Before soaring as one of the founding members of the Eagles, Donald Hugh Henley grew up in Linden, Texas. Born on July 22, 1947, in Gilmer, Henley comes from an ancestry of English, Irish, and Scottish descent. Before going into music, Don Henley played high school football before his coach suggested he quit due to his relatively small body frame. This prompted Henley to join the school band, first as a trombone player before becoming a percussionist. While in high school, he was asked to join Dixieland, a band founded by his friend’s father, Elmer Bowden. Henley, Richard Bowden, and Jerry Surratt would later form the Four Speeds before renaming itself to Felicity. Don Henley wrote “Hurtin’, ” a locally recorded and released single.
After he graduated in 1965, he attended Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, before enrolling at North Texas State University in Denton, Texas. In 1969, Don Henley left school to spend more time with his father upon the discovery he was dying of heart disease. It was also in 1969 that he and his bandmates met Kenny Rogers as the country star took an interest in the group. At this point, Felicity’s name changed to Shiloh and they recorded a few songs for Rogers. “Jennifer (O’ My Lady)” was their first single, which was released shortly after Surratt was killed in a dirt bike accident.
Don Henley, Richard Bowden, and his cousin, Michael Bowden, collaborated with Al Perkins and Jim Ed Norman to form Henley before Rogers signed them up as a band to Amos Records. Together, they were brought to Los Angeles, California in 1970. Produced by Larrabee Studios, the band released its first studio album, Henley. However, shortly after the release of this album, the group disbanded as creative differences between Don Henley and Richard Bowden reached the breaking point.
Soaring Like Eagles
While in Los Angeles, Don Henley met Glenn Frey as both men were signed to the same label, Amos Records. They, along with J.D. Souther and John Boylan, were recruited to serve as Linda Ronstadt’s backup band when she went on tour in 1971. While on tour, Frey and Henley met Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon as they also played as a backing band for Ronstadt. Together, they officially formed the Eagles.
In 1971, the Eagles were signed to Asylum Records before releasing their debut album in 1972. “Take It Easy” was the first hit single written by Jackson Browne before Glenn Frey helped him complete it. The next single was “Witchy Woman,” co-written with Leadon. Where Frey sang “Take It Easy,” Don Henley sang the lead for “Witchy Woman.”
The career span of the Eagles from 1971 to 1980 had Frey and Don Henley take turns as the lead vocalist of what became one of the most successful rock bands in history. After “Take It Easy” and “Witchy Woman” was “Desperado.” That single marked the start of a songwriting partnership Henley shared with Frey.
Throughout the 1970s, the Eagles consistently produced one hit single after another. Frey and Don Henley were often regarded as the McCartney and Lennon equivalent of a dynamic songwriting duo. The Eagles managed to become the highest-selling American band in American history.
After the Eagles broke up in 1980, it was stated that hell would have to freeze over first before the lineup would consider working together as a band again. In 1994, Don Henley embarked on a successful solo artist career. Hits such as “Dirty Laundry” and “Boys of Summer” demonstrated Don Henley was quite capable of maintaining his momentum as a hitmaker. At the time, Don Henley and Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks were an item that recorded and released the duet “Leather and Lace.” This song was written by Nicks for Waylon Jennings and his wife, Jessi Colter, in 1981.
Henley’s first solo album was I Can’t Stand Still, which produced the hit single “Dirty Laundry.” It became his all-time biggest solo hit and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. In 1984, Building the Perfect Beast featured “The Boys of Summer.” This earned him a series of MTV Video Music Award wins and a Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.
In 1989, Henley’s The End of the Innocence became his most successful album yet, with its title track earning him another Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. Don Henley is regarded as one of the greatest singing drummers ever.
As successful as Don Henley was as a recording musician, his lengthy legal battle against Geffen Records marred what should have been a trouble-free career. This battle resulted in Henley picking up the mantle to speak on behalf of musicians when defending their rights. While Henley was dealing with Geffen, Glenn Frey had similar issues against MCA Records. These battles wound up having the Eagles file a lawsuit against Elektra Records before the band could start their concert tour as the label intended to release the band’s Greatest Hits album. It was a lawsuit that ruled in favor of the band.
As of 2002, Don Henley became the head of the Recording Artists Coalition. This organization works on behalf of the musicians against major record labels in a combined effort to hold them accountable regarding copyright issues and other industry-related practices.
Hell Froze Over
In 1994, the Eagles were reunited after spending fourteen years apart. After releasing Hell Freezes Over, the group went on tour from 1994 until 1996. In 2007, the band released Long Road Out of Eden. This was followed by a History of the Eagles Tour in 2013. It ended in 2015, six months before Glenn Frey passed away on January 18, 1916. Frey had been dealing with rheumatoid arthritis and was given medication that caused more medical problems than it was supposed to solve.
