Donald Hugh Henley was born on July 22, 1947 and is described on the internet as an ‘American musician, singer, songwriter, record-producer and founding member of the Eagles’. It’s difficult to find reference to him being a drummer which of course he was, and a very effective one at that – all the more so because he was usually singing and drumming at the same time. Of course, he was the drummer and co-lead vocalist for the Eagles from 1971 to 1980, when the band broke up, and again from 1994 to 2016, when they reunited, when hell evidently froze over…
Following a year-long break due to Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey’s death, Henley reformed the band again in summer 2017 for the Classic West- and Classic East- Rock Festivals, bringing in Vince Gill and Glenn’s son Deacon to fill the gap and replace his father. Henley has been the only constant member of the band since its formation and he sang lead vocals on Eagles’ hits such as “Witchy Woman”, “Desperado”, “Best Of My love”, “One Of These Nights”, “Hotel California”, “Life In The Fast Lane”, “The Long Run”, and “Get Over It”.
I’ve been waiting to get to this one but Don Henley’s story is not so much complicated as intricate, and not at all like anybody else’s I’ve written about in Groovers and Shakers. So, here goes…
I’m struggling to find the best adjective for Don. Was he a drummer singer, or a singing drummer? What I do know is that The Eagles songs were great to play and you ignored them at your peril. Sooner or later someone was going to call out ‘Hotel California’, ‘Life In The Fast Lane’, ‘Desperado’ and so on. IMHO you owed it to yourself to know them – warts and all.
After the Eagles broke up the first time in 1980, Don decided to pursue a solo career and released a debut album ‘I Can’t Stand Still’ in 1982. Since then he’s released five studio albums, two compilation albums, and one live DVD. Of course, he’s had solo hits including: “Dirty Laundry”, “The Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants To Do Is Dance”. He’s obviously got great taste in drummers as, for example, Jeff Porcaro famously played drums on ‘New York Minute’, and‘Dirty Laundry’.
As far as achievements are concerned, the Don Henley story is absolutely packed full of superlatives. The Eagles have sold over 150 million albums worldwide, won a half dozen Grammy Awards, had five No. 1 singles, seventeen Top 40 singles, and six No. 1 albums. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1998 and are the biggest selling American band in history.
On his own as a solo artist, Henley has sold over 10 million albums worldwide, had eight Top 40 singles, won two Grammy awards, five MTV Video Music Awards and curiously, he was voted the 87th ‘greatest singer of all time’ by Rolling Stone Magazine. He was sandwiched between Art Garfunkel and Willie Nelson in the poll which placed Aretha Franklin at Number One. Perhaps there should have been a category for best singer playing drums at the same time – now Levon Helm has crossed over the wide river, it’s my opinion Don would win hands down.
But of course, he’s not just a drummer, or a singer – he has a political conscience and Henley has also played a leading role in several environmental and political causes, one being The Walden Woods Project.
But we are jumping ahead of ourselves…
To begin at the beginning Don Henley was born in Gilmer, Texas, although he grew up in a small northeast Texas town called Linden, with Scottish, Irish, and English blood in his veins. His father had a business selling automotive parts and his mother was a schoolteacher, who was responsible for buying him his first record which was Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog’. He went to Linden Kildare High Schoolwhere he initially played football, but due to being relatively small in a game with many big players he got injured and his coach suggested that he quit. So, he joined the high school band instead.
At first, Don played the trombone there, although there’s evidence his father, who like his mother was into Country Music, taught him to play guitar. He then seems to have seen the light and thrown his lot in with the percussion section which, in the absence of any other evidence to the contrary, would appear to be where he learned the drums. While still at High School he was invited to join a Dixieland band formed by one of his friend’s fathers, although we cant be sure what instrument he played – trombone or guitar or drums. After leaving High School in 1965, he eventually showed up at The University of North Texas in Denton to study English. A couple of years later he left North Texas to spend time with his father, who was dying from heart disease.
Eventually Don and his friends put another band together called ‘The Four Speeds’. This was in 1964 and, no, I don’t know why, but I’ll hazard a guess it’s to do with the Derailleur gears on a racing bike. The band was eventually renamed Felicity, then finally Shiloh, and went through a number of changes in band personnel.
