The Eagles founding member reflects on the 40 years since the band got together and shares how and why he recorded his latest solo effort, “After Hours.”
Musician Glenn Frey – Part 1
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Glenn Frey to this program. Forty year ago this year the Detroit native joined his friend Don Henley and formed what would become one of the most iconic bands in all of music history – talking, of course, about the Eagles.
He’s also enjoyed tremendous success as a solo artist, and until I read this, I didn’t believe it – he’s just released his first solo record in more than 17 years. The disc is called “After Hours,” and from the project, here now some of the video for the song “Route 66.”
Tavis: So I was telling some of my staff this little silly story before you arrived today. So 20 years ago I was a kid out of college working for the mayor of this city, Tom Bradley, and there was this woman who you may recall named Helena. We won’t say her name on national TV, but Helena was the queen of these little underground clubs here in L.A., and so all these celebrities who want to get out of the house but don’t want to – this is before the paparazzi went completely crazy.
But they’d want to get out of the house, but they’d go to these little underground spots, and Helena was the queen of these little places, and you would just know the right person to get in. So I had no business being there; I’m a kid working for the mayor. But Helena needed some work done with the city, had some city ordinance issues.
So I’m working for the mayor and all of a sudden I get this invitation to go to this club. So I walk in this club a couple times, and second time I’m there, Glenn Frey walks in the door. There’s Jack Nicholson over here and Janet Jackson’s over here and Glenn Frey walks in the door, and I was a huge Glenn Frey fan.
So I walk up – I’m sure this annoying, in-your-face, snotty-nosed kid –
Glenn Frey: (Laughs) Oh, no.
Tavis: – because I was so crazy about Glenn Frey, and you sat with me – all my friends know this story – you sat with me for an hour and a half and answered every one of my questions. Made me feel like the most important person in the world. I’ve not seen you in person in 20 years, but that was me then, and here we are now, talking on television.
Frey: That’s great.
Tavis: So thank you for being so kind to me when you didn’t even know who the heck I was.
Frey: Well, listen, I knew you were going places. (Laughter)
Tavis: That is so funny.
Frey: Yeah, well, Helena, she was a friend of Jack Nicholson’s. I think she was in “Five Easy Pieces,” and she was the girl that sat in the back of the car and hated everything. Just (unintelligible) said, “Crap, that’s crap.” I remember that.
But she was, like you say, she was sort of the queen of the underground club, and she moved this club a couple times around, and you sort of had to know it was there.
Tavis: That’s right.
Frey: Then we would go down there, like you say, because no one knew you were coming, and once you got in you were pretty insulated. The food was good. Pretty girls. It was a happening place.
Tavis: (Laughter) You were very nice to me that nice. I’ve never forgotten that, so thank you for being so kind to me.
Frey: Well, I’m glad.
Tavis: So it’s been a while. Why the – I’m glad you did it, but why this project? Why this one, and why now?
Frey: Well, now because my parents are still alive.
Frey: I wanted to sort of do this record as an homage to the music that they grew up listening to, and also the music that I grew up listening to when they were young parents. I grew up in Detroit.
So my mother always loved big band music. I have two Ns in my name because she loved Glenn Miller. She loved Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.
Tavis: Your mom had good taste.
Frey: Yeah, my mom had very good taste. So it was an opportunity for me. I wanted to get this record done while my parents were still around.
Tavis: Wow. Which leads to the obvious question – there’s some good stuff on here. How did you pick this stuff, this material?
Frey: Well, I wanted to sing songs that my voice was comfortable with. We sort of started out with just piano and voice, me and my two partners, Richard Davis and Michael Thompson. I’d throw out an idea for a song and we’d say, “Well, okay, let’s pick a key, let’s get a lyric sheet, let’s noodle around with it.”
But mostly I wanted to do love songs. I wanted this album to have a mood that ran through the whole record, and like I said, mostly just stuff that I felt I was comfortable singing.
Tavis: How do you know – it’s a silly question and it may not be an easy answer to the question, but how do you know what’s right for your voice? You said a moment ago that you wanted to do stuff that was right for your voice. What’s that mean?
Frey: Well, I think you have to sort of have a sense of where your range is. I wouldn’t be – one song I want to do that I didn’t do, “Rainy Night in Georgia.” Brook Benton, the Tony Joe White song.
Tavis: Right, oh, Lord, yeah.
Frey: But I didn’t. The baritone, where the song was, it just didn’t fit me. But I seem to be right kind of in the Tony Bennett, Nat Cole range. That seems to be where my voice sits. So nothing too hard, nothing too loud.
Tavis: I’m just curious – what have your parents had to say about this?
