Forty-six years ago this week, the Eagles released their sophomore LP Desperado. While not a concept album per se, the initial idea for the record was for the group to write about anti-heroes, drawing parallels between the Old West outlaw and the rock & roll lifestyle. The title cut would mark the first-ever co-write for the group’s Don Henley and Glenn Frey.
“The basic premise was that, like the outlaws, rock & roll bands lived outside the ‘laws of normality,’ we were not part of ‘conventional society,’” Henley told Rolling Stone in 2016. “We all went from town to town, collecting money and women, the critical difference being that we didn’t rob or kill anybody for what we got; we worked for it. Like the outlaws of old, we fought with one another, and occasionally with the law. But I think the overriding premise was that fame — or notoriety — is a fleeting thing.”
In 1973, Henley was living in a little house at the top of Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, furnished with little more than an upright piano and a bed. Sometime in the late Sixties, Henley had devised a chord progression and melody that would form the basis of “Desperado.” Influenced by the style of 19th century American songwriter Stephen Foster, whose songs, such as “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Oh! Susanna,” Henley learned as a young boy from his grandmother, “Desperado” served as the title track of an album that yielded no hit singles, while its predecessor had produced three, including “Take It Easy” and “Witchy Woman.” What the album did accomplish, however, was to cement the presence of songwriters Henley and Frey within the group, and “Desperado,” while not a hit, or even issued as a single for them, is one of the pair’s most enduring tunes.
Henley is also quick to note that the Eagles’ version of the evocative ballad went largely unnoticed until it was released later in 1973 on Linda Ronstadt’s fourth LP Don’t Cry Now. Henley and Frey, along with other future Eagles members Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner, had played on Ronstadt’s self-titled 1972 album and, though it was a commercial failure, the musical kinship at this early stage in the development of California country-rock was an important step forward.
“There were a lot of guitar players around L.A. and I met them all at the Troubadour bar,” Ronstadt told legendary British broadcaster and Old Grey Whistle Test host Whispering Bob Harris in a televised interview from the early Seventies. “We used to sing in the corner of the bar a lot. Douglas Dillard would be there, and Rodney Dillard. We’d do a lot of bluegrass songs and toward the end of the evening we’d sing a lot of white spirituals. The drunker everybody was the nicer it sounded.
Her first for Asylum Records after a long stint with Capitol, Don’t Cry Now was her highest charting album to date, although it wasn’t the major breakthrough Ronstadt’s next LP Heart Like a Wheel —her last for Capitol — would be. Yet, with three songs composed by J.D. Souther, and covers of Randy Newman and Neil Young tunes among its many high points, the standouts were stunning versions of “Love Has No Pride” and “Desperado.” In the above clip from onstage at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, in December 1975, Ronstadt follows the familiar piano intro with a plaintive and mesmerizing performance of the song, still a staple of the Eagles’ live show.