Don Henley – circa 1975
“’Relax,’ said the nightman, / ’We are programmed to receive / You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave.’” – ‘Hotel California’ (Don Felder, Don Henley, Glenn Frey)
Quick quiz! Which American State is most closely identified with U.S. country rock band The Eagles? Chances are you correctly answered ‘California’. Question two: Of the seven musicians who, over the years, are officially members of The Eagles, how many of them are born and raised in California? You may have guessed ‘all of them’ or ‘most of them’ or a specific number like ‘five’ or ‘six’…But the correct answer is…’One’. Don Henley is from Gilmer, Texas; Glenn Frey is from Detroit, Michigan; Bernie Leadon is from Minneapolis, Minnesota; Randy Meisner is from Scottsbluff, Nebraska; Don Felder is from Gainesville, Florida; Joe Walsh is born in Wichita, Kansas…only Timothy B. Schmit is from Sacramento, California.
The Eagles are not the inventors of country rock. As the name implies, country rock is a hybrid of (i) country and western music, and (ii) rock ‘n’ roll music. ‘Safe At Home’ (1967) by The International Submarine Band, a combo led by Gram Parsons, perhaps the single most influential figure in the development of country rock, is most likely the first country rock album. Arguably, ‘John Wesley Harding’ (1968) by folk artist Bob Dylan is the first country rock album. Although released a little later, ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ (1968) by The Byrds is another contender for the title. Gram Parsons joins The Byrds after leaving The International Submarine Band. The Flying Burrito Brothers, the outfit Parsons forms after his short stint in The Byrds, includes many musicians who go on to develop country rock in other groups like Poco and Manassas. Important though all these artists and albums may be, it is The Eagles who are the best known country rock band and they come to epitomise the genre.
Don Henley (born 22 July 1947) starts out in Texas with his own band, Shiloh. The group – which includes pedal steel guitarist Al Perkins, later of Manassas – moves to Los Angeles in 1970. They make one self-titled album for Amos Records before breaking up. Henley goes into famed Los Angeles nightspot The Troubadour and complains about Shiloh’s fate. He finds commiseration with another frustrated musician, Glenn Frey (pronounced Fry).
Glenn Frey (6 November 1948-18 January 2016) begins performing in his native Detroit. He backs struggling would-be rock star Bob Seger amongst others. Frey moves to Los Angeles in the summer of 1968. Frey forms a duo, Longbranch Pennywhistle, with John David Souther. Their self-titled debut album is released in 1969 on Amos Records, the same label that issues the album by Don Henley’s group, Shiloh, the next year.
In spring 1971, both Henley and Frey are hired for the backing band of Linda Ronstadt, an emerging country rock singer. The two other founding members of The Eagles, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner, play in Ronstadt’s band during the summer tour, but there is only one gig where Henley, Frey, Leadon and Meisner all appear together, and that is at Disneyland in July. All four of them are amongst the musicians used on the album ‘Linda Ronstadt’ (1972).
Bernie Leadon (born 19 July 1947) arrives in Los Angeles in 1967 as a member of a group called Hearts And Flowers. He then becomes part of the backing group for Dillard And Clark, the short-lived duo formed by Gene Clark (formerly of The Byrds) and Doug Dillard (of The Dillards). From there, Bernie Leadon moves on to the 1970 line-up of The Flying Burrito Brothers, featuring three more former Byrds, Chris Hillman, Michael Clarke and, of course, Gram Parsons. The restless Parsons leaves shortly thereafter and Leadon is not far behind him, moving on to work with Linda Ronstadt.
Randy Meisner (born 8 March 1946) is resident in Los Angeles longer than any of the other original Eagles. With a group called The Soul Survivors, he relocates from his native Nebraska to L.A. in 1964. This combo changes its name to The Poor, which is an unfortunate indicator of its subsequent fortunes. In August 1968, Randy Meisner is one of the original line-up of country rock act Poco. After their first album, Meisner leaves. He next shows up in The Stone Canyon Band, the backing unit for Rick Nelson. As a teenager in the 1950s, Ricky Nelson was a pop star and television idol, but the now more mature star is exploring country rock. It is from here that Meisner is recruited to work with Linda Ronstadt.
