Eagles’ Glenn Frey spun sun-baked SoCal ballads that will endure

Glenn Frey performs with the Eagles during a tour stop at Denver's Pepsi Center in 2013. (John Leyba / The Denver Post)
Glenn Frey performs with the Eagles during a tour stop at Denver’s Pepsi Center in 2013. (John Leyba / The Denver Post)

By Randall Roberts
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Few bands were better at distilling the vibe of Los Angeles in the 1970s than the Eagles, and as its singer and guitarist, Glenn Frey served as a sort of mellow ambassador of the city. Just as Liverpool is forever associated with the Beatles, Seattle claims Nirvana and Bruce Springsteen owns New Jersey, the Eagles embodied the bell-bottomed, feather-haired flair of Southern California.

Frey, who died Monday at age 67, co-wrote and sang some of the most commercially successful country rock ballads of the ‘70s, including “Tequila Sunrise,” “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” “Take It Easy” and “Lyin’ Eyes.”

Soft and twangy, his hits as co-founder of the Eagles defined the region like the vivid colors of orange crate art had during the city’s early boom years and as the Beach Boys had during the surf craze.

During the Eagles’ 2014 concert at the Forum, in fact, Frey compared the legacy of two uniquely Californian bands: “The Beach Boys were pioneers. The Eagles were settlers.” Which is to say, where the Beach Boys forged new sounds, the Eagles gathered up what was already there — country rock — and made it their home.

Frey’s best songs with the Eagles embodied that home, best known through the golden, sun-drenched silhouettes of palm trees on the cover of its classic album Hotel California. The dominant shade of the record sleeve is what Frey so brilliantly conveyed as “another tequila sunrise,” a muted orange, the color of the last wash of daylight or dawn’s first breath.

Where the Beach Boys reveled in a daytime spent surfing and having fun with the girls, the Eagles worked far later into the night. Frey co-wrote and sang songs about mysterious women, the loneliness of the outsider, unrequited desire and dangerous reflexes.

He did so, though, minus any hint of distortion or aggression. In “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” Frey didn’t want to get funky or dirty. Rather, he spun visions of the simple pleasures in his adopted Southern California home as he sang of wanting to “sleep with you in the desert tonight/ With a billion stars all around.”

Frey and writing partner in the Eagles Don Henley (along with Don Felder, J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne and others) thrived in this setting.

Starting in the early 1970s, the band took the country-rock cues of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, toned down the Nashville twang and honed in on the balladry.

They ran with good company. As an up-and-coming Detroit expat in Los Angeles, Frey gravitated toward the hopping Troubadour scene of the early 1970s, where artists as varied as Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson, Linda Ronstadt and Browne gathered to watch one another perform.

Frey ended up in Ronstadt’s backing band with Henley, and soon the Eagles were born.

Within a few years, the Eagles broke through to the mainstream, ultimately becoming one of the most commercially successful bands of the era. Along with Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles came to define arena rock. After the Eagles broke up in the early 1980s, Frey went on to have a successful solo career, charting with songs that became deeply tied with the era’s movies and TV, including “You Belong to the City,” “Smuggler’s Blues” and “The Heat Is On.”

But the era-defining hits Frey co-wrote and/or performed with the Eagles remain the most indelible. “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” and “Tequila Sunrise” testified to California’s calm, breezy beauty. “Witchy Woman” and “Hotel California” dwelt within the region’s layers of mystery and mysticism. “New Kid in Town” expressed the insecurity and confusion of new love. And “Take It Easy,” written with Jackson Browne, should be the state song of California.

Frey might be gone, but those sun-baked, Southern California ballads, many sung with exquisite tenderness, endure.

Read about Glenn Frey’s influence in Colorado.

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