By Bill Ramsey
Glenn Frey did anything but take it easy.
Beneath the veneer of the laid-back California stoner — an image that could cannily belie Frey’s intuitive musical and business instincts — lurked a Midwesterner’s determination and a Detroit work ethic that propelled his role as both musical craftsman and chief operating officer behind the Eagles, whose mellow rock tinged with an ever-sharper edge distilled an era of excess in deceptively catchy, sun- and marijuana-baked SoCal soul and connected with a generation whose party had been stolen, or in the parlance of the day, whose mellow had been hashed. It was a formula Frey successfully returned to again and again, and with his passing marks the end of a remarkable life and career.
Frey, 67, succumbed to a trio of ailments — rheumatoid arthritis and acute ulcerative colitis compounded by pneumonia — he blamed on the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle he once energetically embraced: “burgers and beer and blow and broads.” Frey genuinely lived the life he and partner Henley observed in the Eagles’ biggest hits, which began with the soft-rock, FM-defining snowball “Take it Easy” but grew increasingly somber and darker alongside the decade they chronicled. Every “Peaceful Easy Feeling” was countered by a “Life in the Fast Lane” in which Frey’s up-all-night, roll-with-the-flow ethos was met by Henley’s hangover-laced “Hotel California” and “Wasted Time.”
If Frey was the McCartney to Henley’s Lennon, the duo found similar success finishing each other’s lyrics that melded the former’s clever, some say calculated, and sly participatory observations with the latter’s wistful, often edgier laments. That formula forged a partnership and birthed a sound that perfectly — perhaps too perfectly, according to the band’s detractors — fermented the frayed edges of first-generation alt-country (Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers) alongside the decidedly softer side of Jackson Browne’s early songs. Less lightning in a bottle than inevitable chemical reaction — both literally and figuratively — the Eagles formed the forefront of the Classic Rock era, and their first four albums spawned the second best-selling album of all time in the United States, Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975). It’s an achievement only topped (and sometimes alternating with) Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
That success was met with a now well-worn summary and not-so-subtle reaction from an increasingly unforgiving rock press. In acknowledging the band’s chart domination, critics frequently cast a cynical eye toward what they viewed as pre-packaged, carefully crafted soft-rock, a sellout to corporate direction hungrily consumed by fans deemed the victims of calculating manipulation. In recent years, a more generous assessment has emerged but a thinly veiled animosity remains, most recently caricatured to hilarious effect in Fred Armisen and Bill Hader’s mock-documentary, Gentle & Soft: The Story of The Blue Jean Committee.
But to slight Frey — and by association Henley and the Eagles — is to underestimate the depth of his musical prowess. If Frey was not a child prodigy or a musical genius on the level of his influences, he was most certainly a natural talent, a rare combination of gifts whose eventual purpose would meet their destiny in a series of fortuitous encounters that logically followed.
Born in Detroit in 1948, Frey took up piano at the tender of age of 5 only to be seduced — like many in his generation — by the siren song of the city’s own brand of rock and soul where Motown met blue-eyed soul in the form of Bob Seger, who would become both a mentor and peer. “He loved Marvin Gaye, he loved Otis Redding. He named his youngest son Otis,” said Seger in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “He loved Al Green, he loved Michael Jackson’s ‘Rock With You.’ He drove me crazy with that record! He was in a country-rock band, but he loved soul music.”
Bonding with Seger in the late 1960s as the latter was forging his own brand of testosterone-fueled Midwestern rock and soul, Frey first joined a brief series of rock bands closely following in the footsteps of such bands as the Byrds, forefathers to today’s alt-country-rock and Americana. But Frey also embraced a more raucous sound, characterized by his association with Seger (he can be heard playing acoustic guitar and singing background vocals on Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin Man,”) in what blossomed into a 50-year friendship and mutual appreciation. “The most important thing that happened to me in Detroit was meeting Bob and getting to know him,” Frey told the Free Press in 2003. “He took me under his wing.”
After Frey decamped Detroit for sunny Southern California in 1970, following his then-girlfriend, an aspiring singer, to Los Angeles, a chain of serendipitous encounters quickly formed the foundation of his career and tapped the fledgling artist’s multiple talents. Frey’s songwriting came into focus after meeting JD Souther (with whom he would form the duo Longbranch Pennywhistle) and while living above Jackson Browne. “He had his piano and guitars down there,” Frey recalled in the liner notes for the Eagles’ compilation album The Very Best of the Eagles. “I didn’t really know how to sit down and work on a song until I heard him playing underneath us in the basement.”
But it was after being introduced to Linda Rondstadt by Souther and meeting Henley at the famed Troubadour that Frey solidified his ambition and vision into what would become the Eagles. After briefly playing behind Ronstadt, Frey and Henley found kindred spirits in guitarist Bernie Leadon and bassist-singer Randy Meisner —a quartet that robbed Ronstadt’s backup band but one the singer would endorse. “When they said they wanted to form a band of their own, I thought, ‘Hot dog! Yes, you should put a band together,’” Ronstadt told the Los Angeles Times. “The first time I heard them sing ‘Witchy Woman,’ I knew they were going to have hits.”