As a band, the Eagles won six Grammy Awards and had five singles that became chart-toppers. In 1998, the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since Frey’s passing in 2016, country legend Vince Gill has joined the Eagles as the surviving members continue to carry on with a legacy that helped shape classic rock as we know it.
Top 10 Eagles Songs Sung By Don Henley
#10 – Busy Being Fabulous
From 2007’s Long Road out of Eden, “Busy Being Fabulous” was a song sung by Don Henley that focused on a strained relationship between a couple that spent more time worrying about their social status than each other. It became a number twelve hit on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. On the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, it became the sixth and final occasion the Eagles would experience a crossover hit into the country music genre after peaking at number twenty-eight.
The main appeal of “Busy Being Fabulous” as a fan was the unfortunate reality that many people, especially couples, tend to lose focus too much on climbing the social ladder instead of staying humble and true to themselves. Love, patience, and understanding take a backseat in the quest to satisfy personal vanities and pride. The longer this lifestyle choice continues, the more of ourselves we lose. Along the way, the threat of losing those closest to us becomes all too real. For a song that serves up a good reality check, “Busy Being Fabulous” is it.
#9 – Please Come Home for Christmas
Normally, the Eagles preferred to record their own musical material. However, an exception was made for “Please Come Home for Christmas.” The 1960 original from blues legend Charles Brown became a staple song during the holiday season that often appeared in the music charts.
When Don Henley performed this song as the lead vocalist for the Eagles in 1978, there was a breath of life that went into this song that added a new wave of fans when it came to Christmas music. Their version became a number eighteen hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. This was a landmark achievement as it was the first Christmas song to reach a peak within the top twenty of the US Billboard Hot 100 since Roy Orbison’s 1963 hit “Pretty Paper.” Interestingly enough, “Please Come Home for Christmas” by the Eagles appeared on the US Billboard Hot 100 again in 2021, peaking at number forty-five.
This was the first single released by the Eagles that featured Timothy B. Schmit as Randy Meisner’s replacement. Interestingly enough, when this single was released again in 1995, it became a number fifteen hit on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. It was also this version that altered Brown’s original version with “bells will be ringing the sad, sad news” instead of sticking with “glad, glad news.”
#8 – Get Over It
After fourteen years apart as a band, the Eagles reunited and brought forth the single “Get Over It” in 1994. With Don Henley as the lead vocalist, this became a number thirty-one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100, as well as a number twenty-one hit on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. In Canada, it was a number four hit on the Top Singles Chart and a number thirteen hit on its Adult Contemporary chart. It also made an international impression by charting at number seventy-four hit in Australia, number fifty-five hit in Germany, and number twenty-four hit in Poland.
This was a song that took aim at television talk show hosts who felt justified to blame the world for their own personal problems. Among the fan base, both new and old, this was a great tune that wasn’t simply a faster-paced form of musical entertainment. It was also a loud and clear message to take personal responsibility for one’s own actions.
#7 – The Long Run
Written by Glenn Frey and Don Henley, “The Long Run” was regarded as a tribute to the Stax/Memphis rhythm and blues sound. From the album with the same name, it was a single that peaked at number eight on the US Billboard Hot 100 going into 1980. Not long after this, the Eagles parted ways and embarked on solo careers. On the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, it became a number thirty-four hit. In Canada, it peaked at number nine.
The song itself was a lyrical response by the Eagles as the press made suggestions about the direction of music as the world knew it at that time. With disco and punk making such an impact, questions came about how well the Eagles could compete against the everchanging dynamics of rock music. Oddly enough, even though the song was about the group’s longevity, the pressure to measure up to the success of Hotel California prompted each band member to go their separate ways as performers.
“The Long Run” was a genius wordplay by the songwriting team of Frey and Henley, which was beautifully carried out by Henley as the lead vocalist. The rest of the Eagles, as usual, delivered an instrumental orchestration that easily turned “The Long Run” into a classic favorite. Even though the Eagles broke up as a band, all four members continued to enjoy solid recording careers on their own. When they reunited in 1994, all this did was establish the reality they did more than merely survive the turbulence of the music industry. They knew how to ride those waves in style and still come out on top.
#6 – Life In The Fast Lane
From the album, Hotel California, 1976’s “Life in the Fast Lane” was a single that featured Don Henley as the lead vocalist for the Eagles. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked at number eleven while on the Canadian Top Singles chart at number twelve. In perfect cliche format, the song referenced a couple who lived their life on the edge. For Glenn Frey, the inspiration behind this song came after riding in a vehicle on the freeway with a drug dealer. When Frey asked him to slow down, the response was “What do you mean? It’s life in the fast lane!”
The standout guitar riff was Joe Walsh demonstrating why he earned his rightful place as the Eagles’ newest member of its lineup. When he burst out with a riff neither Frey nor Henley heard of before, a decision was made that it deserved to be put to a song. As it turned out, “Life in the Fast Lane” became the lucky recipient. And we, the lucky fans, got to hear it.