Glenn Frey considers a solo career, but David Geffen, the manager of folk rock act Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, urges him to form a group instead. So, while serving time with his friend Don Henley in Linda Ronstadt’s backing group, he is also looking for likely candidates for his own band. The Eagles come together in 1971 with the line-up of: Don Henley (vocals, drums), Glenn Frey (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Bernie Leadon (guitar, banjo, mandolin, vocals) and Randy Meisner (vocals, bass). Though never officially confirmed, it seems likely that the name The Eagles is chosen to indicate they are continuing the country rock direction forged by The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Over the course of the 1970s, the emphasis in The Eagles brand of country rock shifts from mainly country at the start to mainly rock at the end. In the early days, they produce a very laid back sound, using acoustic guitars as often, or more often, than electric guitars. Bernie Leadon also sometimes uses a pedal steel guitar that produces the weeping twang familiar from many country and western records.
One of the distinguishing features of The Eagles is their approach to vocals. Although ‘they wanted to follow The Byrds, Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers on the country rock road’, they also wanted ‘a vocal sound as distinctive as The Beach Boys and The Beatles’. This meant a careful, well-rehearsed use of layered voices. The gruff Don Henley is at the lower end, while the angelic Randy Meisner occupies the higher register. Glenn Frey is flexible enough to fill the space in between as individual songs require, with Bernie Leadon lending minimal support. The lead vocal is usually by either Henley or Frey. The balance between the two is roughly equal. In the earlier period, Frey is probably dominant but, by the late 1970s, the reverse is true, with Henley featured slightly more often as lead vocalist. Because of the band’s name, journalists love to describe The Eagles’ vocals as ‘soaring’. This may have become a cliché, but it remains true.
The Eagles songwriting is normally performed by the team of Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Generally, Henley writes the lyrics and Frey the music.
In putting together The Eagles, Glenn Frey declares, “Everybody had to look good, play good and write good.”
David Geffen tries to secure a recording contract for The Eagles. He winds up starting his own label, Asylum Records, distributed by Warner Brothers. Although The Eagles sound is quintessentially American, their debut album, ‘Eagles’ (1972) (US no. 22), is recorded in England, with Glyn Johns serving as producer. The first single is the manifesto ‘Take It Easy’ (US no. 12), co-written by Frey and fellow new signing to Asylum Records, Jackson Browne. Over thrumming acoustic guitars, Frey sings, “Well, I’m standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona / I’m such a fine sight to see / It’s a girl, my lord! / In a flat-bed Ford / Slowin’ down to take a look at me / Come on, baby / Don’t say maybe / I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me.” In the chorus, the group harmonies draw out “ee-ee-easy” into a keening wail. Don Henley takes the lead for ‘Witchy Woman’ (US no. 9), his hoarse voice spinning a tale of a supernatural sweetie. The biting guitars approximate an Apache tribal dance. This song is co-written by Don Henley and Bernie Leadon. Jack Tempchin, an aspiring L.A. singer / songwriter provides ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ (US no. 22) which is crooned by Glenn Frey as a countrified assurance. The album creates ‘a new template for laid back L.A. country rock’ but ‘behind the band’s mellow message’ is ‘a relentless drive’.
The Eagles return to England and Glyn Johns for the follow-up, ‘Desperado’ (1973) (US no. 41, UK no. 39). The album is loosely built around the idea of Wild West outlaws being equivalent to rock stars. The track ‘Doolin’ Daltons’ recurs as a framing device. Though not released as a single, the title track, sung by Don Henley, becomes one of their best known: “Desperado / Oh, you ain’t getting’ any younger / Your pain and your hunger / They’re drivin’ you home / And freedom / Oh, freedom / Well, that’s just some people talkin’ / Your prison is walkin’ / Through this world all alone.” This piano-based ballad is also covered by their former employer, Linda Ronstadt. Glenn Frey sings the bloodshot ‘Tequila Sunrise’ (US no. 64). The album’s concept and direction originates with Henley and Frey and ‘as they pursue it, the rest of the band members feel less and less like equals’.