And the hits came — fast, and easy. “Take it Easy,” a song co-written with Browne, became the Eagles first single of their eponymous 1972 debut album and was followed by a string of chart-topping singles and albums that would continue almost unabated until the band’s acrimonious breakup in 1980. Along the way, Frey earned a reputation as both the band’s chief musical architect — a triple threat mix of musical artistry as musician, vocalist and songwriter, and innate business acumen — that simultaneously propelled the group and abetted its unravelling.
“We had it all planned,” Frey famously said. “We’d watched bands like Poco and the [Flying] Burrito Brothers lose their initial momentum. We were determined not to make the same mistakes. This was gonna be our best shot. Everybody had to look good, sing good, play good and write good. We wanted it all. Peer respect. AM and FM success. No 1 singles and albums, great music and a lot of money.”
Frey’s pugnaciousness would alternately serve the band and inflame the tensions within. Those attributes were likely heightened after enlisting agent Irving Azoff and being signed by David Geffen, emerging music industry titans who opened the floodgates for a wealth of signer-songwriter talent that characterized the early 1970s and included artists such as Browne, Ronstadt, and Warren Zevon. Frey’s reputation as a shrewd businessman quickly became apparent. In paying tribute to Frey, Henley noted among his songwriting partner’s defining characteristics was his bullheaded nature, a trait that embellished the band in myriad ways.
A well-documented feud with guitarist Don Felder came to a head in a fist fight after a particularly contentious concert and led to his departure. Leadon and Meisner also left the band. But it was a reconstituted Eagles that also developed the band’s harder-edged sound, fueled by the addition of guitarist Joe Walsh alongside the quieter bassist-singer Timothy B. Schmidt. Reaching a creative zenith with 1976’s Hotel California, the Eagles embarked on a long, lucrative touring streak ending with the band’s breakup album, bookending the decade with 1979’s The Long Run, a record whose title and black cover disguised it’s sadness in an odd mix with such party-rock tracks as “Heartache Tonight” and “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks,” the latter surely ranking among the band’s songwriting low points.
Frey emerged from the fray seemingly unshaken. Diving headlong into a solo musical career that intertwined with his acting pursuits, Frey charted 13 singles that made the Billboard Hot 100 during the 1980s, scoring most notably with “The Heat Is On” (from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack) and “You Belong to the City.” “Smuggler’s Blues” laid a path for Frey’s appearances on Miami Vice. His last solo album, After Hours, was released in 2012.
But it was with the Eagles that Frey was inextricably linked. “We should have taken a two-year break, not a 14-year break,” Frey later said of the long stretch before the band’s early 1990s reunion. When “hell froze over,” a phrase Henley had long been quoted rating the chances of the band’s return, in 1994, a resurgent Eagles flew mightily into a 21-year touring caravan that brought new fortune — and detente — amongst the members. Long-ruling CEO Frey’s previous declaration that once an ex-Eagle no more an Eagle — a mandate broken only by the band’s 1998 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — unwound as time passed, though Felder would again butt heads with Frey (and Henley) in 2001 by suing the band after his dismissal. Creatively, aside from a best-selling live album, the band produced only one more album, 2007’s Long Road Out of Eden.
With Frey’s passing comes the figurative if not literal end to the Eagles’ long career and, perhaps more evocatively, a reappraisal of the band’s influence. Perhaps no modern band has so starkly struck a divide between the lines of commercial success and critical scorn. The band’s tenacity, documented in the recent documentary The History of the Eagles, shed light on both the group’s mercurial success and its famed infighting with revealing acknowledgments from its members, who take ownership for their creative highs and destructive lows. “It’s a classic rock ’n’ roll story,” director Alison Ellwood told Billboard upon its 2013 release. “It’s the Beatles’ story,” he added, referring to a band walking away from the stage at the peak of their powers. “Nobody comes off as a villain. The antagonisms that occurred —all the members talk about it. It was this thing that imploded on itself.”
That history reflects both the band’s reputation as the epicenter of a “head-on collision of rock and commerce,” as author Fred Goodman wrote in his critically acclaimed The Mansion on the Hill, and Frey’s own interpretation. “We thought of the Eagles as the rock and roll Camaro, the best-designed car of the ’70s and ’80s,” Frey told Goodman in a quote recently repeated in the Washington Post.
Frey’s passing marks what may be the end of that particular institution, but also a chip in another — the passing of the Rock Era. And if Frey’s contributions don’t invoke the same level of idolatry as that of, say, David Bowie, it is because both pursued music on their own terms, their individual talents a reflection of the scope and tastes of rock’s diverse audience. What becomes a legend most is not always easily defined or perceived. Or as Frey said, “We realized that rock and roll is a war of attrition. The longer you survive, the more you become an institution.” Based on that definition, Frey and the Eagles have more than earned their wings.