The Eagles were unquestionably the biggest mainstream American rock band to emerge in the 1970s. Not only did they sell more records and concert tickets than their peers — Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) and Hotel California are two of the biggest-selling albums of all time — but they captured the shifting zeitgeist of the ’70s, riding the country-rock hippie hangover at the end of the ’60s until it reached the slick, expensive, and expansive pop/rock of Southern California in the late ’70s. Co-leaders Don Henley and Glenn Frey didn’t seem like brothers, but rather partners who made a pact to lead a coolly professional outfit designed to maximize their impact. This was not a group of teenage friends who played local dances together. Every one of the original members — Henley, Frey, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner — had headed toward LA with different bands and once those groups fell apart, they stuck around town, playing whatever gig that happened to show up. For all four, one of those gigs was supporting Linda Ronstadt in 1971. The chemistry was evident on-stage and in the studio, so the quartet decided to form a band, releasing their debut in 1972. Hits came swiftly but stardom didn’t settle in until the latter half of the decade, after 1975′s One of These Nights became a smash. Soon afterward, Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) turned their early years into canon and then came 1976′s Hotel California, a record that defined all manners of ’70s excess. By that point, the band’s lineup had shifted — Leadon and Meisner were out, as was Leadon’s replacement Don Felder; guitarist Joe Walsh and bassist Timothy B Schmit were in — and the group turned out to be ill-equipped to handle their mega-stardom. One more record, 1979′s The Long Run, appeared before the band split, with Henley and Frey achieving considerable solo success during the ’80s. Rumors of reunions never abated, not even when Henley quipped that hell would freeze over before the Eagles would play again and, eventually, an album materialized in 1993, when the Hotel California-era band adopted the MTV Unplugged format for their own needs on an album naturally called Hell Freezes Over. From that point on, Eagles tours were regular events — sometimes they were ambitious endeavors, sometimes they were a gig or two, the one thing in common being their success — and although the group continued to thrive on the existence of its back catalog, they recorded a brand-new double-album called Long Road Out of Eden, a record that once again put the Eagles on the top of the charts in 2007.
The band was formed by four Los Angeles-based musicians who had migrated to the West Coast from other parts of the country. Singer/bassist Randy Meisner moved to L.A. in 1964 as part of a band originally called the Soul Survivors (not to be confused with the East Coast-based Soul Survivors, who scored a Top Five hit with “Expressway to Your Heart” in 1967) and later renamed the Poor. He became a founding member of Poco in 1968, but left the band prior to the release of its debut album in order to join the Stone Canyon Band, the backup group for Rick Nelson. Meanwhile, singer/guitarist/banjoist/mandolinist Bernie Leadon arrived in L.A. in 1967 as a member of Hearts and Flowers, later joining Dillard & Clark and then the Flying Burrito Brothers. Singer/drummer Don Henley moved to L.A. in June 1970 with his band Shiloh, who made one self-titled album for Amos Records before breaking up. Finally, Glenn Frey performed in his hometown and served as a backup musician for Bob Seger before moving to L.A. in the summer of 1968. He formed the duo Longbranch Pennywhistle with J.D. Souther, and the two musicians signed to Amos Records, which released their self-titled album in 1969.
In the spring of 1971, Frey and Henley were hired to play in Linda Ronstadt’s backup band. Meisner and Leadon also played backup for Ronstadt during her summer tour, though the four only did one gig together: a July show at Disneyland. They did, however, all appear on Ronstadt’s next album, Linda Ronstadt. In September 1971, Frey, Henley, Leadon, and Meisner signed with manager David Geffen, agreeing to record for his soon-to-be-launched label, Asylum Records; soon after, they adopted the name the Eagles. In February 1972, they flew to England and spent two weeks recording their debut album, Eagles, with producer Glyn Johns. It was released in June, reaching the Top 20 and going gold in a little over a year-and-a-half on the strength of two Top Ten hits — “Take It Easy” and “Witchy Woman” — and one Top 20 hit, “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
The Eagles toured as an opening act throughout 1972 and into early 1973, when they returned to England to record their second LP, Desperado, a concept album about outlaws. Produced by Glyn Johns and released in April 1973, it reached the Top 40 and went gold in a little less than a year and a half, spawning the Top 40 single “Tequila Sunrise” in the process. The title track, though never released as a single, became one of the band’s better-known songs and was included on the Eagles’ first hits collection.
After touring to support Desperado’s release, the Eagles again convened a recording session with Glyn Johns for their third album. Their desire to make harder rock music clashed with Johns’ sense of them as a country-rock band, however, and they split from the producer after recording two tracks, “You Never Cry Like a Lover” and “The Best of My Love.” After an early 1974 tour opened by singer/guitarist Joe Walsh, the band decided to hire Walsh’s producer, Bill Szymczyk, who handled the rest of the sessions for On the Border. Szymczyk brought in a session guitarist, Don Felder (born in Gainesville, Florida, on September 21, 1947), an old friend of Bernie Leadon’s who so impressed the rest of the band that he was recruited to join the group.