During the tour to support ‘Desperado’, The Eagles meet Joe Walsh, the opening act at one of their shows, in early 1974. Joe Walsh (born 20 November 1947) first comes to fame in 1969 as the guitarist in The James Gang, a band from Cleveland, Ohio. Though taking their name from a Wild West band of outlaws, The James Gang are not a country rock outfit like The Eagles; they are a hard rock trio. From 1969 to 1971, Walsh builds up quite a reputation as a guitarist, before leaving The James Gang to go solo. Walsh is a substantial talent in his own right when he meets The Eagles. Although, at this point, they continue on their separate paths, they are fated to meet again.
As before, The Eagles return to England to begin work on their third album. However, this time ‘their desire to make harder rock music clashes with [producer Glyn] Johns’ sense of them as a country rock band, and they split from the producer after recording two tracks’. The Eagles hire Bill Szymczyk, Joe Walsh’s producer, to complete the album. One of the things Szymczyk does is bring in a session guitarist to beef up the group’s sound. This is an old friend of Bernie Leadon, Don Felder (born 21 September 1947). Felder formerly backed folk artist David Blue. He ‘so impresses the rest of the band that he is recruited to join the group’ as the fifth member of The Eagles.
The resultant album is ‘On The Border’ (1974) (US no. 17, UK no. 28). Another Jack Tempchin song, ‘Already Gone’ (US no. 32), showcases the band’s new triple guitar attack in scorching style. Glenn Frey delivers the lead vocals for that song. One of the leftovers from Glyn Johns’ sessions is ‘Best Of My Love’ (US no. 1), co-written by Henley, Frey and J.D. Souther, Frey’s old partner in Longbranch Pennywhistle. Don Henley tackles the lead vocal in a slow and weary rasp: “Every morning I wake up and worry / What’s gonna happen today? / You see it your way and I see it mine / But we both see it slippin’ away.” The song seems to strike a chord with the general public.
Bill Szymczyk remains The Eagles producer through the rest of the 1970s, with ‘One Of These Nights’ (1975) (US no. 1, UK no. 8) being the first full album he oversees. The title track, ‘One Of These Nights’ (US no. 1, UK no. 23), features a new dynamism in the arrangement. Randy Meisner’s bass burbles through the opening, guitar chords hang in the air, and then the band marshals and charges forth. Don Henley gives voice to the idea that “I’ve been searchin’ for the daughter of the devil himself / And I’ve been searchin’ for an angel in white / And I’ve been waitin’ for a woman who’s a little of both / And I can feel her but she’s nowhere in sight.” The Eagles have not entirely abandoned country music. ‘Lyin’ Eyes’ (US no. 2, UK no. 23), sung by Glenn Frey, is one of their finest country-oriented efforts. This is a typical country lament for an unfaithful woman, but there is sympathy, as much as condemnation, for the adulterer: “Late at night / A big old house gets lonely / I guess every form of refuge has its price / And it breaks her heart to think her love is only / Given to a man with hands as cold as ice.” From the lush acoustic guitars of ‘Lyin’ Eyes’, The Eagles swing into a rather creditable pseudo-soul song, ‘Take It To The Limit’ (US no. 4, UK no. 12). Bassist Randy Meisner co-writes this with Henley and Frey and it is his aching, high-pitched voice wringing the heartache out of the song. Glenn Frey sorts through the ashes in ‘After The Thrill Is Gone’.
The thrill seems to have gone for one of The Eagles too. Between Henley and Frey being ‘ever-increasingly in charge’ and an ‘even more concerted shift away from country rock’, Bernie Leadon decides he has had enough. ‘Glenn Frey is sitting at the bar of a hotel the band is staying at when Leadon walks in, picks up a beer, dumps it over Glenn’s head and walks out. He’s quit The Eagles.’
Ten days later, on 20 December 1975, it is announced that Joe Walsh is joining The Eagles. Between The Eagles’ desire to establish their rock credentials and Joe Walsh’s drift towards more mellow material, it is a nice half-way point at which they can meet. During his time with The Eagles, Joe Walsh also continues to function as a solo act, albeit less often.
