No other band did as much to translate the explosively creative, politicized rock of the 1960s into the massively popular, de-politicized rock of the 1970s as the Eagles. Specializing in broadly appealing, masterfully crafted tunes, the southern California band has sold more than 100 million albums. The 1976 compilation, Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, was the first album ever certified platinum and has sold 29 million copies in the U.S., second only to Michael Jackson's Thriller on the all-time list.
The Eagles' songs merge country-tinged vocal harmonies with hard-rock guitars and lyrics that are alternately yearning ("One of These Nights," "Best of My Love") and romantically jaded ("Life in the Fast Lane," "Hotel California"). The band released an album every year from 1972 to 1976, with increasingly better sales, culminating in 1976's Hotel California, which has sold 16 million copies. After releasing one more album, 1979's In the Long Run (which sold "only" eight million copies), the band broke up in 1980.
Subsequently, each of the members pursued solo careers, with Henley's the most commercially and critically successful. The band reunited for a tour in 1994 and followed it with an album, Hell Freezes Over, which has sold over 10 million copies. They continued to tour throughout the 1990s and 2000s, perennially ranking among the country's most successful tours. They returned to the studio once again in 2007, with Long Road out of Eden, which was sold exclusively at Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and Eagles.com for its first year of release and has sold 7 million copies so far.
The group originally sprouted from L.A.'s country-rock scene. The four original Eagles—Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Bernie Meisner, and Bernie Leadon—were already experienced professionals when they were assembled as Linda Ronstadt's backup band. Leadon had played in the Dillard and Clark Expedition and the Flying Burrito Brothers; Meisner, with Poco and Rick Nelson's Stone Canyon Band; Frey had played with various Detroit rock bands (including Bob Seger's) and Longbranch Pennywhistle (with J.D. Souther, a sometime songwriting partner); and Henley had been with a transplanted Texas group, Shiloh. After working with Ronstadt, Henley and Frey decided to form the Eagles, recruiting Leadon and Meisner.
Intending to take the country rock of the Byrds and Burritos a step further toward hard rock, the Eagles recorded their eponymous debut album with producer Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, the Who) in England. "Take It Easy" (Number 12, 1972), written by Frey and Jackson Browne, went gold shortly after its release, as did the album. (Another single, "Witchy Woman," reached Number Nine that year.) Desperado was a concept album with enough of a plot line to encourage rumors of a forthcoing movie. The LP yielded no major pop hits, but its title track, a ballad penned by Henley and Frey, has become a classic rock standard, covered by Linda Ronstadt, among others.
With On the Border, the Eagles changed producers, bringing in Bill Szymczyk (who worked on all subsequent albums through 1982's Greatest Hits Vol. 2) and adding guitarist Don Felder, who went to high school with Leadon in Gainesville, Florida (and once gave guitar lessons to another Gainesville High School classmate, Tom Petty).
The increased emphasis on rock attracted more listeners—mid-1970s hits included "Best of My Love" (Number One, 1975), "One of These Nights" (Number One, 1975), "Lyin' Eyes" (Number Two, 1975), and "Take It to the Limit" (Number Four, 1975)—but alienated Leadon. After One of These Nights, Leadon left the band to form the Bernie Leadon-Michael Georgiades Band, which released Natural Progressions in 1977. (Leadon went on to become a Nashville session musician, and in the 1990s formed Run-C&W, a jokester group who played a blend of country and R&B.)
Leadon was replaced by Joe Walsh, who had established himself with the James Gang and on his own. His Eagles debut, Hotel California, was their third consecutive Number One album (the second was their record-breaking 1976 greatest-hits compilation). "New Kid in Town" (Number One, 1976), the title cut (Number One, 1977), and "Life in the Fast Lane" (#11, 1977) spurred sales of more than 16 million copies worldwide.
Meisner left in 1977, replaced by Timothy Schmit, who had similarly replaced him in Poco. Meisner has released the solo albums Randy Meisner (1978) and One More Song (1980), and Randy Meisner (1982)—yes, again. (In 1981, he toured with the Silveradoes; later, in 1990, Meisner reemerged in a group called Black Tie, alongside Billy Swan and Bread's James Griffin.) Henley and Frey sang backup on One More Song, and in the late 1970s they also appeared on album by Bob Seger and Randy Newman. In 1981 Henley duetted with Stevie Nicks on the Number Six single "Leather and Lace."
Between outside projects and legal entanglements, it took the Eagles three years and $1 million to make the multi-platinum LP The Long Run. The album included the hit singles "Heartache Tonight" (Number One, 1979), "The Long Run" (Number Eight, 1980), and "I Can't Tell You Why" (Number One, 1980).
Walsh release solo albums throughout his tenure with Eagles and after, though his biggest hit to date has been 1978's cheeky "Life's Been Good" (Number 12). Felder and Schmit also put out their own albums and contributed songs to film soundtracks. Schmit's second LP, Timothy B, included "Boys Night Out" (Number 25, 1987).
