Obituary: Glenn Frey, Eagles founder and singer-songwriter

Glenn Frey, Eagles founder who sang, played guitar and keyboards and wrote Hotel California. Picture: AP
Glenn Frey, Eagles founder who sang, played guitar and keyboards and wrote Hotel California. Picture: AP
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Born: Detroit, Michigan, 6 November 1948. Died: New York City, 18 January 2016, aged 67

Glenn Frey was a founder member of Los Angeles-formed country-rock group the Eagles, for whom he sang and played guitar and keyboards. Until his death he and Don Henley were the creative heart and only continuous members of the group through two incarnations, the first spanning 1971 to 1980 and the second a 1994 reunion which was never dissolved.

During their lifetime the Eagles sold 150 million records across the world and became the most successful group in American rock and pop history. Their 1976 Greatest Hits album was a contender for the most successful release ever, shipping almost 40 million copies and earning America’s first platinum album certification.

While to many commentators the Eagles were precisely as unfashionable as such an avalanche of across-the-board commercial approval might suggest, there’s no doubt that the best of their work fused musical genres in such a way as to create elegiac anthems for their times. Their choruses were pop, their manly, guitar-strewn epics formed of classic rock, and the yearning, regretful tone at the heart of many of their songs was country.

This found its best expression on their most recognisable hit Hotel California (1976), at once an enduring karaoke hit four decades on and a frayed, mournful echo of the drug-frazzled Californian rock star lifestyle. Frey co-wrote and sang backing vocals on the track, but on many more hits he took the lead. The voice at the heart of Take It Easy, New Kid in Town, Heartache Tonight, Lyin’ Eyes and Tequila Sunrise was his.

The Eagles were formed in 1970 when Frey, Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner were recruited as the singer Linda Ronstadt’s backing band, playing together on her eponymous 1972 album. Their debut album together, also eponymous, appeared the same year, and they released five more records amidst various personnel changes in their first period together. Each was a success, but Hotel California (1976) took them to a new level of stardom. Amidst alcohol and drug abuse, and the reckless behaviour and fights associated with it, the pressurised 18-month recording session for the follow-up The Long Run (1979) tore the band apart.

Following the split in 1980, both Frey and Henley went on to have significant solo careers in their own right. Frey’s success was commendable rather than stratospheric, but his not inconsiderable achievements in the 1980s included three US top 40 albums (1982’s No Fun Aloud, 1984’s The Allnighter and 1988’s Soul Searchin’) and seven top 40 US singles. His biggest hit under his own name was 1984’s The Heat is On, from the soundtrack of the film Beverley Hills Cop.

Frey’s interest in working on screen projects stretched beyond this track. He recorded the songs You Belong to the City and Smuggler’s Blues for the hit cop show Miami Vice and contributed songs to the soundtracks of the films Ghostbusters II and Thelma & Louise.

On television he had roles in the crime drama Wiseguy (1989), Beverley Hills detective show South of Sunset (1993; he was the star, although it was cancelled after only one episode) and cult police show Nash Bridges (1997). His highest-profile role was in the Tom Cruise-starring Jerry Maguire (1996), when director Cameron Crowe cast him as the manager of an American football team.

Over the Eagles’ break, relations between Frey and Henley thawed, and in 1993 they and the rest of the band agreed to appear together in a video promoting an all-star Eagles country tribute album. The next year they were on tour again to great fanfare, and releasing the comeback album Hell Freezes Overto yet another placing at the top of the American charts. The album was named jokingly after Frey and Henley’s previous insistence that the band would reunite “when hell freezes over”; at the beginning of the recording Frey can be heard saying “for the record, we never broke up – we just took a 14-year vacation.”

In 1998 the Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and over the following years the group continued to perform huge international tours to stadia and indoor arenas. In 2007 they released Long Road Out of Eden, their first all-new record in 28 years and a further transatlantic number one. Although it was touted at the time as potentially the last Eagles record, Frey had more recently suggested that further recordings were at least in the planning. As a solo artist he released a selection of classic American covers called After Hours in 2012.

Born Glenn Lewis Frey in Detroit, Michigan to parents Nellie and Eddie, Frey was raised in the city’s suburb of Royal Oak. He took up piano lessons at the age of five on his mother’s insistence, but swapped to guitar following a 1964 appearance by the Beatles at the city’s Olympia Stadium, playing a role in many local rock ‘n’ roll bands at school and in his youth. Frey became friends with local singer-songwriter Bob Seger, playing and singing on his first hit Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man (1968), but soon after left for Los Angeles to follow a girlfriend who hoped to become a singer. He founded the unsuccessful group Longbranch Pennywhistle and briefly shared an apartment with Jackson Browne, before being hired for Ronstadt’s band.

Frey had long suffered from intestinal health problems, which had surfaced as far back as 1995 when they caused the postponement of some dates of the Eagles comeback tour. These had worsened in recent months, however, and “rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia” were given as the collective reason for his death by an Eagles statement. “Crossing paths with Glenn Lewis Frey in 1970 changed my life forever, and it eventually had an impact on the lives of millions of other people all over the planet,” said Henley in a statement. “I will be grateful, every day, that he was in my life.”

Alongside their statement the band, who completed their final tour together last July, shared the lyrics to their song It’s Your World Now from Long Road Out of Eden, written by Frey with Jack Tempchin. “No sad goodbyes, no tears allowed,” they read. “You’ll be alright, it’s your world now.” Glenn Frey is survived by his second wife Cindy and their children Taylor, Deacon and Otis.