#5 – Best of My Love
The songwriting team of Glenn Frey, Don Henley and J.D. Souther brought forth “Best of My Love” as a single from the 1974 album, On the Border. With Henley as the lead vocalist, this easy-listening favorite topped the US Billboard Hot 100, US Adult Contemporary Chart, the Canadian Top Singles Chart, and the Canadian Adult Contemporary chart in 1975. By year’s end, it was the twelfth most popular song on the US Billboard’s annual list.
While in London, the Eagles recorded this song after Glenn Frey listened to tunes from a Fred Neil record. This came at a time when the group was working on their third studio album. For Frey, he was learning how to work out a tune Joni Mitchell had shown him a few days prior. Unintentionally, Frey found his guitar play resulting in what became part of the composition behind “The Best of My Life.” As for the lyrics, these were partly inspired after Henley broke up with a girlfriend.
At first, there was reluctance to release “Best of My Love” as a single before Asylum Records truncated the song and released what it felt was a radio-friendly version. This was done without the band’s knowledge and approval, which caused enough friction for it to be pulled from the stores as a single. However, this country-flavored ballad became the Eagles’ most successful so far as it not only became the first to become a number-one hit but to sell over a million copies.
#4 – One of These Nights
Straight on the heels of “Best of My Love” and its 1975 success as a chart-topping single, “One of These Nights” also became a number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. Sung by Don Henley as the lead vocalist, this was the second number-one hit in a row for the Eagles. On the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, it peaked at number twenty. The single version was considerably shortened than the album version as the intro was taken out, as well as most of its fade out. Singing the high harmony was Randy Meisner. The guitar solo featured the talent of Don Felder that let out a distorted blues-based riff that made “One of These Nights” a solid fan favorite.
Globally, “One of These Nights” was a top thirty hit among the nations of Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the U.K. The British Phonographic Industry also awarded this single with a silver certification after it reached the 200,000 copies sold mark. It was a song that had the Eagles deliberately steer away from country rock-style ballads as a means to broaden their musical resume. Clearly, it was a strategy that worked.
#3 – Witchy Woman
Released in 1972, “Witchy Woman” became the second single released by the Eagles. It was the first featuring Don Henley as the lead vocalist. He, along with Bernie Leadon, wrote the song and it became a number nine hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was also a number eight hit on the Canadian Top Singles chart and a number twenty-six hit in the Netherlands.
The song itself got its start from Leadon while he was a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers. After joining the Eagles, he collaborated with Henley to finish the song. The conception behind the song came while playing an unusual riff that sounded like a mix of Hollywood movies and Indian music. This was the pulse that made “Witchy Woman” a standout favorite.
At the time, Henley was dealing with the flu where he had to contend with fevers. Each time the fever subsided, he read a book about Zelda Fitzgerald. Henley also credited books written by Carlos Castaneda on shamanism, as well as an occult-favoring girlfriend, as sources of inspiration that spawned “Witchy Woman” to develop a song that has since become a cult classic.
#2 – Desperado
In 1973, “Desperado,” was a power ballad from the Eagles that featured Don Henley as the lead vocalist. Although it was not released as a single, it became one of the band’s best-known songs. It’s also on the list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Until Linda Ronstadt recorded this song herself, “Desperado” received very little attention. Afterward, it became one of the Eagles’ signature hits. It’s also become a staple favorite that’s been covered by a long list of recording artists. In 1976, Johnny Rodriguez turned “Desperado” into a number-five hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
As a song, it got its start in 1968 when Henley followed the style of old Stephen Forster songs. Originally, it was about a friend named Leo before it evolved into a collaborative effort he shared with Glenn Frey. “Desperado” became a certified silver seller with the British Phonographic Industry.
#1 – Hotel California
As a song, “Hotel California” has become so much more than a legend. Released in 1977, the unmistakable dual-guitar descending arpeggio part that ended the song placed Joe Walsh as a guitar hero. Don Henley’s lyrical performance and the extended guitar coda turned “Hotel California” into a number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 and the Canadian Top Singles chart as if it was an easy task.
In 1978, “Hotel California” earned the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. As a song that dealt with the journey from innocence to experience, so many fans spun their own take on what the song meant to them. Internationally, this single was at least a top-ten hit in Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland, and the U.K. It also received many platinum certifications from Denmark, Italy, Japan, the U.K.’s BMI, and the U.S.’s RIAA.
Intentional or not, “Hotel California” became a cult classic that stemmed beyond the realm of the music industry. It has often been used to reflect on various political and social issues. It’s also been analyzed from a religious point of view as there were many elements in the song that revolved around the infamous seven deadly sins from biblical texts.
“Hotel California” was also one of the few songs the Eagles allowed to be used in various film and television productions. The popularity of this song is so immense that it continues to inspire newcomers to the music industry in becoming guitar heroes themselves. It’s also one of the songs inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
Feature Photo: Derek Russell, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons