updated 01/07/2014 AT 8:50 AM ET
•originally published 01/07/2014 AT 1:00 PM ET
Before his death Friday at age 74 from complications due to COPD, Phil Everly was recording music, focusing on his family and was humble about the Everly Brothers’ legacy as rock and country legends, his widow and son tell PEOPLE.
Phil had three homes: one close to family in Burbank, one near his roots in Nashville, and a summer beach house in Alabama, says his son, Jason Everly, 47. Phil was “the best harmony singer that’s ever lived,” Jason says, and part of a duo, with brother Don, that laid the foundation of rock music.
Jason says his dad loved sharing stories about touring with Buddy Holly and performing rock ‘n’ roll before the term had been coined. At the time, the brothers didn’t see themselves as trail blazers, he says – they hoped their 1957 debut single, “Bye Bye Love,” would simply make them enough money to buy a new guitar case.
A year later, Phil Everly wrote “When Will I Be Loved,” about Jason’s mom back when she and Phil were dating – arranging it in a sultry, crooning style imitative of Elvis. Jason says his father was impressed when others, including Linda Ronstadt, gave it a more uptempo treatment.
“They were two cool guys that set trends in the ’50s, designing their own suits and trying everything,” says Jason. “That generation – Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley – you can’t give these guys enough due, and unfortunately these guys don’t get their due until their passing.”
‘A Full-Blown Dad’
Phil Everly embraced the styles and family values that defined his generation, spending time with family (Phil had a son from each of his two previous marriages and two granddaughters, and was close with Don’s children, too), recording music on cassettes, driving his ‘49 Cadillac convertible in local parades and falling asleep to classic westerns with John Wayne or Gene Autry, according to Phil’s wife Patti Everly and his son.
Everly barbecued lamb and burgers at family barbecues by the pool, offered food and wine to guests and had to be coaxed to strap on the guitar. “He told people: If your ego’s under control, your life is under control,” Patti Everly says.
Don Everly declined an interview request, but released a statement saying, “I loved my brother very much.” Asked about the brothers’ strained relationship, Patti Everly would only say, “You can have harmony on stage but not always harmony in life.”
In recent years, Phil wrote and recorded songs even after the disease sometimes made it difficult to breathe, Patti says, including a collaboration with Duane Eddy in which Everly wondered what would happen to Patti after he dies. She says it was one of several songs he wrote about her.
“He wrote, ‘You’ll love again after I’m gone,’ which I won’t, but I appreciate him saying that,” says Patti Everly, 57.
She became tearful recalling how Phil entered the hospital a few weeks ago as his condition “took over” and he struggled to breathe on his own. The family opened their Christmas presents in Phil’s hospital room.
“I hope he’s with the angels now, and he can breathe,” she says.