Wednesday 23 August 2017

Obituary: Glenn Frey

Singer, songwriter and co-founder in 1971 of California band the Eagles, the biggest-selling American rock group of all time, writes Pierre Perrone

Americana: The Eagles in 1976, left to right, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Don Felder, Frey and Randy Meisner. 'We were like a powder keg,' said Frey Photo: Getty
Americana: The Eagles in 1976, left to right, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Don Felder, Frey and Randy Meisner. 'We were like a powder keg,' said Frey Photo: Getty

Pierre Perrone

In 1971, the guitarist and singer-songwriter Glenn Frey, who died last Monday aged 67, co-founded the Eagles, the epitome of California soft rock, famed for creating the enduring chart-toppers 'Best Of My Love, 'One Of These Nights', 'New Kid In Town', 'Hotel California' and 'Heartache Tonight', as well as two of the biggest-selling albums of all time, the compilation Eagles: Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) - 42 million and counting - and 1976's Hotel California (32m).

"The Eagles were propelled by more than just ambition. At times, we were propelled by whatever we could get our hands on," said Frey, who remained one of the two leaders of the group alongside drummer Don Henley, co-writer with Frey, and often with their friend JD Souther, of all the aforementioned hits and radio recurrents like 'Lyin' Eyes', 'Take It To The Limit' and 'The Long Run'. Their partnership lasted a decade, resumed after a 15-year hiatus, and they returned in 1994 with the Hell Freezes Over live album - so named after the band said they would reform only when hell froze over - and continued fitfully over another two decades to include a succession of lucrative tours and an eventual new studio collection, 2007's Long Road Out Of Eden.

"Splitting up the Eagles was not because of a rift between Henley and me. There was a rift and that didn't help, but we had come to a point where we were running out of gas artistically. We had gone from a band that could make an album in three weeks to a band that couldn't make an album in three years," said Frey about their 1979 album The Long Run.

As the most forceful character in the group, Frey's beef really was with the lead guitarist Don Felder, who had joined belatedly in 1974, and became persona non grata as they played their last date in California five years later. "We're on stage, and Felder looks back at me and says: 'Only three more songs 'til I kick your ass, pal'. And I'm saying: 'Great, I can't wait'. We're out there singing 'Best Of My Love' but inside both of us are thinking, 'As soon as this is over, I'm gonna kill him'. That was when I knew I had to get out."

Frey enjoyed a successful solo career, in particular in the mid-1980s, with 'The Heat Is On', the theme song composed by Harold Faltermeyer and Keith Forsey for the Beverly Hills Cop action comedy starring Eddie Murphy as the titular detective. He also charted with the moody brace of 'You Belong To The City' and 'Smuggler's Blues' - co-written with Jack Tempchin - which graced the Miami Vice TV series in whose opening episode he appeared. Further television roles included Wiseguy, South of Sunset and Nash Bridges, and he featured in films such as Let's Get Harry and Jerry Maguire.

While Henley enjoyed a higher solo profile than his bandmate, particularly with the memorable 'The Boys Of Summer', Frey remained just as prolific until ill-health struck following the release of the Great American Songbook-inspired 2012 album After Hours.

Born in Detroit on November 6, 1948, he became part of the nascent Michigan rock scene, which included the vocalist Bob Seger, who would remain a lifelong friend and occasional collaborator. Frey made his recording debut providing backing vocals and strumming an acoustic guitar on Seger's garage rock Top 20 classic 'Ramblin' Gamblin' Man' in 1968.

The following year, he moved to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Joan Sliwin, who introduced him to Souther, with whom he formed the short-lived duo Longbranch Pennywhistle. She also introduced him to Jackson Browne, another aspiring musician and songwriter, and the primary writer of the Eagles' breakthrough 1972 US hit 'Take It Easy'; Frey came up with the lines "such a fine sight to see, it's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford."

In 1970, Frey met Henley at the Troubadour, the West Hollywood club famous for welcoming the cream of local musicians. With the addition of pedigree players Bernie Leadon, ex-guitarist with the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Randy Meisner, the former Poco bassist, they went on to back Linda Ronstadt and secured her blessing to form their own outfit and sign to David Geffen's new Asylum imprint.

"In the beginning, we were the underdogs," Frey said. "That's how we thought of ourselves. We'd always say, 'This guy is a better singer. That guy is a better guitar player. These people write better songs than us. Being around David Geffen [their first manager before the equally legendary Irving Azoff took over], Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, this unspoken thing was created between Henley and me, which said: 'If we want to be up here with the big boys, we'd better get our game together and write some f***ing good songs'. We were also like a keg of powder, waiting for someone to come in and light the fuse. We were serious about becoming successful, and we were serious about being taken seriously as songwriters."

The foursome travelled to London to work at London's Olympic Studios with Glyn Johns, the Who and Rolling Stones producer. On their 1972 eponymous debut he did a marvellous job capturing their distinctive blend of harmonies and the embryonic tropes of folk, country and rock that would eventually be called Americana. This became even more pronounced on Desperado, the 1973 follow-up, 1974's On The Border and 1975's One Of These Nights, by which time they'd become a five-piece.

"The band was like a fake democracy. Henley and I were making the decisions while at the same time trying to pacify, include, and cajole the others," said Frey.

"There was always so much turbulence around our band that it made us serious all the time. There was never a day when all five guys felt good. I'd think 'Who is gonna blow it today?"

Over the next couple of years, as they scaled higher heights with Hotel California, Joe Walsh took over lead guitar from Leadon, and Timothy B Schmit replaced Meisner, establishing the line-up that limped to the end of the 1970s. Frey died in New York from complications arising from rheumatoid arthritis, colitis and pneumonia. Henley paid tribute, saying, "Glenn was the one who started it all. He was the spark plug, the man with the plan."

Glenn Lewis Frey, married Janie Beggs in 1983 (divorced 1988) and in 1990 Cindy Millican. He had one daughter, and two sons.

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