To hear longtime Eagles manager Irving Azoff tell it, Glenn Frey, who died at age 67 on Jan. 18 of complications from rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia, was the ”quarterback” of the most successful American rock band of all time. That’s no small feat in a group led by two prodigiously self-confident and exquisitely talented alpha males. If Texan-born drummer Don Henley was the somewhat subtler presence within the band — and blessed with the creamy tenor that was the Eagles’ signature sound — it was Frey who took charge of the act’s career, he who set its rehearsal times and planned its set lists.
But it was also Frey who embodied the cocaine-cowboy swagger of 1970s Los Angeles, who sang the lead vocal on “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Already Gone,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “New Kid in Town” and “Heartache Tonight.” Frey was a proper rock star, an ersatz outlaw with lissome blondes hanging off both arms. It was he who took his friend Jackson Browne‘s song “Take It Easy” and turned it into a footloose anthem of post-hippie hedonism. “Lighten up while you still can,” he breezily counseled. “Don’t even try to understand.” It was Frey who drove the band from being longhaired wastrels at Los Angeles’ fabled Troubadour club to selling out vast stadiums — who took the garage-band grit of his native Detroit and injected it into the balmy milieu of laid-back L.A., pushing the Eagles to slough off their country-rock constrictions and eventually lay claim to the second-best-selling album of all time (Greatest Hits 1971-1975).
For a generation (or two) of American youth, the Eagles became the prism through which the old golden dream of Southern California was newly perceived. Just as Frey himself had pined for the Pacific Ocean and the Sunset Strip as he grooved to Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield records back in the grimy Motor City, so now millions of teenagers fantasized about the sun-kissed bliss of Los Angeles as they swayed in their denim flares to “One of These Nights,” “Best of My Love” and the ubiquitous meta-statement that was “Hotel California.”
So why did Frey and Henley succeed where their stylistic forebears (Poco, Gram Parsons) did not? Because it never occurred to those acts that West Coast country rock could be fortified and marketed to Middle America as efficiently as any boy band, and because Frey and Henley knew that pop success depended on what they termed “song power” — that the top 40 devil was in the micro-details of their smartly crafted compositions. “We bust our ass to make records,” Frey told interviewer Tom Nolan in 1975. “We agonize over the lyric. We analyze every ‘and’ and ‘the’ and ‘but.’ “
As obsessively as any of the great Brill Building duos, these two slightly odd bedfellows — with input from Browne, Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, Joe Walsh, Jack Tempchin and JD Souther (Frey’s old partner in pre-Eagles duo Longbranch/Pennywhistle) — relentlessly strove for pop perfection as they fine-tuned their chugging rockers and limpid ballads and polished their pristine canyon harmonies.
And if all that perfection struck some country-rock purists and punk-besotted critics as soulless and sterile, what did Frey and Henley care? They were living on a hilltop in Bel Air in a house that had belonged to Hollywood goddess Dorothy Lamour … at least until their cocaine consumption got out of hand and they began to drive each other crazy. In 1980, after the interminable gestation of The Long Run, the Eagles called it a day.
If Henley offered a superior post-Eagles solo résumé, Frey never grouched about it. He quit drugs, did some glossy acting and in later years seemed an altogether more contented soul. When the Eagles reunited and toured — and toured — he took his responsibilities seriously and was always in good voice. And the arenas were filled with teary-eyed baby boomers who sang along to every word.
“They were made to sell a million records,” said Elliot Roberts, who once co-managed the group with new-mogul-on-the-block David Geffen. “They wrote to be huge.” — Barney Hoskyns
Barney Hoskyns is the editorial director of Rock’s Backpages and author of Hotel California: The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles and Their Many Friends.
‘Big Balls and a Heart Full of Love’
A lot has been and will be written about my first songwriting partner and best friend in Los Angeles. His charisma, musical genius, discipline and relentless hustle were absolutely genuine. Glenn Frey believed in himself, his partners and the power of good music. I’ve never known anyone like him. He made my life more fun, more trouble and harder work than it had ever been before. I love him. Here is a story you haven’t heard.
When Glenn and I were partners in a duo called Longbranch/Pennywhistle in 1969 and 1970, we played free gigs in the park, open-mic gigs at folk clubs, political rallies, an afternoon show at a Catholic girls high school (don’t ask) and pass-the-hat gigs at even smaller folk clubs. In other words, we played everywhere for free. But we played our music. Our music.
