Wake Up, Little Susie

When I first heard the Everly Brothers, I didn’t know what to make of them. They didn’t sound exactly like doo-wop, or like country, or like rock ‘n’ roll. In retrospect, I see them in the long tradition of country brother duets, following the Delmore Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, the 2-3 Everly BrothersLouvin Brothers — but I’m still struck by the uniqueness of their sound. The Delmores and Monroes had plenty of blues and drive in their music, but there was something different about the Everlys. Part of it was certainly their guitar playing, with its terrific simplicity and rhythmic power. And part of it, for me at least, was the attitude: they weren’t singing about country concerns, they were singing about teen concerns, and they were clever and funny.

Most of the credit for the clever and funny part has to go to Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote all their early hits, including “Bye, Bye Love,” “All I Have to do Is Dream,” “Bird Dog,” “Poor Jenny” (not much of  a hit, but I’ll be putting it up tomorrow), and “Wake Up, Little Susie.” The Bryants are a pretty great story themselves — he was a classical violinist who played briefly in the Atlanta Philharmonic before switching to country music in the late 1930s, then in 1945 he was touring through Milwaukee, got on an elevator, fell in love with the elevator operator, Matilda Scaduto, whom he renamed Felice, and they moved into a mobile home and started writing songs. They had a tough felice_boudleaux_bryanttime for a few years, but by the end of the decade they were getting some country hits, and in 1957 they took off when the Everlys cut a song that had been turned down by some thirty country artists, called “Bye, Bye Love.”

The Bryants recognized the brothers’ potential and began writing songs tailored to their tastes and image — Don Everly recalled, “Their stuff fit us like a glove, because it was designed to fit. Boudleaux would sit down and talk with us. A lot of his songs were written because he was getting inside our heads—trying to find out where we were going, what we wanted, what words were right.”

I don’t remember when or where I first heard this one — it may have been when I was getting into the rock ‘n’ roll oldies I’ve discussed in earlier posts, but probably came later, since I don’t remember singing it with my sister and our doo-wop pals. It’s a different kind of song, wittier and more rocking, and is probably my favorite Everly Brothers track. The trick, it seems to me, is that it is an utterly teenage experience, viewed from outside, with a degree of mockery — but the mockery also feels teenage. Like, the brothers are singing about something dumb they did, and how dumb they felt, and laughing ruefully at themselves, while also winking to their listeners about going to the movies and making out.

I sang this a lot on the street that summer after I’d been studying in New York, and there was something about it that felt liberating after all the ragtime and blues — it was high-energy fun, and I was a teenager, cutting loose and setting off on my own, and the spirit was upon me.