The Eagles fifth album is ‘Hotel California’ (1976) (US no. 1, UK no. 2, AUS no. 1). ‘Every band has its peak,” observes Don Henley. “That was ours.” Agreed! Like ‘Desperado’, ‘Hotel California’ is a loosely constructed concept album. In this case, the theme is that California, the State with which The Eagles are so closely identified, is a soulless shell, with corruption rotting away just below the surface. The title track, ‘Hotel California’ (US no. 1, UK no. 8), can be interpreted this way. It is ambiguous enough to also be read simply as a ghost story of an edifice “On a dark desert highway” where a traveller enters and sees “In the master’s chambers / They gather for the feast / They stab it with their steely knives / But they just can’t kill the beast.” The meaning of another line gives Don Henley some grief. The traveller meets a young woman and declares “Her mind is Tiffany twisted / She got the Mercedes bends.” Many listeners uncomprehendingly tell Henley he has spelled the name of the motor car incorrectly, it should be Mercedes Benz. They don’t seem to understand that it is a pun, indicating the woman has mentally succumbed to avarice, like a diver surfacing too quickly undergoes a distortion of their medical well-being (i.e. ‘the bends’). Henley and Glenn Frey co-write the song with Don Felder, who supplies the haunting guitar riff around which the song is built. This track is also a good example of Don Henley’s drumming. Under producer Bill Szymczyk, Henley’s wet thump becomes the model for many bands of this era. New boy Joe Walsh suggests the extended finale to the song ‘Hotel California’ where Walsh and Felder engage in a dexterous guitar duel. Glenn Frey sings ‘New Kid In Town’ (US no. 1, UK no. 20), a track he co-writes with Henley and old buddy J.D. Souther. The song has a sweet country lilt. The novelty of a newcomer wears thin by the final verse when electric guitar chords add drama to the gentle acoustics: “Where you been lately? / There’s a new kid in town / Everybody loves him (don’t they?) / And he’s holding her / And you’re still around”. Joe Walsh co-writes ‘Life In The Fast Lane’ (US no. 11) with Henley and Frey. His transformative guitar riff makes this the highlight of The Eagles career. Don Henley gives voice to the tale of a modern day Bonnie and Clyde: “He was a hot-headed man / He was brutally handsome / And she was terminally grey / She held him up and he held her for ransom / In a part of the cold, cold city.” Their adventure reaches an ambiguous conclusion: “They went rushin’ down that freeway / Messed around and got lost / They didn’t care / They were just dyin’ to get off”. The song is intended to be a put-down of L.A.’s high-speed lifestyle, but Henley fumes over it becoming appropriated as a celebration of those same characteristics. The album also makes room for the metallic ‘Victim Of Love’, sung by Henley and written by the quartet of Felder, Souther, Henley and Frey, Joe Walsh’s delicate ‘Pretty Maids All In A Row’ and Randy Meisner’s sky-scraping ‘Try And Love Again’. The album concludes with the piano ballad ‘The Last Resort’, returning to the initial theme, as Henley denigrates how “They put up a bunch of ugly boxes / And, Jesus, people bought ‘em.” In making the album, ‘Don Henley and Glenn Frey’s attention to detail is driving the rest of the group crazy’. It takes eight months to record. “We just locked ourselves in,” Henley recalls. “We had a refrigerator, a ping pong table, roller skates and a couple of cots. We could go in and stay for two or three days at a time.” They are rewarded with an album that eventually sells over ten million copies, becoming one of the all-time best-sellers.
In September 1977 Randy Meisner leaves The Eagles. He is replaced by bassist / vocalist Timothy B. Schmit (born 20 November 1947). The band’s only native Californian, Schmit starts out with The New Breed, a band that metamorphoses into Redwing. More interestingly, when Randy Meisner left Poco to join The Eagles, after Poco guitarist Jim Messina filled in for a few months on bass, it is Timothy Schmit who became Meisner’s full-time replacement in Poco. After seven years with Poco (1970-1977), history repeats and Schmit again takes over from Meisner, this time in The Eagles.
In 1978 The Eagles produce a one-off seasonal single, ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’ (US no. 1, UK no. 40).
