Don Henley: ‘First Mate’ of the Eagles and Captain in His Own Right

Revered vocalist, drummer, and songwriter reflects on his career

December 8, 2015

It’s rare for an artist to be so equally revered both for their solo work as well as for their part in an iconic band, but Don Henley managed to craft a career and legacy achieving just that. Henley stopped by the Howard Stern Show on Tuesday morning to reflect on everything from his relationship with Glenn Frey to what it was like writing some of the best-selling songs ever.

On the heels of Monday’s news that “The Cost of Living” from Henley’s latest solo album, “Cass County,” was nominated for a Grammy, it’s intriguing to hear that Don didn’t ever really think he’d have a career outside of the Eagles. “I was never expecting to do a solo career,” he told Howard. In fact, after the band broke up in 1980, Henley “thought it was all over.”

Instead, with the help of renowned producer Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar who initially pushed him to go out on his own, Don’s solo career soared with early hits like “Dirty Laundry” and “The Boys of Summer.” “It’s the only gold single I got,” he said of the former. There was no jealousy from his Eagles bandmate Glenn Frey either. “He came to some of my concerts and cheered me on,” Henley remembered.

While his relationship with Frey may have seen some bumps over time, the mutual respect is undeniable and Don insisted that they’re like family. “I love him like a brother,” he maintained. It was Frey, after all, who played a major part in getting Don to write for the band at all. “He encouraged me and pushed me to the front,” Henley recalled.

During the recording of the Eagles self-titled debut album, Don told Howard, he “hadn’t been brave enough to write,” so he focused on drumming. When it came time to record their second album though, Henley had the seeds of what would become “Desperado” already and credits Frey for helping him bring it to the forefront. And though the track would become a fan-favorite, the recording process wasn’t as smooth as the song sounds. The band was working with “English superstar producer” Glyn Johns, who was trying to keep them within their budget, so Don was only able to record about three takes live with the London Philharmonic, which left him forever thinking that he could have “sung it a lot better.” The end result was something special though and Henley doesn’t regret it. “It’s flawed like humans are,” he mused.

Fast-forward a couple of years to 1976 and the Eagles were sitting on what would undeniably become their biggest critical and financial success in “Hotel California,” but Howard wondered if looking back now, Don personally considers that as his greatest accomplishment. “Probably,” Henley answered – and yet at the time it was such a shock to the entire band. “You just never know when you’re making a record,” he explained.

The title track of the record played out almost like a microcosm of Frey and Henley’s relationship, too. The iconic riff originally came by way of guitarist Don Felder, who recorded a rough demo in his home studio with just a guitar and click track and handed it off to Henley, who remembered driving around with it in his car to come up with the melody. “Usually I get the melody first and then the words come on top of that. You kind of have to fit the two together. That’s the trick,” Don said.

Moreover, while some percussionists can get in the way of the vocals inherently, Henley takes a different approach. “I drum the way I drum because I consider myself a singer first,” he emphasized.

But there were still pieces of the song that remained unfinished, so Henley then handed it off to Frey, who he explained was great at “filling in the blanks.” For example, as Don would sing, “Welcome to the Hotel California,” Glenn would respond with the complement of, “Such a lovely place, such a lovely place.”

Their musical relationship remains one of the most rewarding in the business. “I think he was the captain of the ship and I was his first mate,” Henley told Howard. And that worked well for them.