With a voice resembling a pitched-down Neil Young and the best hair by far (not to mention the most convincing desperado mustache), Glenn Frey was the Eagles’ ace in the hole. He played lead, rhythm, acoustic, electric, and slide guitar; he doubled on keyboards; he co-wrote or curated most of the band’s best songs, sang lead on many of them, and maybe most crucially, helped arrange their take-no-prisoners group harmonies. Long before he took a bullet in that video for his Miami Vice solo hit in the Eighties, you always suspected he was the dangerous one, the dude who conveyed his “peaceful, easy feeling” less as Zen declaration than as a way to slyly unbutton your girlfriend’s bell-bottoms while you were off packing bongs.
Maybe it was because Frey was in truth a Motor City rocker, who played with Bob Seger and had a band called the Heavy Metal Kids before decamping to California for the youth culture gold rush. There, he proved country ain’t where you’re from but where you’re at. Seriously, have any of Nashville’s automotive fetishists produced a sexier pickup-truck couplet than, “It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flat-bed Ford” — Frey’s flabbergastingly indelible lyric patch for roommate Jackson Browne’s “Take It Easy”?
That song, the opening track to the Eagles’ self-titled debut, became Frey’s signature and his band’s, the group who turned the country rock that Gram Parsons and others were pioneering into a commercial success, then a pop juggernaut, then a lifestyle brand defining both classic rock radio and a generation of country acts. That brand was ultimately about the American Dream and the sadness behind it, a sadness Frey plumbed impressively: “Wonder why the right words never come / You just get numb” he croons on “Tequila Sunrise,” country-rock’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” It’s one of many songs Frey penned with main writing partner Don Henley, beginning with “Desperado,” their very first co-write, a Henley effort Frey helped finish. He was a team player.
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Frey also knew someone else’s perfect Eagles’ song when he heard it. Like Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55,” which he flagged off a demo and made into another band signature, tag-teaming lead vocals with Henley, conjuring the false immortality that’s the province of youth and learner’s permits. Or Jack Tempchin’s “Already Gone,” the rocker that opens On the Border, a pre-emptive kiss-off to a lover that ends in Frey’s tossed off aside “all right, nighty-night” — a line that’s never going to sound the same again.
After the band split, Frey kept at it like the adaptable pro he was, going solo and scoring hits. In the video for “The Heat Is On,” from the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop, he cut his hair down to a respectable semi-mullet, threw on a skinny tie and spit-barbed hooks over clipped new wave beats and saxophone squawk. In the clip for 1985’s “Smuggler’s Blues,” he shaves his face totally clean in a bathroom stall and puts on an expensive suit before getting iced in a drug deal gone bad, still the best-looking dude in the room. On 2012’s After Hours, he was all polish, singing standards with an orchestra in the same smooth, undiminished lets-go-to-bed tenor. It’s a shame he never got around to making a proper country record like his old pal Henley — I’d bet it would’ve been a good one. But he’s already gone. Nighty-night, dude.