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Glenn Frey: 20 Essential Songs

From Eagles’ Seventies masterpieces to his solo Eighties hits, here are the late singer-songwriter’s finest tracks

Rolling Stone Jan 19, 2016

Written by Richard Bienstock, Jon Dolan, Patrick Doyle, Andy Greene, Keith Harris, Joseph Hudak, Corbin Reiff


“In the beginning, we were the underdogs,” Glenn Frey once said of the Eagles’ formative days on the L.A. rock scene of the early Seventies. “Being in close proximity to Jackson Browne, 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 write some fucking good songs.'”

“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” (1969)

Frey got his first taste of real recording backing up fellow Michigander Bob Seger, strumming acoustic guitar and singing background vocals on this ferocious bit of garage rock. Listen for Frey in the chorus: That’s him singing the high “ramblin’ man” part. “You can really hear Glen blurt out on the first chorus. He comes out really loud, tremendous gusto,” Seger says in theHistory of the Eagles documentary. Added Frey, “The most important thing that happened to me while I was in Detroit was I met Bob Seger.”


“Take It Easy” (1972)

Shortly before the Eagles cut their first album, Glenn Frey was a broke songwriter living in the same building as Jackson Browne. One day, Browne showed his neighbor an in-progress tune called “Take It Easy.” “I took it up to ‘standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,'” Browne said. “Only Glenn would’ve had the girl slowing down to take a look at him.” The finished work was strong enough to become the first song on the first Eagles album, and their debut single. It rocketed to Number One and instantly turned the Eagles into one of the hottest groups in the country. The song remains so famous that the town of Winslow, Arizona, actually has a statue commemorating the moment, complete with a painting of a girl in a flatbed Ford.


“Peaceful Easy Feeling” (1972)

One of the early Eagles songs most associated with Frey, this single off the band’s self-titled 1972 debut is all chill. Written by frequent collaborator Jack Tempchin, it sums up the Eagles’ California cool vibe, elevated by one of Frey’s most tempered vocals. Here’s Frey the folk singer, influenced by night after night spent at L.A.’s Troubadour club, watching other folkies bare their souls. He may not have written its lyrics, but he owned them.


“Tequila Sunrise” (1973)

One of the centerpieces of Desperado, “Tequila Sunrise” is a forlorn, countrified ode to love lost and the courage to take another shot to put yourself out there again. Co-written by Henley and Frey, the latter handles the main vocal duties and sings his lines in a way that’s direct, but softened with a distinct, fluttering vibrato that helps lend a hopeful, encouraging note to the melancholy instrumentation underneath. In the liner notes to the 2003 Eagles compilation album The Very Best Of, Don Henley revealed that Frey, “was ambivalent about it because he thought that it was a bit too obvious or too much of a cliché because of the drink that was so popular then.” Eventually, Frey warmed up to it: “I love the song,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a single chord out of place.”


“Doolin-Dalton” (1973)

One of the key elements that pushed the Eagles to multiplatinum heights was the chemistry between Frey and Don Henley. This track, an ode to the Dalton Gang of outlaws from the 1880s, is a prime example of their tight rapport with the two men alternating solo verses and sharing the microphone for some truly spectacular harmonization. In the end however, alone in the spotlight, it’s Frey who brings the drama to a head with the stirring final pre-chorus line, “A man can use his back or use his brains/But some just went stir crazy, Lord/’Cause nothin’ ever changed.”


“Desperado” (1973)

“Desperado” was never released as a single, but the title track from the band’s cowboy concept album is synonymous with the group, and with Frey and Henley in particular. The pair penned the song together and, with 1972’sEagles under their belt, were firing on all cylinders as a songwriting unit ”” hinting at what was to come with “Hotel California” four years later. “Desperado,” sung by Henley, with Frey accompanying him on piano, would go on to be covered by everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Johnny Cash.

