How the Eagles' 'Greatest Hits' Invented a New Kind of Blockbuster

Glenn Frey co-wrote seven songs on the 1976 compilation, which has sold 29 million copies

Credit: GAB Archive/Getty

The old story goes that Glenn Frey, Don Henley and their bandmates were taking forever to finish Hotel California when their record label, Asylum, needed a new Eagles album to raise revenue in the first quarter of 1976. So the label released Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 as a sort of placeholder – a way of placating fans until the real album could come out. But Irving Azoff, the band's longtime manager, says the truth is far simpler. "We decided it was time to put out the first greatest-hits because we had enough hits," he tells Rolling Stone.

The LP containing "Take It Easy," "Desperado," "Take It to the Limit," "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and six others has sold a massive 29 million copies in the U.S.; back in 1999, it leapfrogged Thriller as the best-selling album of all time. "I think when Michael Jackson sees this on television, he's going to go out and buy a million-and-a-half copies of Thriller," Frey, who died Monday at age 67, quipped at the time. (The Eagles returned to second place after Michael Jackson's 2009 death.)

Although the Eagles considered themselves an albums band, Their Greatest Hits is the pop work that defines their legacy, filling up playlists on multiple radio formats for decades. "After the band broke up in 1980, it just kept selling and selling and selling," Azoff recalls. "There became this kind of classic-rock, album-oriented-rock format, and we got so much radio airplay. And the Henley and Frey solo careers kept it going."

The ubiquitous compilation influenced generations of future country stars. "A lot of younger country musicians did experience the Eagles [through Their Greatest Hits]," says Ken Levitan, a veteran country and rock manager who represents Kings of Leon, Trace Adkins and LoCash. "Every household had a copy of that record. If they didn't hear it themselves, their parents were listening to it, so it became part of a fabric of their life. That record, and Skynyrd and Hank Jr., influenced the whole range of country artists."

While the Eagles had been a successful touring band with some solid hits, Their Greatest Hits quickly sold four times as many copies as their previous four albums combined, according to an industry insider with knowledge of the band. "With the greatest hits, the world, the band, the fans – everything came together," says the source. The compilation's timing was unusual, in February 1976, because it came out just 10 months before the Eagles' landmark Hotel California album (and before guitarist Joe Walsh enlisted).

"It was a helluva year for Elektra/Asylum Records," recalls Joe Smith, the retired record mogul who ran both labels at the time. "I had just moved over there from Warner [the labels' parent company] and got these two albums. How they sold! We underestimated the reach of this group. These guys had a real track record, and it boomed out."

Because of the two albums' timing in 1976, Hotel California songs like "New Kid In Town," "Life In the Fast Lane" and, of course, the classic title song, do not appear on Their Greatest Hits, which forced new Eagles fans to pick up both LPs on record-store runs for decades. By mid-1977, Their Greatest Hits and Hotel California had combined to sell 18 million copies, according to the industry insider. "You probably sell 1,000 other records because somebody came into the store to buy the Eagles' greatest hits, so it's hugely important," says Carl Mello, senior buyer for New England record chain Newbury Comics. "It was never the biggest thing ever, but each year it just sold tons and tons and tons."

"People don't really believe that this kind of rock album of greatest hits was actually up there with Thriller for as long as it was," adds Hilary Rosen, former chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America, who presented a plaque to the band when the album hit Number One. "It was just one of those unbelievably feel-good albums."

The album's cover, a bird skull on a pale background, was of a piece with the birdman theme of "One of These Nights" and "On the Border." Boyd Elder, a Texas artist, had received two skulls from a friend and decided to paint them and cover them with beads. Through his friendship with the band and cover designer Gary Burden, he wound up projecting a color slide of the image for Frey on the wall of "a sleazy hotel by the Dallas airport," recalls Elder, who still lives in West Texas and is still doing experimental art.

Frey loved it, and Elder set the pointy dark-grey skull against a bumpy light-blue background made of silver mylar. Fans debated the cover for years. "There were rumors that when we had the photo shoot, it was pharmaceutical cocaine, and then after we did the album cover, we did all the lines," Elder says with a laugh. "That was a big myth."

When Frey first saw the cover, he noticed the resemblance, telling Elder the background reminded him of "a field of blow." The band, conspicuously, did not debunk the legend.