The band's stew of strong personalities finally boiled over in 1980, notably at a show in Long Beach, California that has since been dubbed "Long Day at Wrong Beach," during which band members threatened each other with beatings backstage. In November, 1980, the band released Eagles Live, fulfilled fulfill their contract wit Elektra, though band members shared mixes and made decisions via Federal Express from opposite coasts. The album's liner notes read, "Thank you and goodnight." With that, the Eagles were finished.
In 1982 Henley and Frey both embarked on solo careers. Frey charted with "The One You Love" (Number 15, 1982) and "Sexy Girl" (Number 20, 1984) before a movie proved his ticket into the Top Ten: "The Heat Is On," featured in Beverly Hills Cop, shot to Number Two in 1985. Frey followed this success by becoming an actor, making a guest appearance as a drug dealer on the popular TV series Miami Vice. The episode was based on a track from his album The Allnighter, "Smuggler's Blues," which consequently reached Number 12 (1985). Later in 1985, Frey's "You Belong to the City" hit Number Two. While still dabbling in acting with roles in the short-lived TV series South of Sunset, the movie Jerry Maguire, and a guest spot on Don Johnson's post–Miami Vice series Nash Bridges in the 1990s, Frey also co-founded a music label, Mission Records, in 1997.
Ultimately, though, Henley was the ex-Eagle who had the most success as a solo artist. His "Dirty Laundry" (from his first solo effort, I Can't Stand Still) made it to Number Three, but the 1985 album Building the Perfect Beast marked his true arrival as solo hit maker. The kickoff single, "The Boys of Summer," went to Number Five—supported by an evocative black-and-white video that fast became an MTV staple—and earned Henley a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance. The hits "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" (Number Nine, 1985) and "Sunset Grill" (Number 22, 1985) followed. The title track of his third album, The End of the Innocence (1989), went to Number Eight (1989), while subsequent singles "The Last Worthless Evening" and "The Heart of the Matter," both hit Number 21. The LP won Henley another Grammy, in the same category as before.
In the early 1990s, Henley sought release from his Geffen Records contract, initiating a long and bitter legal dispute. After participating in the release of a solo best-of album in 1995, Henley was freed from his contract. Five years later, he released a solo album of all-new material, Inside Job (co-produced by former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch), and embarked on a solo tour to support it. Henley married for the first time in May 1995 and had three children before releasing Inside Job. This life-altering change for the longtime bachelor resulted in a new theme in his songwriting; several Inside Job tracks were clearly about marriage and family, including the gentle ballad "Taking You Home" (Number 58 pop, Number One Adult Contemporary, 2000). Much of the rest of the album, however, still explored Henley's cynicism toward the business world and the media.
In 1990, Henley founded the Walden Woods Project, dedicated to preserving historic lands around Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts (where Henry David Thoreau and others reflected and wrote), from corporate development. The singer has held charity concerts with other top rock artists and donating proceeds from some of his own recordings—including a reggae version of the Guys and Dolls standard "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat" (1993)—to benefit the group. And in 1993, Henley co-ordinated Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles, featuring Clint Black, Trisha Yearwood, Travis Tritt, and others, which benefited Walden Woods.
In 1994, after years of fending off reunion rumors, Henley, Frey, Walsh, Felder, and Schmit —who had appeared together in the video for Tritt's version of "Take It Easy"— hit the road for a massively successful concert tour. The tour went on hiatus toward the end of 1994, due to Frey's gastrointestinal surgery, but it continued in 1995. In November 1994, the band released Hell Freezes Over, which featured four new songs, including the singles "Get Over It" (Number 31, 1994), "Love Will Keep Us Alive" (Number One, Adult Contemporary, 1994), "Learn to Be Still" (Number 15, Adult Contemporary, 1995), and 11 hits culled from the band's 1994 live appearance on MTV. Within months, the reunion LP had sold more than 10 million copies and gone to Number One on the pop album chart.
In 1998 the Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All seven past and present members of the band performed together for the first time at the induction ceremony. The core members of the group — Frey, Henley, Walsh, Felder, and Schmit — reunited again for a few concerts at the end of 1999, including a New Year's Eve show in L.A. A four-CD retrospective set, Eagles 1972-1999: Selected Works (Number 109) was issued in November 2000. In February 2001, the Eagles fired Felder, who retaliated by suing the band, its organization, and Henley and Frey individually; the latter pair countersued. The case was finally settled out of court in May 2007. (Felder's book about his time in the band, Heaven and Hell was published in November 2007.)
2003's The Very Best of the Eagles covered the band's entire 1970s output as well as the new single "Hole in the World." In 2007, Eagles released its first all-new album in 28 years, the double-CD Long Road Out of Eden, exclusively through Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and Eagles.com in the U.S. It debuted at Number One on the Billboard chart. In 2008, the band won a Grammy—it's fifth—for the single "How Long." The band toured through 2008 and much of 2009, and have announced co-headlining 2010 tour of arenas and stadiums with Fleetwood Mac.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this article.