During the release of his last solo album, 2012’s standards collection After Hours, and the debut of the History of the Eagles film, Glenn Frey ruminated on his life’s pursuit.
“The radio was on all the time at my house,” recalled Frey, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak. “We heard all of the songs. One of my earliest memories was sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen and my mother was doing the ironing with the radio on, singing with the Andrews Sisters. So obviously music is special to me.”
Frey — who died on Monday at the age of 67 — was special to music, too. Yes, there were times he could be brusque, hard-nosed, cantankerous, perhaps arrogant, even. It’s hard to forget the famous Eagles story about Frey being ready to rumble with guitarist Don Felder at the end of a benefit for California Senator Alan Cranston in July of 1980. But Eagles co-founder Don Henley aptly caught the many sides of Frey’s personality in his statement following Songwriters Hall of Fame partner’s death; “He was funny, bullheaded, mercurial, generous, deeply talented and driven.”
That drive began back in the Detroit area, where Frey was bitten by the rock ‘n roll bug early. “I heard that stuff and forgot about everything else,” he once recalled. “I knew what I wanted to do. He learned to play piano — classically trained and with taste you can hear in chords for songs such as “Desperado” and “The Last Resort” — and then guitar. Absorbing Detroit’s potent R&B along with rock, Frey became a fixture in the local music scene as a teenager, playing in bands such as the Subterraneans, the Four of Us, the Mushrooms and the Heavy Metal Kids. He sang backup on Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” in 1968 and by then was known as one of the most ambitious kids on the block. “Glenn was driven,” Seger once recalled. “He wanted bigger things. He wanted out of here.”
Frey rambled shortly after “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” heading to Los Angeles where he’d find a unique niche. Meeting and subsequently living in the same apartment building with Jackson Browne and JD Souther — with whom Frey performed as Longbranch Pennywhistle — the fledgling artists blended rock, folk and even country into a unique and decidedly Californian sound, something Frey would further hone after meeting Henley and after the two joined Linda Ronstadt’s band.
“We were putting together the band, and I was living with JD Souther back then and Longbranch Pennywhistle was kind of breaking up, and I thought, ‘Alright, I’ll get Glenn. He can play really good guitar,” Ronstadt remembered. Frey and Henley wound up rooming together, and before long, Ronstadt recalled, “Glenn was saying, ‘I’m gonna do a band with Don. We’re gonna do a band together.’ I said, ‘That’s great,’ she added, laughing at the understatement.
There’s no question Frey brought a lot to the party. He had sharp songwriting chops, a broad sonic sensibility, a voice that could be pure but also incorporate some grit and twang that — when turned loose on leads for “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Already Gone” or “New Kid in Town” — possessed an earthiness that complemented Henley’s more pristine tones. Frey also had a harmonic intuitiveness that made him an ace ensemble singer, and Seger recalled that the other Eagles also nicknamed Frey “the lone arranger; people would bring in a song and Glenn would arrange it.”
And then there was that force of personality, a Detroit kid’s confidence and swagger that put the wind beneath the Eagles’ wings. “Glenn was the one who started it all,” Henley noted in his statement. “He was the spark plug, the man with the plan. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and a work ethic that just wouldn’t quit.” And Seger added, “Make no mistake about it; (Frey) was the leader of the Eagles….and they’ll all tell you that.”
When the Eagles’ split between 1980-94, Henley may have been the solo star but Frey’s own work showed a defining range both in and outside of music. His five solo albums ran a gamut from the ebullient No Fun Aloud to the more subdued The Allnighter, the R&B-laced Soul Searchin‘ and the Great American Songbook of After Hours. Soundtrack hits such as “You Belong to the City” and “Smuggler’s Blues” from “Miami Vice” and “The Heat is On” from Beverly Hills Cop displayed Frey’s ability to frame a cinematic moment, and on screens both big (Jerry Maguire, Let’s Get Harry) and small (Wiseguy, Nash Bridges, Arli$$) — or in fitness center ads, for that matter — Frey demonstrated the authoritative presence a seasoned frontman.
As the History of the Eagles Tour wound down last year, Frey certainly had his eye on the future. Despite his medical issues, he spoke of being “three-quarters finished” with some songs for a solo album of original material. And, according to Henley, Frey was taking the lead role in development an Eagles musical for Broadway. “We’re very fortunate,” Frey said at the time. “We use the Eagles as the mothership and then we go out and do individual stuff, whether it’s acting or environmental work or solo shows, then we come back to the Eagles and it’s fresh again, so we’ve been able to strike a good balance between personal life, personal career and Eagles business.
“It took a long time to get that balance right, but I’m happy we did” — and fortunately in time for him to enjoy it a bit.