment. All I did was sing
And I can turn the memories loose again
And I can turn the memories loose again
Phil helped the restoration process by answering questions over the phone. Margaret refused any cooperation and said that she had better never hear that money was being made off the house. Don was not contacted, and when he telephoned KMA in February 2016, he said he did not know the house had been restored.
It seems difficult to believe that Don did not know about the house, but perhaps it is true. The businessman who restored the house was a friend of Phil’s. In the summer of 2016, I called the Shen equivalent of a chamber of commerce and asked if Don had come to see the house. The man I chatted with said that Don had not, as far as anyone knew. He added that the rumor in town was that Don had said that he might come see the house, but if he did so, it would be done privately, without public knowledge.
Radio Days. When I visited Shenandoah, I spoke with the man who planned Radio Days. He said that neither Don nor Phil had been back to the town between the time they left as teenagers and the celebration in 1986. I told him that was wrong, that Don had been back. In some of the 1983 footage the BBC shot for a semi-biographical documentary on The Everly Brothers, Don turns to Phil and says that the eccentric old building that housed KMA, which had minarets like a mosque Earl May had seen in India, had been demolished: “I drove over there. That building is gone.” But Don is the elusive Everly Brother. (Phil is known to have been in Shen once before the Radio Days Homecoming. The visit took place in the first year of EB success.)
Margaret and Radio Days. But I should get back to Margaret, right? As I said, Radio Days was a two-week celebration. The second week was devoted to Don and Phil and included a variety of events centered around the brothers, such as awarding them honorary degrees from the local high school (which Don had attended for the two years prior to the family’s departure), announcing a scholarship the brothers were sponsoring, a parade, and a concert by the the brothers and their band. The brothers made it a condition of appearing that their mother was NOT to be part of any of these events.
So, Margaret was invited to be the guest of honor at a banquet that opened the first week of Radio Days. This was arranged so that she could both be honored and get out of town before her sons arrived. But Margaret did not leave town, and she actually stood on the sidewalk during the parade that featured her sons. Despite the fact that Don and Phil stopped the parade so they could get out of the car to greet an elderly woman who had been their teacher in elementary school, they ignored their mother.
For more about Margaret and her mendacity, see Margaret welcomes visitors from Shen.