By Christopher Scapelliti
While growing up in Detroit, Glenn Frey received some career advice he would carry with him forever. Around the age of 19, the late guitarist and songwriter who died Monday, January 18, befriended another local musician by the name of Bob Seger, who had a few years on him and a couple of local hits under his belt.
“We used to drive around Michigan on Woodward Avenue,” Frey told WOMC radio in 2013. “I remember one time a Cowsill’s song came on the radio and I said, ‘Turn that crap off.’ Bob said, ‘No, wait, Glenn, they are on the radio and we are not. Let’s listen to how they got there.’ Bob was also the first person to really encourage me to start writing my own songs. We had a bunch of copy bands in Detroit who were very good, but Seger said the only way to make it was to write your own material.”
Frey took the advice to heart and turned it into one of rock music’s most successful careers, first as a cofounding member of the Eagles and later as a solo artist. As one of the Eagles’ songwriters, Frey wrote or cowrote many of their biggest hits, including “Take It Easy,” “Desperado,” “One of These Nights,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Hotel California,” “Life in the Fast Lane” and “New Kid in Town.”
Following the group’s breakup in 1980, Frey went solo and continued writing hits like “Smuggler’s Blues” and “You Belong to the City.” And although the songs came more sporadically over the past 30 years, his music remained a part of rock’s enduring catalog. Here are 13 of his most memorable recorded moments.
“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”—Bob Seger System, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man (1968)
“The most important thing that happened to me while I was in Detroit was I met Bob Seger,” said Frey. Frey had befriended Seger, another native of the Detroit suburbs who had enjoyed some local and regional success but not yet managed to break out nationally. In 1968, Seger invited the 19-year-old guitarist to perform on the recording of his next single, “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” Frey contributed acoustic guitar and backup vocals, singing the high “ramblin’ man” part on the chorus. “You can really hear Glenn blurt out on the first chorus,” Seger said in the 2013 documentary History of the Eagles. “He comes out really loud. Tremendous gusto.” The song would become Seger’s first national hit, paving the way for his future successful career, and giving Frey an early hit on which to hang his hat.
“Take It Easy”—Eagles, Eagles (1972)
Frey moved to Los Angeles in 1969 and eventually found himself living in the same apartment building as aspiring singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. The two struck up a friendship that soon produced a hit song: “Take It Easy.” Browne had begun writing the tune in 1971 for his self-titled debut but was unable to finish it. Frey heard an early version of the song and urged Browne to keep working on it. “He kept after me to finish it,” Browne explained in an interview, “and finally offered to finish it himself. And after a couple of times when I declined to have him finish my song, I said, ‘All right.’ I finally thought, ‘This is ridiculous. Go ahead and finish it. Do it.’ And he finished it in spectacular fashion. And, what’s more, arranged it in a way that was far superior to what I had written.” Frey brought the finished song to his new group, Eagles, and it became their first single. Released on May 1, 1972, the song peaked at Number 12—an auspicious beginning for a group that would go on to become one of music’s most successful acts.
“Desperado”—Eagles, Desperado (1973)
Co-written with Eagles drummer Don Henley, “Desperado” wasn’t a single for the group, but it would become one of their most covered songs. Linda Ronstadt had success with it on her 1973 hit album, Don’t Cry Now, giving it exposure that propelled the song into the mainstream. It was subsequently covered by the Carpenters, Dottie West, Kenny Rogers, Judy Collins and, in 2002, Johnny Cash, who intoned the song as if delivering it to his younger, rebellious self. The song began life as a song fragment of Henley’s, written about a wayward friend. One night after the group’s debut album had come out, Frey, Henley Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther went to see Tim Hardin perform at the Troubadour. Afterward, they got together to jam and came up with an idea of writing an album of songs about “antiheroes,” as Frey put it. In short order, Henley’s song took on new lyrics, and “Desperado” was born.
“James Dean”—Eagles, On the Border (1974)
Another song to come from the post-Troubadour sessions, “James Dean” was sung by Frey, who wrote it with Henley, Souther and Browne. The tune is a classic laid-back California rocker dedicated to the Fifties renegade of the silver screen. It was finished in time for the group’s second album, Desperado, but wasn’t appropriate to that record’s Old West theme. It made the cut for the follow-up, On the Border. “I always thought the best line in ‘James Dean’ was ‘I know my life would look all right if I could see it on the silver screen,’” Frey told Cameron Crowe. “You just don’t get to do that.”