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“Already Gone” (1974)

Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund wrote this exuberant kiss-off to a former lover, but Frey took their lyrics to heart and made them his own. After the Eagles cut two LPs in London with formidable studio taskmaster Glyn Johns, “Already Gone” was among the first tracks they recorded in Los Angeles with new producer Bill Szymczyk; and Frey, for one, was relieved. “I was much more comfortable in the studio with Bill, and he was more than willing to let everyone stretch a bit,” he said. “‘Already Gone’ ”” that’s me being happier; that’s me being free.” Here, on the Eagles’ first straight-up rocker, you can hear that freedom in Frey’s guitar as it harmonizes and provides counterpoint to Don Felder’s own fluid licks and in Frey’s confident vocals, placed front-and-center.


“James Dean” (1974)

Written jointly by Frey, Don Henley, Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther, “James Dean” captures the thrill of what it was like to catch the iconic film star early on as a young kid. Frey sings lead on the track and the excitement in his voice is exhilarating and palpable. “I always thought the best line in ‘James Dean’ was “I know my life would look alright if I could see it on the silver screen,” Frey told Cameron Crowe in 2003. “You just don’t get to do that.”


“Lyin’ Eyes” (1975)

A smooth satire of L.A.’s gold-digger culture, “Lyin’ Eyes” was inspired by an evening out at one of Henley and Frey’s favorite bars, Dan Tana’s. The pair spotted a beautiful young woman with a fat, over-the-hill rich guy, and Frey immediately observed ,”She can’t even hide those lyin’ eyes.” The acerbic comment became the song’s title phrase, hooked to a forlorn melody that perfectly evokes the kept woman’s lonely predicament. Sung with just the right sense of wry tenderness by Frey and featuring some of the most beloved harmonies of the band’s entire career, “Lyin’ Eyes” won a Grammy in 1976 for Best Pop Performance.


“After the Thrill Is Gone” (1975)

Like “Doolin Dalton” on Desperado two years prior, Frey and Henley teamed up on lead vocals for this tale of love gone cold off One of These Nights. The song begs the question as to why the Eagles frontmen didn’t share vocals as often as they did writing credits. After all, the Eagles were first and foremost a harmony band, and “After the Thrill Is Gone” shows its two main voices in peak form.

“New Kid in Town” (1976)

Glenn Frey only sang lead on one track on Hotel California, but with “New Kid in Town,” he made it count. Written with Don Henley and J.D. Souther, the song is about how quickly love can vanish. “It’s also about the fleeting nature of fame, especially in the music business,” Henley said. “We were basically saying, ‘Look, we know we’re red hot right now, but we also know that somebody’s going to come along and replace us ”” both in music and in love.'” The group had so much faith in the song, they made it the first single from the album, and it quickly became their third Number One.

“Wasted Time” (1976)

“Hotel California” may be the hallmark of the Eagles’ epic 1976 album, but it’s the deep cut “Wasted Time” that ties the whole LP together. The song ends Side A, and a reprise of the breakup ballad opens Side B. As with “Hotel California,” Henley sung lead on “Wasted Time,” but it stands as another lightning-in-a-bottle collaboration with Frey. While the duo’s earlier songwriting often exalted taking it easy and living free, “Wasted Time” concerned itself with painful regret: “I could have done so many things, baby/If I could only stop my mind/From wonderin’ what I left behind. …”


“Life in the Fast Lane” (1977)

“I was riding shotgun in a Corvette with a drug dealer on the way to a poker game,” Glenn Frey said in the 2013 Eagles documentary History of the Eagles. “The next thing I know we’re doing 90. Holding! Big time! I say, ‘Hey man!’ He grins and goes, ‘Life in the fast lane!’ I thought, ‘Now there’s a song title.”‘ The tune he and the rest of the Eagles came up with ”” based around a classic Joe Walsh riff ”” is a definitive bulletin from inside the deepest reaches of Seventies L.A. decadence, sung by Henley with some funky clavinet playing by Frey. The Eagles embodied that lifestyle as much as anyone of course, and they knew it. Having it both ways rarely sounded so fly.


