Glenn Frey: The Passing of a Rock & Roll Legend

Glenn Frey of the band Eagles

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Glenn Frey: The Passing of a Rock & Roll Legend

| published January 19, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The infectious and irresistible songs that he and his colleagues wrote and performed were among some of the most memorable in rock and roll history.

Indeed, a collection of the best of those songs, released on vinyl in 1976 on Asylum records, became the biggest selling record of the 20th century.

Glenn Frey—founding member of The Eagles—passed away from complications of pneumonia and colitis this week at the age of 67. Frey’s health had been deteriorating for months, and he had been hospitalized with a variety of serious problems weeks ago, including a bleeding ulcer for which he had received surgery.

Frey suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, first diagnosed more than 15 years ago. He was known to take a heavy cocktail of prescription medications to cope with the condition. Longtime Eagles manager Irving Azoff told reporters that Frey likely died from the extreme complications caused by the anti-inflammatory meds and pain pills necessary to treat the arthritis.

Glenn Frey’s loss will weigh heavily on fans of popular music.

In late 1969 and early 1970, Frey teamed up with drummer and singer Don Henley to found The Eagles, a band that would go on to sell tens of millions of records, fill football stadiums and concert halls for decades, and top the charts with some of the most famous songs in rock and roll history.

Among the classics Frey either penned or sang (or both): “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Tequila Sunrise,” and “Hotel California.”

The Eagles first album—titled simply The Eagles—is widely regarded as one of the best debut albums in rock music history. It included the soft balled “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” and the atmospheric, moody “Witchy Woman.” That debut record also contained the song “Take it Easy,” arguably one of the most popular rock and rolls songs ever recorded, and one of the ten most frequently played songs on U.S. radio stations. Frey penned the simple but infectious song with Jackson Browne.
Eagles Greatest Hits
The band is also notable for their February 1976 album, Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, which surpassed all other record sales in the 20th century, eventually topping even the biggest selling albums of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, Madonna, and U2. By the end of December 31, 1999, its place in history secure, Greatest Hits had sold more 42.2 million copies worldwide. Greatest Hits still sells in hearty numbers to this day, and is expected to cross the 60 million sold mark sometime before the end of 2017.

Why such robust sales for a simple album with 10 simple songs? Most music historians and rock music critics suggest it was the simplicity and directness of songs that managed—at a time when much of rock music was entering into a stage of baroque complexity, experimentation and sophistication (not to mention “heaviness”), much of it driven by the Beatles and other innovators—those ten songs harkened to an older, more basic principal of rock and roll: songs that spoke directly from the heart and from the soul. As a result, by the time the album was released in 1976, all ten songs were burned into the consciousness of rock music listeners of every stripe and style.

But the album had another consequence. By the time of the band’s first nasty and very public break-up in the early 1980s, a whole generation of rock and roll radio listeners had moved into a new decade and a new phase of their life. Music was changing—in fact exploding—in diversity and style and sub-genre; British punk, American punk, New Wave, funk, post-disco dance, heavy metal. But people of a certain age still wanted to hear those classic tunes from the late 1960s and the 1970s. Thus was the airwave phenomenon of “classic rock,” a radio niche which appealed to people still interested in listening to the sounds of Eric Clapton, Bad Company, Boston, Electric Light Orchestra, Led Zeppelin, the Stones and the Who, and most especially the Eagles—whose songs quickly found themselves a staple of classic rock. Driven by a desire to hear those ten songs, among the catchiest and most infectious of the classic rock form, still more people bought that Greatest Hits album.

Among the tunes was a song called “Take it Easy,” co-written by Frey and one of the band’s early occasional collaborators, Jackson Browne. Browne had dabbled with the tune and the lyrics for weeks during the same period that the Eagles were in the studio attempting to wrestle with their first album. But he was stuck. He had written the words “I was standin’ on a corner / in Winslow, Arizona / such a fine sight to see…,” but found himself stumped as to what direction to progress. Handing the song over to Frey, the leader of the newly formed Eagles added the phrase, “it’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford / slowin’ down to take a look at me.”

Attend any Eagles concert and you’ll see that when the band arrives at that point in the song Frey and the others literally step back from the microphones and let the audiences complete the vocals. In the rock and roll dictionary under “iconic songs” there are maybe ten tunes that genuinely deserve the oft overused title. “Take it Easy” is bound to be on that list. An inescapable fact made all the more interesting historically, for the song may also be the most famous fusion of country music and rock ever recorded, and the flagship song of an entire movement in musical style, loosely called the Southern California Sound.

