Back in 2013 I wrote a review for Onstage Magazine about the Eagles’ performance at the Salmon Festival. Those who read it know it wasn’t favourable, and there were reasons for the direction in which I took the critique. I called it as I saw it. Some agreed, and some wrote hate mail. The Eagles of 2013 were quite a different entity from that of their original ’70s run (of which I was a dedicated fan), and I admittedly could not reconcile the two for a number of reasons – not all musical. I was particularly rough on Frey and his apparent lack of enthusiasm for performing. This, of course, stings me a bit this week as I process his passing.
Oddly enough, I occasionally perform in an Eagles tribute and sing lead on several Glenn Frey songs. As such, I’ve come to deeply respect his talent and the role he played in that band. One piece of information that I’d not really thought about until I started performing with the tribute was that Frey only sang one lead vocal on the Hotel California album. Up until this record it had essentially been a 50/50 split between him and Henley for lead vocals. The song in question is, of course, “New Kid in Town.” It happens to be my favourite Eagles song, and it’s also too high for my vocal range. So when we play it I get to lay back and listen to my bandmates hit all those high notes while I strum along. And every time we play it, I’m reminded that for all of the things we’ve read about egos in the Eagles, Glenn Frey’s ego must have been fairly in check to make the decision to lay back – no doubt in the spirit of some larger production plan – and let Henley take the lion’s share of the vocals while Frey strummed acoustic guitar, played some keys, and sang harmonies. It had to take confidence to be that man, especially after the string of hits that featured Frey’s lead vocals prior to Hotel California. He definitely saw the Eagles in a larger context at this point and seemingly felt deeply connected to the unit as a whole, whether he was in the limelight or simply strumming and grinning.
One other thing that surprised me about Frey’s role in the Eagles was his lead guitar playing. I assumed that Frey’s musical contributions were limited to vocals and acoustic guitar. I had no idea that Frey played the lead guitar solos on “Witchy Woman, “James Dean,” and “I Can’t Tell You Why.” He also played piano on “Desperado” and “The Last Resort.” It is refreshing to realize that Frey asserted his musicality to a far greater extent than many listeners realize, and he did so with very little fanfare. In the promo video for “I Can’t Tell You Why,” for example, lead guitarist Don Felder mimes Frey’s guitar solo over the original track while Frey plays keys.
An unabashed fan and imitator of Gram Parsons (who, ironically, hated the Eagles), Glenn Frey’s voice was stronger and more polished than that of his idol. He was also better-looking and had something that Parsons never possessed: a business sense. Teaming with Henley and, shortly thereafter, manager Irving Azoff, the band dreamed big and set its sights on British mega-producer Glyn Johns who had overseen some of the biggest records of the ’60s and early ’70s. The Eagles recorded their self-titled debut album in late ’71 over the pond, in the same studio that The Who had used just months earlier with Johns to record one of the biggest rock albums of all time, Who’s Next. You would never say in a million years that the reverb on Roger Daltrey’s big scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is the exact same reverb you hear on Henley’s “Witchy Woman” vocal.
This tenuous alliance with Johns would eventually dissolve after their concept album Desperato failed to meet the gargantuan expectations placed upon it by their debut, which spawned the massive “Take it Easy” and “Witchy Woman.” Switching to producer Bill Szymczyk, their star continued to rise throughout the early and mid ’70s. During this time and up until Hotel California, Frey had sung lead on some of the band’s biggest hits: “Take it Easy,” Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Already Gone,” and “Tequila Sunrise.” By the time he was 27 years old, Glenn Frey’s vulnerable, yearning tenor was embedded in the minds of millions around the world.
Satisfied to take a back seat to the lead vocals on Hotel California, he once again showed his balanced vision on their last album before the big split, The Long Run. He only sang lead on “Heartache Tonight.” Interestingly, the songs he did sing on these two landmark albums were, arguably, the best ones on the records. The latter was a co-write with Henley along with Frey’s old friend from Detroit, Bob Seger, who had a 20-year-old Frey sing background vocals on “Ramblin’, Gamblin’ Man” in 1969 – three years before the world would get a larger dose of Frey’s vocals.
Both Henley and Felder called Frey “generous” in their statements this week upon his passing. I think this trait can easily be seen in Frey’s large, yet generous role he played in the Eagles. Even though his presence looms as large as Henley’s in the band, Frey actually comes out as the consummate team player under close scrutiny of the band’s history. He no doubt saw Henley’s voice as a better match for their purposeful switch from country-rock to straight-out rock in ’76. Granted, some of this was based on a business-oriented ambition. However, by this time, rock had become a corporate-driven entity anyway – and Frey and Henley were at the forefront of this new model of artist-as-businessman (for better or worse).
By 1980 it was all over but the mud-slinging. Even Henley and Frey weren’t speaking for a while. But of course they inevitably came together again in ’94, and the new Eagles became the ubiquitous money monster of the music business. Up until 2015 they were still raking in millions until Frey took ill and the train came to a halt. After all, the Eagles cannot go on without Frey – no matter how wavering a role he played as lead singer throughout the band’s career. Henley may have stood out in front of Frey vocally, but Henley was stuck behind the drum kit on stage. Back in the heyday it was Frey who was really out front: the svelte California Dionysus with long hair flowing down over a sports jersey, shoulder cocked, playing a big-ass Martin 12-string, winking at the girls, driving them mad. Frey, as Henley said, was “the man with the plan.” And that plan certainly panned out for him and all those who rode with him on his mission for musical greatness. His death leaves a chasm that will not and cannot be filled. It can only sit as a looming reminder of all we are poised to lose as a massive group of people lucky to have been alive at this time of musical development and ingenuity.