Frey: It’s their favorite record I’ve ever made. (Laughter) They like everything I do, but for them to be able to hear my interpretation of Dinah Washington, “I’m Getting Old Before My Time,” stuff like that, it really takes them back.
Tavis: I suspect this is probably true for most of us, and no matter how old we get I think this is probably, again, still the case. But how important is it to do something for your parents that your parents like? I think we all still want, no matter how old we get, that parental approval.
Frey: That’s right. I don’t think that ever goes away. Here I am, 40 years in the entertainment business, going, “Mom, do you like this? What do you think?” (Laughter) But I think it does mean a lot. This is music – it’s interesting, when I was growing up in Detroit, the TV was on, the radio was on, my parents listened, watched my “Hit Parade” and all the variety shows and stuff, but I never really latched on to the music.
It was playing and it was around, but then when I came out here to California and I became a songwriter and I met Hoagy Carmichael and I met some other people, then it was like, wow, these songs are good. These songs are really good, and not that easy to figure out. Lot of subtle and nuanced chord changes, and it was beautiful music, too.
These songs, “Shadow of your Smile,” “Sentimental Reasons,” they take you to a place, a place inside everybody. I was just talking with your producer and he said, “Well, I got your album and I knew I was going to produce this segment, so I went on a car trip with my wife and we put it on.” I said, “How’d it go?” He said, “It was great.”
But this is the kind of record, I think, that you would want to pay if you’re taking a drive or having a little dinner party or after hours, everybody’s gone to bed and you finally kick your feet up and say, “You know, I think I’ll have a glass of wine and just take off, take a little vacation.”
Tavis: See, it worked for my producer, Chris, because he’s already married. I guess the question is will this get you married? (Laughter)
Frey: Well, it couldn’t hurt. (Laughter) She’ll know you’re romantic.
Tavis: You grew up in Detroit, as you said. I grew up just down the road, in Indiana, so we always are proud to claim Hoagy Carmichael out of Indiana.
Frey: You bet.
Tavis: So I love Hoagy Carmichael’s stuff. But it is fascinating, though, to hear, just ironic to hear somebody who grew up in Detroit, where the music in that city didn’t really influence him. It wasn’t until you got to California, as you said, when the music thing really hit you. That’s a strange thing to say, though, growing up in Detroit and not – because everybody in Detroit was –
Frey: Well, I was real keen on Motown, and of course in Detroit we got not just the big hits, we even got the secondary stuff.
Tavis: Yeah, the B-sides.
Frey: We heard everything. We heard everything. Then there was the British invasion, and I saw the Beatles at the Olympia in Detroit in 1964, and that was kind of an epiphany for me. Wanted to do that, and always wanted to come West. The Beach Boys, the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, the whole San Francisco thing was going on; it was the late ’60s.
I remember we’d be watching the Detroit Lions playing away football game at Kezar Stadium or at the L.A. Coliseum. It’d be December and they’d go, “We’re at Kezar Stadium, 71 degrees and sunshine.” (Laughter) I’ve got to get –
Tavis: I’ve got to get to California.
Frey: How many more winters until I can go?
Tavis: We think of Detroit, though, we think of Detroit and Michigan, it’s not just Motown. Clearly, Motown’s the biggest thing to come out of there, but there’s Bob Seger, there’s a rock and roll sound that comes out of that area as well.
Frey: Yes, there is. Bob Seger is my mentor and one of my close friends, one of my heroes. When I was growing up in Detroit he was like the first guy that had a record deal. He had “Cameo Parkway.” He was like the first guy that had a local hit, heavy music, and “East Side Story.”
I was managed by his manager. My little band, the Mushrooms, was managed by his manager, Punch Andrews.
Tavis: Yeah, hold up, hold up – the Mushrooms? (Laughter)
Frey: We had some bad – that was one of the better names.
Tavis: Wait, wait, one of the better names?
Frey: It was probably one of the better names. But it’s all the psychedelic nuance.
Tavis: Yeah, I get it, I get it.
Frey: You get it.
Tavis: Yeah, I get it. Yeah.
Frey: But Bob Seger took a liking to me when he saw my band, and he kind of took me under his wing. He took me in the recording studio with him, he let me sing and play guitar on “Rambling, Gambling Man.” He showed me how to make records. He introduced me to Mickey Stevenson, who was a producer over at Motown.
He was doing Kim Weston, Marvin Gaye, “It Takes Two,” stuff like that. Bob was the first songwriter that I ever met – the guy that wrote his own songs. We were at a club one night watching another local Detroit band, actually a very good band called the Rationals, and Bob says, “They’re never going to make it like this.”