As ‘The Felicity’ (with what it seems nowadays is a deeply unfashionable definite article for a band name) they were signed to a local producer and released called “Hurtin” (which can be found on YouTube)..In 1969, they met Kenny Rogers who was also a Texan and I’m guessing was in ‘The First Edition’ at the time. He took an interest in them whereupon they changed their name to ‘Shiloh’ and recorded a few songs for him. He helped sign the band to Amos Records and took them to Los Angeles in June 1970. They recorded an eponymous album produced by Rogers at Larrabee Studios (which used to belong to Gerry Goffin and Carole King), while living at Kenny’s home.
Don Henley met Glenn Frey as they were both signed to the same label (Frey was signed to Amos Records, together with JD Souther as part of a duo called ‘Longbranch’). From there they were recruited by record producer John Boylan to be members of Linda Ronstadt’s backing group ostensibly for a tour in 1971, although I’m told they only actually did one gig (or at least one short tour). However this was the catalyst for forming a group so Henley and Frey decided to start one. They were subsequently joined by Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon who also were part of Ronstadt’s band. ‘The Eagles’ got together in late 1971, signed to Asylum Records and released their first studio album in 1972 containing Jackson Browne’s song “Take It Easy”. While the Eagles lasted, Henley co-wrote (usually with Frey) most of the band’s best-known songs. Witchy Woman was co-written with Leadon, and was his first commercially successful song, while Desperado marked the beginning of his songwriting partnership with Frey.
On the subject of his songwriting in the band, Henley once said in a 2001 interview that “rock bands work best as a benevolent dictatorship,” with the principal songwriters in a band (in the case of the Eagles, him and Glenn Frey) being the ones that will likely hold the power.” This of course didn’t sit well with everybody else.
Following the breakup of the Eagles, Henley put his energy into his solo career. Stevie Nicks was his girlfriend by this time and they duetted on her successful hit “Leather and Lace” which was written by Nicks for Waylon Jennings and his wife Jessi Colter in late 1981.
I first ran into the Eagles in Holland in the seventies when they were doing what I’m pretty sure was their very first European tour. At the time they were supporting everyone on a very large bill including Argent and The Who. And following what we’re led to believe was a ‘difficult’ tour with personal tensions spilling over from the recording of ‘The Long Run’ the band split up acrimoniously.
But all was not lost. Against all odds The Eagles reunited in 1994. Henley continued to tour and record with the Eagles too and an album: ‘Long Road out of Eden’ was released in 2007. The band had a number of highly successful tours, such as the Hell Freezes Over Tour which began in 1994. The story goes that everybody in the band was so disillusioned that they said they wouldn’t get back together until “hell freezes over”. So when they did reunite for a tour, it seemed like an obvious title for it.
Musicradar once called Henley one of the greatest singing drummers of all time; that of course begs the question as to who the others might be other than Levon Helm and Phil Collins of course.In his live shows we’re told Henley plays drums and sings simultaneously on some Eagles songs although on his solo songs and other Eagles songs, he plays guitar and sings. I’m told that sometimes Eagles songs get drastic rearrangements, such as “Hotel California” with four trombones.
Henley spent many years in legal battles with Geffen Records. In January 1993, following prolonged tensions between Don Henley and the label, the dispute went public and the record company hit back with a $30-million breach-of-contract suit. Even though he reportedly owed the company two more studio albums and a greatest-hits collection. Henley wanted to sign a more lucrative publishing deal with EMI.Geffen Records claimed that Henley was in breach of contract and Henley attempted to get out of his contract in 1993 by enacting a law based on an interesting old statute where a California law enacted over 50 years earlier to free actors from long-term studio deals, means they cannot be forced to work for any company for more than seven years.
Henley came to terms with Geffen Records when the Eagles’ reunion took off and the company eventually took a large chunk of the profit from the reunion album. Glenn Frey was also in legal entanglements with his label, MCA (whose parent company had also acquired Geffen) Before the Eagles reunion tour could begin, the band had to file another suit this time against Elektra Records which had planned to release a new Eagles’ Greatest Hits album. The band won that battle.