“Heartache Tonight” (1979)

Frey and J.D. Souther worked up the verses to what would become “Heartache Tonight” while jamming and listening to Sam Cooke. But nothing much came of that work until Bob Seger paid a visit to Los Angeles. Frey played Seger what they had ”” not much more than a melody and some hand claps at that point ”” and Seger “blurted out the chorus,” according to Frey. (Souther recalled, “Glenn called me and said, ‘Is four writers okay on this?’ And I said, ‘Sure, if it’s good.’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’s great. Seger just sang this to me.'”) That was the extent of Bob’s contribution, but it was all he needed to do. Frey, Souther, and Don Felder quickly polished off the song from there. “No heavy lyrics,” Frey recalled fondly. “The song is more of a romp ”” and that’s what it was intended to be.” As for Frey’s performance, there’s no topping Joe Walsh’s simple verdict: “Glenn went out and sung his ass off on that track.”

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“I Can’t Tell You Why” (1980)

This is bass player Timothy B. Schmidt’s signature Eagles song, but Frey nearly steals the show with a powerfully emotive guitar solo near the end. In a band that counted Joe Walsh, Don “Fingers” Felder and Bernie Leadon as members, it’s a little bit easy to discount Frey’s prowess as a guitarist. “I Can’t Tell You Why” is a sublime reminder of just how good he was on six strings.

“The One You Love” (1982)

Less than two years after the Eagles split, Glenn Frey established his solo career with “The One You Love” from his debut LP, No Fun Aloud. He turned to old friend Jack Tempchin (co-writer of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone”) to help pen the material, and they landed a Number 15 hit with the mellow, sax-driven “The One You Love.” The song came together quickly. “We were just sitting there, working on another song, and all of a sudden, I said, ‘Jack, you know I’ve always wanted to write a song that kind of goes something like this,'” Frey said. “And I just started playing stuff and singing the saxophone line, and the next thing we knew, we had written half the song in about 20 minutes. We were just sitting there going, ‘Whoa! Where did that come from?'”


“Smuggler’s Blues” (1984)

With the Eagles no longer occupying all of his time, Glenn Frey was able to try his hand at acting in the 1980s. His first role was a drug smuggler on the 1985 Miami Vice episode “Smuggler’s Blues,” named after Frey’s song of the same name. This was the peak of Miami Vice‘s popularity, and the song reached Number 12 on the Hot 100 and appeared on the mega-selling soundtrack to the television show. Co-written by Jack Tempchin, it’s the tale of a drug deal gone very, very bad.


“The Heat Is On” (1984)

Beverly Hills Cop was so successful that it not only turned Eddie Murphy into one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but the soundtrack sold by the millions thanks to Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F,” Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude” and Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On.” The sax-heavy tune was ubiquitous on Top 40 radio and MTV in the winter of 1984. Frey’s second solo LP, The Allnighter, was a minor commercial disappointment, but this got his solo career right back on track. At first, Frey didn’t realize what a huge hit he had on his hands. “I came in, I sang it one day, I played guitar and did background vocals the next day and I got a small check, I think 15 grand,” he said. “I had a little Christmas money, and I was happy.”


“You Belong to the City” (1985)

Miami Vice was very good to Glenn Frey. The cop show not only launched his career as an actor and drove his song “Smuggler’s Blues” up the charts but also gave him the single biggest hit of his career: “You Belong to the City.” He and songwriting partner Jack Tempchin wrote the tale of a long, lonely urban night especially for the show. It hit Number Two on the Hot 100 and was so popular that the Eagles felt compelled to play it on their 1994”“95 reunion tour. Like all Frey solo songs from this era, it was heavy on the sax.


“Busy Being Fabulous” (2007)

Don Felder hatched the idea for this single off 2007’s Long Road Out of Eden, and Frey fleshed it out, a ballad about love fading in favor of nightlife and empty friendships. Henley likened to a Rolling Stones song, saying, “Don didn’t like it or think it was good enough; Glenn kept working on it and filling in the holes in the lyrics. Industry people said it was a hit.” The song ended up breaking the Top 40 on the country charts. The video is essential viewing ””  especially the part where Joe Walsh, playing a cop, pulls over a partying Henley with his monkey sidekick.