Frey and Henley got their start in remarkable different places on the map: Henley grew up in small town Texas and was keen on country music; Frey was from Detroit, and an avid hard rocker. Each had formed their own bands, and each had migrated to Los Angeles to be closer to the recording scenes. Neither band was destined for great things. But their chance meeting in the LA nightclub The Troubadour led to a close friendship, and eventually they found work as backup musicians for Linda Ronstadt. Their first gig, alongside guitarists Bernie Leadon (once a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers) and Randy Meisner (who had recorded with Ricky Nelson), was with Ronstadt at an outdoor July 4 performance at…umm…Disneyland.

Suitably impressed, Ronstadt and her manager decided to keep the musical entourage. Over time, they got a lot better, and soon the four found not merely cohesion on stage and in the studio, but they also discovered that they had the shared goal of one day creating their own band. In one of those famous stories of cooperation and goodwill that rarely seem to happen these days, Ronstadt gave the fellows her complete blessing minutes after they approached her and asked to be allowed to form a band. They were expecting a legal fight and a managerial row, but instead, Ronstadt said she would support them in any way—up to and including helping them get signed and produced.

Signed to the newly created Asylum Records, helmed by David Geffen, the band left LA and flew (ironically) to London to record with the legendary Glyn Johns, who had worked with Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. Johns was confused at first by the quirky fusion of folk, country, bluegrass and rock, and admits even now that he did not have much expectation from the band. On one occasion, when Henley explained that he wanted a crisper and meatier drum sound in the mix of a song which included subtle layers of acoustic guitar, banjo and slide guitar, Johns suggested that Henley “hit the drums harder.” Still, the band managed to cobble together their songs, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Frey and Henley formed the backbone and creative power of a band that would see shifting personnel over time, including the addition in 1974 of Don Felder on guitar, and the early departure of Randy Meisner due to differences with the band and the sometimes mercurial Frey. Still later, guitar prodigy Joe Walsh was added. The band’s chemistry—often caustic and prone to disagreements—was offset by the power not only of the remarkable compositions, but also by the undeniable beauty of the vocal harmonies. All members of the band sang on many of the songs, but certain songs brought into the mix the layering of four or five voices at once—producing a sweet brew of chords and vocals and textures not found in any other rock band. It was a voice print unique to the Eagles.

Add to that the proficiencies of each member (Bernie Leadon was about as skilled on the banjo as anyone else working in LA at the time; Don Felder was nicknamed “Fingers” by other LA studio musicians for his agility on slide guitar), and it is easy to see why the Eagles became the first American “supergroup,” and a band with a deep reach into the country charts as well.

The team of Glenn Frey and Don Henley would eventually become one of the most successful songwriting partnerships of rock and roll, arguably second only to the John Lennon-Paul McCartney collaborations.
Eagles Hotel California
By the time Hotel California was released in 1977, the band had found the sweet spot with audiences worldwide. The title track, which featured Don Henley on lead vocals, became one of the band’s signature songs, and Don Felder’s illusive and mysterious quasi-Spanish guitar riffs make it one of the most seductive songs ever recorded. For fun, Frey suggested in the studio that Walsh and Felder turn the overlapping guitar layers into a sort of battle-of-the-guitars—an extended instrumental interlude which drives home the song’s dreamlike atmospherics. Once recorded and mixed, the song ran six minutes and 30 seconds—too long, said the records execs. Frey and Henley told the suits take it or leave it. As a testament to the band’s strength at that time, the execs backed down, and Hotel California was released as a single with no cuts.

The band’s infamous breakup in the summer of 1980—after feuding between Frey and Felder reached the boiling point before and during a Long Beach, California show benefitting then-Senator Alan Cranston—was followed in the 1990s by an equally famous reunion, which spurred more recordings, and a series of mega-tours in scores of countries.

Frey was not merely a musician and songwriter, he was also an actor of better-than-expected caliber. Starting with a couple of guest roles on the popular TV series Miami Vice in the 1980s, Frey would eventually appear in a dozen movies and television shows. He appeared opposite Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire.

According to those who had worked with the band in the last couple of years, Frey’s arthritis had begun to take a heavy toll on his ability to work without pain or complications. According to Azoff, some days Frey would be experiencing extreme pain in his knees, on other days in his hands or fingers—making guitar or keyboard work difficult, and making touring and performing close to impossible.

Henley released this statement to the press:

“He was like a brother to me; we were family, and like most families, there was some dysfunction. But, the bond we forged 45 years ago was never broken, even during the 14 years that the Eagles were dissolved.”

Frey becomes the third well-known musician to die within the last few weeks. Last week, David Bowie passed away after a long battle with liver cancer, and only one week before that, Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister died from brain and neck cancer at the age of 70.

Related Thursday Review articles:

David Bowie: The Life of an Audacious Innovator; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 19, 2016.

Alan Rickman Dies at Age 69; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 14, 2016.