Don Henley takes all of the legal stuff very seriously and he and Courtney Love testified at a California Senate hearing on that state’s contractual laws in Sacramento on September 5, 2001. A year later Henley became the head of the Recording Artists’ Coalition, which he had co-founded in 2000 to protect musicians’ rights against common music industry business practices. Henley says the group seeks to change the fundamental rules that govern most recording contracts, including copyright ownership, long-term control of intellectual property and unfair accounting practices.
A long period without a new recording for Don led to him working with a lot of diverse projects including Patty Smyth, Trisha Yearwood and Roger Waters, duets with Kenny Rogers and Reba McEntire, Ronnie Dunn and Alison Krauss. He also did voice overs on Randy Newman’s project Faust, and received a “Lifetime Achievement” award during the East Texas Music Awards event in 2015.
Years earlier he got into politics when he founded the Walden Woods Project to help protect Walden Woods in Lincoln, Massachusetts from development as I mentioned earlier. The Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods was started in 1998 to provide for research and education. In 1993 a compilation album titled Common Thread was released with some of the royalties from the sales going to the Walden Woods Project. In 2005, he had a fundraiser concert with Elton John and others to buy Brister’s Hill,[part of Walden Woods, and turn it into a hiking trail.Henley co-founded the not-for-profit Caddo Lake Institute in 1993 to underwrite ecological education and research. As part of the Caddo Lake Coalition, CLI helps protect the Texas wetland where Henley spent much of his childhood.
Henley in a 2008 interview revealed that he contributes to many other worthy charitable causes such as The Race to Erase MS, and the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. He is a lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party and has also been a generous donor to their political campaigns.
As far as the distaff side are concerned he’s had a checkered career but I’m certainly not going to go there because this is simply about Don Henley singer, songwriter and drummer, Of course to a songwriter all these events are grist to the mill and he was inspired by them for the solo hit “Dirty Laundry” and various others.
On a brighter note, Don Henley was estimated to be the fourth wealthiest drummer in the world, behind Ringo Starr, Phil Collins, and Dave Grohl with a $200 million fortune. As of 2019, he lives in Dallas with his wife and three children.
As far as gear is concerned, when he began with The Eagles he was using a Ludwig single headed drum kit which gave him that distinctive sound. He also had a Tama Superstar set, although nowadays though he uses DW with an 6.5” Edge snare, four toms and a 22” bass drum, in an African feather veneer. His cymbals are a mixture of Paiste 602 and 2002 starting with 602 14” hats, 10” splash, 16 and 18” Crash and 18” China, thin 18” Classic 602 and a 20” 2002 Ride. His heads are a mixture of Evans and Remo. Sticks wise he has his own signature model Regal Tips from Calato. In case you are interested, the guitar he plays on his own shows is a Fender Telecaster, and the acoustic is a Takamine.
I’d like to leave this Groovers and Shakers piece on a high note. I knew this story, but just in case you don’t I’m really happy to retell it, and I have to hope I haven’t said anything to unsettle him.
Don Henley doesn’t suffer fools gladly and was questioned about the words to Hotel California by a journalist who had the temerity to tell him the lyrics were wrong. The question started out innocently enough, the interviewer pointing out a memorable lyric from one of the group’s most popular songs:
“On “Hotel California”, you sing: “So I called up the captain / ‘Please bring me my wine’ / He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.'” I realize I’m probably not the first to bring this to your attention, but wine isn’t a spirit. Wine is fermented; spirits are distilled. Wine also has a lower ABV (alcohol by volume) percentage than spirits.” Then the clincher arrived: “Do you regret that lyric?”
Don Henley’s response is classic.
“Thanks for the tutorial and, no, you’re not the first to bring this to my attention – and you’re not the first to completely misinterpret the lyric and miss the metaphor. Believe me, I’ve consumed enough alcoholic beverages in my time to know how they are made and what the proper nomenclature is. But that line in the song has little or nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. It’s a sociopolitical statement. My only regret would be having to explain it in detail to you, which would defeat the purpose of using literary devices in songwriting and lower the discussion to some silly and irrelevant argument about chemical processes.”
To misquote something said of another drummer,
“Don’t mess with Mr Henley”.