Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor Don Everly of the Everly Brothers, who died at age 84 on Saturday (Aug. 21), with a look at the duo’s lone No. 1 single of the Hot 100 era: the heart-piercing breakup classic “Cathy’s Clown.” 

For six decades, Warner Records has been one of the bedrock labels of the music industry, and today (following a rebrand from its longtime Warner Bros. Records name in 2019) remains the home to such star artists past and present as Dua Lipa, Saweetie, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Madonna. But at the beginning of the 1960s, the label was on the precipice of collapse. Having been formed just a few years before — the Warner Bros. film empire was inspired to get into music after realizing they had no claim to their film star Tab Hunter’s burgeoning recording career — the label had built a roster around film soundtracks, novelty artists and movie stars mostly doing spoken word. Hits were scarce, losses were mounting and the label was in desperate need of a true success.

Luckily for Warner, after some restructuring and cost-cutting, they had just enough left to place one more big bet, this time on a rock act with a track record of chart success: The Everly Brothers. The duo, built around the sweet harmonies of brothers Don and Phil Everly, had strung together an impressive run of hits, including such smashes (whose peaks predate the Hot 100) as “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Bye Bye Love” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” before royalty disputes led to them parting ways with their label Cadence Records. The star free agents were snatched up by Warner in 1960, with a contract reportedly worth at least a million dollars — one of, if not the very first, million-dollar deals in label history — and Don and Phil set out to record a single to prove they were worth the investment.

According to Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, the Everly Brothers had tried out eight songs already by the time they started on “Cathy’s Clown,” but didn’t feel any of them were right for their Warner debut. Then, at home in Nashville, Don was struck by inspiration, which he would later explain came from memories of a failed relationship with an old high-school girlfriend (named Catherine Castle Craven Coe). He called Phil to help him finish off the song that would eventually become “Cathy’s Clown,” their first single on Warner. (Though Phil, who died of pulmonary disease in 2014, was a credited co-writer on the song’s original release, Don filed a complaint against his late brother’s heirs in 2017 alleging that he had written the song entirely on his own; earlier this year, a Tennessee federal judge declared him the song’s sole author.)

While “Cathy’s Clown” carries with it many of the hallmarks of the melodic, gentle rock hits that had made the Everly Brothers stars in the late ’50s, three elements set it apart in their catalog: the structure, the rhythm and — even for the Everlys — the harmonies. The structure was unusual in that it led with its chorus, a mighty, heart-walloping refrain that towers over the rest of the song. There are verses, technically speaking, sandwiched in between, but by comparison they’re low-key, hushed and feel somewhat rushed, as if they’re just filler in between chorus hits. (Essentially, that’s what they are: You’d be forgiven if you’d heard “Cathy’s Clown” 100 times and still could only sing along to the refrain.)

And a large part of why the chorus is so much more memorable than the verses is because of their respective rhythms. The song kicks off with an almost martial-sounding clomp, punctuated by the mini-drum rolls (doubled through tape loop) of renowned session musician Buddy Harman — which briefly cuts out at the end of each four-measure phrase, making the song’s sectional transitions even more conspicuous. It’s a jarring choice of beat for a breakup torch song that most artists would play as a traditional ballad — Don claimed in his 2017 suit that he was inspired by the noise of “mules going down the path” from the 1958 Disney short Grand Canyon, which was set to composer Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” — and it makes the two lovelorn singers sound as if they’re marching straight to the firing squad in their misery. For the verses, the rhythm section takes a lighter, jazzier touch, as if offering much-needed respite from the death parade of the song’s chorus.

But the reason “Cathy’s Clown” works at all, let alone as a hit pop song, is because of those harmonies. The intertwining twang of Don and Phil had long been the duo’s calling card, but their first Warner release took it to an entirely new level. The “Cathy’s Clown” chorus begins with Don and Phil singing in unison for the first four unisyllabic words — “Don’t want your loooove…” — before Don’s vocal breaks free on “love,” yo-yo-ing up and down the scale as Phil’s voice soars and sustains above him, before landing in perfect harmony with his brother for the closing “…a-ny-more.” It’s an absolute show-stopper, and it repeats through the various phrases of the chorus (“Don’t want your kiiiiiiisses… that’s for sure…“) to arresting effect each time. Though the rhythm and lyrics (“I die each tiiime… I hear this sound“) are fatalistic, the vocals are so sublime that the song ends up far more devastating than draggy.

The devastation proved irresistible for American audiences of the early ’60s, who made “Cathy’s Clown” the biggest hit of the Everly Brothers’ career. The song zipped to No. 1 in just its sixth week on the Hot 100 (dated May 23, 1960), replacing Elvis Presley’s “Stuck on You,” and stayed there for five weeks total — ending up as the No. 3 single on Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 for 1960 — before giving way to Connie Francis’ “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.” The Everlys thrived on Warner for the following year, landing four additional top 10 hits (“When Will I Be Loved,” “So Sad [To Watch Good Love Go Bad],” “Ebony Eyes” and “Walk Right Back”), before the duo enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in late 1961, stalling their career. They had some success upon returning in 1962, including the No. 9 hit “That’s Old Fashioned (That’s The Way Love Should Be),” but were further slowed by publishing disputes and substance abuse — as well as the incoming British Invasion, which left their sound quickly outmoded — and never threatened the Hot 100’s apex again.

The second wind that the Everlys provided Warner turned out to be all that it needed. Soon after the chart takeover of “Cathy’s Clown,” the label hit pay dirt with one of their comedy acts: Bob Newhart, whose The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart live album became one of the surprise runaway successes of 1960, topping the Billboard 200 for 14 weeks and even winning the 1961 Grammy for album of the year. By 1963, Warner had added comedy phenom Allan Sherman and hitmaking folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary to their roster, and the label even had the juice to purchase music icon Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records on its downslope — resuscitating both label and artist in the process. Thus began the expansion of Warner from just a record label to the conglomerate currently known as Warner Music Group, one of the Big Three record companies currently serving as pillars for the entire music industry.

The legacy of “Cathy’s Clown” goes far beyond Warner, however. The song has been covered by a variety of artists — most notably, country superstar Reba McEntire, who scored a No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in 1989 with her version of the song. (Just the next year, British singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding paid tribute to the song with his “Cathy’s New Clown.”) In 2013, the Everlys’ original was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, for its enduring impact on popular music. That impact has been cited by subsequent hitmaking duos like Simon & Garfunkel, but also by the very band who helped end the Everly Brothers’ stateside pop supremacy: The Beatles, who once toyed with calling themselves “The Foreverly Brothers,” and who patterned the harmonies in U.S. debut single “Please Please Me” after those of “Cathy’s Clown.”

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