Sieger on Songs: Phil Everly Singing Solo » Urban Milwaukee
John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Phil Everly Singing Solo

His version of “The Air That I Breathe” may outshine the Hollies.

By - Jan 26th, 2018 04:23 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email

By J.D. Noske (ANEFO) (GaHetNa (Nationaal Archief NL)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Phil Everly (left) By J.D. Noske (ANEFO) (GaHetNa (Nationaal Archief NL)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are no lead harmonies. That’s a hard concept to grasp, especially for great singers. Phil Everly, the high lonesome voice in The Everly Brothers, had a firm grasp on the concept, always keeping any impulse to put his voice in the foreground in check. But he could have been a successful solo artist. In this flat-out superb reading of the well known The Hollies’ hit, “The Air That I Breathe,” he shines with greatness.

It’s established fact that The Hollies, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and most harmony singers breathing in the second half of the 20th century wanted to be The Everly Brothers. Though Phil sang this song first, The Hollies scored the hit with their slightly more brittle sounding version. But Phil was probably OK with that; he was used to being a bit out of the spotlight, having spent his whole career with his more dominant older brother, Don Everly.

Harmony singers do best when you can’t detect even the smallest trace of diva in them. The idea of playing and singing with others is to get to that spot where the sum is greater than the parts. That spot really does exist and when you find it the result is two voices (or more) that sound like one. That’s when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and testify.

Given his background, it’s especially satisfying to hear Phil Everly ace the test as he makes the difficult transition from backup to lead. The fact that he does doesn’t surprise me; he has the same voice as his brother. And this recording is every bit as moving as any of the Everly’s classic hits.

The label on the single is worth reading — it tells quite a tale. Starting with the writers, two names I found intriguing. Albert Hammond, a Brit who had a hit with “It Never Rains In California,” a song almost no one would call essential. He was prolific and hard to pin down, writing in a lot of different styles. With co-writer Mike Hazelwood (At first I thought we were dealing with the legendary Lee Hazelwood) he had titles like “Gimme Dat Ding” and “Little Arrows.” novelties both, and again, disposable. You wouldn’t have anticipated anything like the song we’re listening to here.

More prominently displayed, just under Phil’s name is this credit: “Arranged by Warren Zevon.” This dazzling bit of trivia is easy to explain: in the early 70’s Zevon was the piano player for Phil and Don. When they had their famously acrimonious on-stage split, he continued on with Phil, eventually working on two albums with him.

If we can squeeze one more legend in here, make room for the master of the twangy guitar, none other than Duane Eddy. Famously a member of both the Rock and Roll and Country Music Hall of Fame, Eddy made his name in the late fifties on instrumentals like “Rebel Rouser,” but he obviously knew a good voice when he heard it.

The Lyrics

If I could make a wish
I think I’d pass
Can’t think of anything I need
No cigarettes, no sleep, no light, no sound
Nothing to eat, no books to read
Making love with you
Has left me peaceful warm and tired
What more could I ask
There’s nothing left to be desired
Peace came upon me and it leaves me weak
So sleep, silent angel go to sleep

Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe
And to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe
Yes to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe
Peace came upon me and it leaves me weak
So sleep, silent angel go to sleep

Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe
And to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe
Yes to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe

Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe
And to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe
Yes to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe
And to love you
All I need is the air that I breathe
Yes to love you

© Albert Hammond/Mike Hazelwood

The structure is interesting in a sort of Roy Orbison-ish way. After a long verse and pre-chorus, it’s the grand sweeping chorus stated and restated till the end. No need to elaborate or circle back to the beginning, because this is the heart of the song. The writers must have heard cash registers ringing when they came up with it. The nice descending chords that follow each chorus give you a little time to contemplate the words. Then, like the next wave a surfer catches, you get to ride another one to the shore. It’s symphonic and it’s satisfying.

So what, other than the once-in-a-lifetime voices of Phil and his brother, brought all this talent together to create this pop epic? Nothing, because that was all that was needed to get everybody there. It’s a tribute to them and their great work together that, when Phil was ready to step into the spotlight, other stars were clamoring to aim it.

3 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Phil Everly Singing Solo”

  1. Dale Pautzke says:

    John, you are amazing. Thank you for bringing your creative offering to us mere mortals.

  2. Robert Blondis says:

    After they famously broke up while on stage, Phil & Don both had solo careers until they reunited in 1984. One of Don’s best efforts during this period was “Brother Juke Box.” I agree that Phil nailed it with “The Air That I Breathe” but I think his best was a song called “Words In Your Eyes.” I guarantee that a close listen with a good sound system will bring a tear to your eyes. The brothers each had three or four albums released during their split. I bought all of them as “cut outs” at Dirty Jack’s in Prospect Mall. Their voices sounded great, but the material was uneven in quality. During this period, Phil also sang back up in the studios of a number of Southern California musicians, such as Warren Zevon. Now both Phil and Warren are gone. I hope that they are somewhere, singing great harmonies together.

  3. Dean Calin says:

    I’ve only heard the Hollies version, but now I want to seek out this Everly rendition. What fascinating back story information! And Albert Hammond’s song was not as forgettable as you make it sound, although it might be best to not pay too much attention to the lyrics …

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us