Timothy B. Schmit makes his album debut with The Eagles on ‘The Long Run’ (1979) (US no. 1, UK no. 4, AUS no. 1), an aptly named work since it takes a year and a half for the band to complete it (March 1978 – September 1979). This time, there is no discernible trace of country music on the album. In the title track, ‘The Long Run’ (US no. 8, UK no. 66), The Eagles look around and are a little surprised to find themselves last men standing from their peer group. Don Henley sings, “I used to hurry a lot / I used to worry a lot / I used to stay out ‘til the break of day / All that didn’t get it / It was high time I quit it / I just couldn’t carry on that way / Oh, I did some damage, I know it’s true”. Timothy B. Schmidt sings lead vocals on ‘I Can’t Tell You Why’ (US no. 8), a track co-written with Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The same duo teams with J.D Souther and Frey’s former boss, Bob Seger (now a rock star in his own right) for ‘Heartache Tonight’ (US no. 1, UK no. 40). Over a sequence of Henley’s bass drum thumps, recorded in typically laborious fashion, Glenn Frey takes the lead vocal for the party anthem: “Somebody’s gonna hurt someone / Before the night is through / Somebody’s gonna come undone / There’ nothing we can do.” The album concludes with a slow, nostalgic look back at The Troubador, ‘The Sad Café’, In a tribute sung by Henley, that he co-writes with Frey, J.D. Souther and Joe Walsh.
On 21 November 1980, Don Henley is arrested in Los Angeles after ‘paramedics treat a nude 16 year old girl suffering from drug intoxication at his home’. Henley is charged with unlawful possession of marijuana, cocaine and Quaaludes, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
The concert memento, ‘Eagles Live’ (1980) (US no. 6, UK no. 24), spawns an almost a cappella rendition of Steve Young’s ‘Seven Bridges Road’ (US no. 21).
After the end of their 1980 tour, The Eagles are inactive. Eventually, it is officially announced in May 1980 that the band has dissolved. “We were growing apart musically and philosophically and every other way you could imagine,” explains Don Henley.
The Eagles reunite in 1994 for a concert special broadcast by MTV, the cable television channel dedicated to rock music. The concert is released as the album ‘Hell Freezes Over’ (1994) (US no. 1, UK no. 18, AUS no. 23), taking its name in jest from Don Henley’s earlier prediction of when the group would get back together. It includes the new songs ‘Get Over It’ (US no. 31) and ‘Love Will Keep Us Alive’ (US no. 22, UK no. 52).
Although The Eagles do not officially break up again, they are only semi-active.
On 6 February 2001, The Eagles fire Don Felder. He does not take the news well and files a lawsuit against the band. After legal wrangling, an out of court settlement is reached on 8 May 2007.
The four-piece Eagles – Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit – continue to work sporadically. An album of new material is issued as ‘Long Road Out Of Eden’ (2007) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1).
Glenn Frey dies on 18 January 2016 due to complications while recovering from intestinal surgery. He was 67. At the time of his passing, Frey was battling rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia.
The Eagles perform at the fifty-eighth annual Grammy Awards in February 2016. The surviving members are joined for this performance by former Eagle Bernie Leadon, touring guitarist Steuart Smith and the co-author of ‘Take It Easy’, Jackson Browne. On 6 March 2016 Don Henley says that performance was The Eagles’ final farewell and the group is disbanded.
The massive commercial success of The Eagles sometimes overshadows their creative achievements. For many, they are the definitive country rock band. Yet, they also produced rock music, without the country trappings, that was very convincing. Part of their accomplishment was the band’s own attention to quality control in their work. The Eagles were ‘the defining sound of mid-1970s America’, but also had ‘a perennial appeal among generations of music fans’.
- allmusic.com, ‘The Eagles’ by William Ruhlmann as at 2 November 2001
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 73, 84, 85, 116, 167, 184, 225
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 94, 106, 113
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’, ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 42, 67
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 249, 318
- ‘Modern Drummer’ magazine interview with Don Henley circa 1989, reproduced on effingham.net.
- wikipedia.org as at 14 January 2013, 19 January 2016, 3 January 2017
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 139
Song lyrics copyright W.B. Music Corp. / Kicking Bear ASCAP with the exceptions of ‘Hotel California’ (Fingers Music / Cass County Music / Red Cloud Music, ASCAP); ‘Take It Easy’ (W.B. Music Corp., ASCAP); ‘New Kid In Town’ (Ice Age music, ASCAP); ‘Life In The Fast Lane’ (Cass County Music / Red Cloud Music / Wow & Flutter Music, ASCAP); ‘The Last Resort’ and ‘The Long Run’ (Cass County Music / Red Cloud Music, ASCAP); and ‘Heartache Tonight’ (Cass Country Music / Red Cloud Music / Gear Publishing Co. / Ice Age Music, ASCAP))
Last revised 11 January 2017