“Best of My Love”—Eagles, On the Border (1974)
“I was playing acoustic guitar one afternoon in Laurel Canyon,” Frey recalled to Crowe, “and I was trying to figure out a tuning that Joni Mitchell had shown me a couple of days earlier. I got lost and ended up with the guitar tuning for what would later turn out to be ‘The Best of My Love.’” Added Henley, “J.D. Souther wrote the bridge. and it was perfect. That was the period when there were all these great-looking girls who didn’t really want to have anything to do with us. We were just scruffy new kids who had no calling card. We could be cocky at times—which was really just a front—but we weren’t very sophisticated or confident. We were typical, frustrated, young men.”
“One of These Nights”—Eagles, One of These Nights (1975)
Written by Frey and Henley in the Philadelphia disco style of producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon A. Huff, “One of These Nights” gave Eagles their second Number One single. The song was the title track for the group’s fourth album, which also included the hits “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Take It to the Limit.” “There’s no doubt in my mind that One Of These Nights was the most fluid and ‘painless’ album we ever made,” Frey said. “We made a quantum leap with ‘One of These Nights.’ It was a breakthrough song. It is my favorite Eagles record. If I ever had to pick one, it wouldn’t be ‘Hotel California’; it wouldn’t be ‘Take It Easy.’ For me, it would be ‘One of These Nights.’”
“Lyin’ Eyes”—Eagles, One of These Nights (1975)
Sung by Frey, “Lyin’ Eyes” tells the story of a woman who, despite having the beauty to attract any man she wants, chooses a loveless marriage for the financial security it offers. “I don’t want to say it wrote itself, but once we started working on it, there were no sticking points,” Frey said. “Lyrics just kept coming out, and that’s not always the way songs get written.” He added, “I’d love to get the legal pad for ‘Lyin’ Eyes’ again, because I think there were verses we didn’t use.”
“New Kid in Town”—Eagles, Hotel California (1976)
Frey’s only lead vocal on Hotel California, “New Kid in Town” is “about the fleeting nature of fame, especially in the music business,” said Henley, who wrote the song with J.D. Souther. “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.’” In a nod to Frey’s distinctive singing, the song won a Grammy award for Best Vocal Arrangement.
“Life in the Fast Lane—Eagles, Hotel California (1976)
Written by the band around a riff from guitarist Joe Walsh, the song captures the decadence of the Seventies and the band’s role in creating it—not to mention their indulgence in it. “I was riding shotgun in a Corvette with a drug dealer on the way to a poker game,” Frey explains in the History of the Eagles documentary. “The next thing I know, we’re doing 90. I say, ‘Hey man!’ [The driver] grins and goes, ‘Life in the fast lane!’ I thought, Now there’s a song title.’”
“Heartache Tonight”—Eagles, The Long Run (1979)
Some 10 years after Frey guested on Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” the two men were reunited during the creation of this 1979 hit. Frey and Souther had put together a few lines for a song idea consisting of a melody and some hand claps—ideas they cooked up while listening to an old Sam Cooke record. Seger was in Los Angeles and paid his old friend a visit. Upon hearing what Frey and Souther had concocted, Seger “blurted out the chorus,” Frey said. With that, Frey, Souther and Eagles guitarist Don Felder finished off the song. “No heavy lyrics,” Frey noted. “The song is more of a romp.” Frey handled vocals on the track, earning the praise of Joe Walsh, who said, “Glenn went out and sung his ass off on that track.”
“Smuggler’s Blues”—Glenn Frey, The Allnighter (1984)
Following Eagles’ breakup in 1980, Frey continued to make music but also turned his attention to acting roles. He made his acting debut on a 1985 episode of the hit TV show Miami Vice titled “Smuggler’s Blues” after a song on Frey’s second solo album, The Allnighter. The show’s popularity gave the song—about a drug deal gone bad—a boost in the charts, where it hit Number 12.
“You Belong to the City”—Miami Vice Soundtrack (1984)
Written specifically for Miami Vice, “You Belong to the City” features Frey on all instruments except saxophone and drums. The song peaked at Number Two and pushed the Miami Vice Soundtrack album to the top of the Billboard 200 for 11 weeks. The Eagles would eventually cover the song themselves on their Farewell Tour.
“The Heat Is On”—Beverly Hills Cop: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack (1984)
Frey made this tune from the Eddie Murphy flick Beverly Hills Cop his own with his distinctive vocals and guitar solo. Written by Harold Faltermeyer and Keith Forsey, the song was recorded by Frey in a couple of back-to-back sessions. “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,” Frey recalled. “I had a little Christmas money, and I was happy.” In the end, the song paid big dividends, giving his solo career the solid hit it needed. In the U.S., it remains the highest charting solo single by any Eagles member.