The very first taste of what we used to call the “million-dollar future” was an arena show at the University of California, San Diego, opening for Cheech & Chong and Buffy Sainte-Marie. I have no idea how we got on that peculiar bill, but such were the times. Strange things were happening. Legendary producer-manager Lou Adler, who managed Cheech & Chong, flew us all down to San Diego in his Lear jet. It took 25 minutes. This was a trip that took two-and-a-half hours in my ailing Sunbeam Alpine, a beaten red roadster with no heater, to play for free at The Candy Company, where our pal Jack Tempchin ran an open-mic night. Not tonight!
On this auspicious occasion, we would be playing to thousands of people for the first time yet made the unusual decision to avail ourselves of a psychotropic substance about an hour prior to stage time (again … just don’t ask). While the hallucinogen was beginning to round the edges in the locker room before the show, I started a new song with which to open our set. Glenn started strumming along, harmonizing the choruses, adding a great guitar figure, and just as we had the thing only slightly more under control than ourselves, Lou stuck his head in and said, “Guys, you’re on.” Really? We just stood there, guitars strapped on, each with a foot on a bench in our ragged Levi’s and boots, staring numbly and wondering if we had gone too far. Then we both burst out laughing, and Glenn said. “OK, John David. Let’s go for it!”
?So two best friends who lived in a run-down box in Echo Park stepped out into the big time for the first time. Before the largest audience either of us had seen, I stomped my right foot, Glenn flipped his hair, and we opened our set, high as the sky, with a song that hadn’t existed an hour before. You need a real partner with big balls and a heart full of love to try that. We nailed it.
That’s Glenn Frey. — JD Souther
Singer-songwriter JD Souther co-wrote some of the Eagles’ most beloved hits, including “Best of My Love,” “Heartache Tonight” and “New Kid in Town.” He has a recurring role as country legend Watty White on ABC TV’s Nashville.
‘Glenn Had This All Laid Out’
Back in 1973, the Eagles were interviewing producers to do their On the Border album. I was somewhat hesitant when both Joe Walsh and Irving Azoff said to me, “You’ve got to talk to the Eagles.” I didn’t want to make country records; I wanted to make rock albums. They said, “Well, they want to rock!”
Don Henley and Glenn Frey had a few specific questions for me when we met. Henley asked how many mics would I put on his drums. Their earlier producer, Glyn Johns, would only put like two or three, where I would put up to eight or nine — so of course Henley was happy with that answer. Glenn wanted to know how long he could take on his guitar solos. I said, “As long as it takes.” “Already Gone” was the very first track that I ever worked on with the band — day one, track one. We ended up spending a good eight hours on all his lead parts. In the liner notes for The Very Best of the Eagles, Glenn paid me one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. He told Cameron Crowe that he “was much more comfortable in the studio with Bill, and he was more than willing to let everyone stretch a bit. ‘Already Gone’ — that’s me being happier; that’s me being free.”
When I came in to do On the Border, the Eagles were just starting to scratch the surface of what they could be. At some point, people thought Henley was the R&B guy and Glenn was the country guy. They got that backward. Even though Henley really appreciated R&B, he wasn’t anywhere near as immersed in it as Glenn and I were. When they later made solo records, Henley made Cass County, whereas Glenn would do R&B. He and I were both from Michigan originally, and we were both complete R&B junkies, into all those great soul singers, from Otis Redding and Sam & Dave to all the Willie Mitchell records, things like that. He came out of that soul thing, but at the same time, he was in a country-rock band. It was the combination of those two things that was so distinctive in Glenn’s voice.
One of Glenn’s nicknames was Roach, and my nickname was Coach. I would take a bunch of great, obscure R&B singles and put them on a cassette, and I’d say, “You’ve got to listen to these” — things that I knew that he hadn’t heard. And he’d turn right around and send one to me. So we had these Coach-to-Roach and Roach-to-Coach cassettes going back and forth. That was our little club.
Glenn was the MC of the Eagles’ shows, that’s for sure. He was The Guy. I think Henley said it best in his statement: “He was the spark plug, the man with the plan.” And that was true. I mean, Glenn had this all basically laid out, and to some degree, all of us were like, ‘OK, we’re along for the ride — let’s go.’ ” — Bill Szymczyk
Beginning with 1974’s On the Border, Bill Szymczyk produced or co-produced every Eagles studio album.
These tributes originally appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of Billboard.