On the Border was released in March 1974. It went gold and reached the Top Ten in June, the Eagles’ fastest-selling album yet. The first single, “Already Gone,” reached the Top 20 the same month. But the most successful song on the LP — the one that broke them through to a much larger audience — was “The Best of My Love,” which was released as a single in November. It hit number one on the easy listening charts in February 1975 and topped the pop charts a month later.
The Eagles’ fourth album, One of These Nights, was an out-of-the-box smash. Released in June 1975, it went gold the same month and hit number one in July. Moreover, it featured three singles that hit the Top Five: the chart-topping title song, “Lyin’ Eyes,” and “Take It to the Limit.” “Lyin’ Eyes” won the 1975 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus, and the Eagles also earned Grammy nominations for Album of the Year (One of These Nights) and Record of the Year (“Lyin’ Eyes”). The group went on a headlining world tour, beginning with the U.S. and expanding into Europe. But on December 20, 1975, it was announced that Bernie Leadon had quit the band, and Joe Walsh (born in Wichita, Kansas, on November 20, 1947) was brought in as his replacement. He immediately joined the tour, which continued to the Far East in early 1976.
The Eagles’ extensive touring kept them out of the studio, and with no immediate plans for a new album; they agreed to release a compilation, Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), in February 1976. The album’s success proved to be surprisingly meteoric. It topped the charts and became a phenomenal success, eventually selling upwards of 25,000,000 copies and dueling with Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the title of the best-selling album of all time in the U.S.
It took the Eagles 18 months to follow One of These Nights with their fifth album, Hotel California. Released in December 1976, the record was certified platinum in one week, hit number one in January 1977, and eventually sold over 10,000,000 copies. The singles “New Kid in Town” and “Hotel California” hit number one, and “Life in the Fast Lane” made the Top 20. Meanwhile, “Hotel California” won the 1977 Grammy for Record of the Year and was nominated for Song of the Year; the album itself was nominated for Album of the Year and for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus. The Eagles embarked on a world tour in March 1977 that began with a month in the U.S., followed by a month in Europe and the Far East, then returned to the U.S. in May for stadium dates. At the end of the tour in September, Randy Meisner left the band; he was replaced by Timothy B. Schmit (born in Sacramento, California, November 20, 1947), formerly of Poco, in which he had also replaced Meisner. (Randy Meisner died on July 26, 2023 at the age of 77.)
The Eagles began working on a new album in March 1978 and took nearly a year and a half to complete it. The Long Run was released in September 1979. It hit number one and was certified platinum after four months, eventually earning multi-platinum certifications. “Heartache Tonight,” its leadoff single, hit number one, and “I Can’t Tell You Why” and “The Long Run” became Top Ten hits. “Heartache Tonight” won the 1979 Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. The Eagles toured the U.S. in 1980, and at a week-long series of shows at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, they recorded Eagles Live. (Also included were some tracks recorded in 1976.) Released in November 1980, the double LP (since reissued as a single CD) reached the Top Five and went multi-platinum, with the single “Seven Bridges Road” reaching the Top 40.
The Eagles were inactive after the end of their 1980 tour, but their breakup was not officially announced until May 1982. All five released solo recordings. (Walsh, of course, maintained a solo career before, during, and after the Eagles.) During the rest of the ’80s, the bandmembers received several lucrative offers to reunite, but they declined. In 1990, Frey and Henley began writing together again, and they performed along with Schmit and Walsh at benefit concerts that spring. A full-scale reunion was rumored, but did not take place. Four years later, however, the Eagles did reunite. In the spring of 1994, they taped an MTV concert special and then launched a tour that ended up running through August 1996. The MTV show aired in October, followed in November by an audio version of it, the album Hell Freezes Over, which topped the charts and became a multi-million seller, spawning the Top 40 pop hit “Get Over It” and the number one adult contemporary hit “Love Will Keep Us Alive.”
The Eagles next appeared together in January 1998 for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, when the five present members performed alongside past members Leadon and Meisner. On December 31, 1999, they played a millennium concert at the Staples Center in Los Angeles that was recorded and included on the box set retrospective Selected Works: 1972-1999 in November 2000. All was not well within the band, however, and Felder was expelled from the lineup in February 2001. A protracted legal battle ensued as the Eagles soldiered on as a quartet, releasing The Very Best of the Eagles in 2003 and achieving minor success with the single “Hole in the World.” Felder’s case was settled out of court in 2007; that same year, the Eagles returned with the band’s seventh studio album, Long Road Out of Eden, a double-disc album that quickly went multi-platinum. In 2013, the band made the documentary History of the Eagles, and toured behind it until mid-2015. Six months later, Glenn Frey became ill and passed away on January 18, 2016. He was 67. Just over a year after Frey’s death, the Eagles were revived with Glenn’s son Deacon taking his place; Vince Gill also joined on guitars and vocals. The group played the Classic West and Classic East festivals in July of 2017, then set out on the road in 2018. At the end of the year, the group’s entire discography was boxed up as the Legacy set. ~ William Ruhlmann