I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, they don’t write their own songs. He said, “Glenn, if you want to be successful in the music business, you’ve got to write your own songs.” So I looked at him kind of the way you’re looking at me, (laughter) and I said, “Well, what if they’re bad?” and he says, “They’re going to be.”
He says, “You’re going to write some bad songs, but just keep writing and eventually you’ll write a good one.”
Tavis: How did you know – let me just back up, because I missed something here. When, where and how did you know, figure out, that you had this gift of music, that you had this gift of songwriting? When did that epiphany happen for you?
Frey: Well, I got in a pretty good band in Birmingham, Michigan, called The Four of Us. It was probably the only surf band in Detroit. Everybody wanted to be Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels or the Rolling Stones. (Laughter) Every band had a lead singer, and then the guys around him playing their instruments to whatever level of proficiency they could.
But I got in this band with a couple guys from Birmingham and they were doing Beach Boy songs and Beatles songs and Buckinghams and songs with background vocals, so I really kind of got into the group singing thing and the melodic thing.
I just enjoyed it so much, and like I said, I got a lot of encouragement from Bob. He said, “You’re good, and you’re going to get better, but you’ve got to write your own songs.” So then I came out to California. Now, my girlfriend was from Detroit and she was in a little singing group called the Mama Cats – four white girls from –
Tavis: Oh, come on, come on, man. (Laughter)
Frey: Listen to this. Four white girls, they were four –
Tavis: “The Mama Cats.”
Frey: They were four white girls from Grosse Point, Southfield, downtown Detroit, that sang Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas – they sang Motown songs. They came out to California, got signed by Lee Hazelwood, and the first day I came out to California I met a guy named JD Souther. He was going out with my girlfriend’s sister.
So I started hanging out with him. He was into country music; he was into a lot of music that I wasn’t familiar with, jazz, R&B. We had a lot of time to burn, so we listened to a lot of records the first couple years I was out here.
But then probably my biggest break was getting hired to play rhythm guitar with Linda Ronstadt, and Don Henley got hired from his band to play drums with Linda Ronstadt, and that’s where he and I met, and that’s where we met Linda. Then things got rolling from there.
Tavis: The rest, as they say, is history.
Tavis: When you look back on the genesis of that relationship with Don Henley, what comes to mind?
Frey: Well, when I first met him, a couple things. When I first met him I loved his voice. I loved his singing voice. I saw his band play at the Troubadour, and then when we went out with Linda, Don and I were the principal singers with Linda, so I really loved playing with him and I loved singing with him and doing those songs.
What I didn’t know was that he was just a couple credits away from his degree in English literature at North Texas State, so we made the first Eagles record, and Don and I hadn’t written any songs on it, but when we came back from London we were a little bit worried about the overall content of the record.
We had a few good songs, but not a lot. We were managed by David Geffen and Elliot Roberts at the time, and they had Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jackson Browne. So Don and I kind of looked at each other and go, “We’d better write some good songs, and we’d better write them pretty quick, or we’re not going to be around. They’re not going to want us around with these other people who are so talented.”
So Don Henley and I decided that we would try to write songs together, and this is when I discovered what a poet he was. So the first week we tried to write, we wrote “Desperado” and “Tequila Sunrise.”
Tavis: The first week.
Frey: The first week. (Laughter)
Tavis: You guys did “Desperado” the first week?
Frey: Well, something clicked.
Tavis: Gee whiz, I’ll say.
Frey: Something clicked, and we’ve been able to write songs ever since. I felt comfortable with him. He’s very bright, he’s very – what’s the word I’m looking for? He wants to get it right. We will work on two or three lines for a month or two until the words – just to try to get more meaning, to try to get the lines right. He’s very tenacious.
We’re able, for some reason – you have to be comfortable with somebody you’re writing songs with. I felt it was a good thing, if you’re writing songs by yourself, who’s going to tell you if it’s good or not? But if you’re writing songs with somebody else, you get that immediate feedback, and I immediately started to trust him and I think he trusted me, too.
So I never had a problem when he said, “I don’t like that,” you know what I mean? I was never offended. For some reason I felt like okay, yeah, you’re probably right. Maybe we should work on that a little more. Or that’s good, that’s really good, let’s use that. Write that down.
Tavis: You mentioned his love of literature. Just take me inside the writing room, metaphorically speaking. How does the collaborative process actually work for the two of you?
Frey: Well, in our heyday I would say – we would basically come into a room, sit down at my house or up at his house. Sometimes we lived together. I’d go over to the piano and say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” and I’d play something, and he’d go, “Yeah, I like that, I like that.” Maybe just get up and start singing.
That’s the way we wrote “One of These Nights.” I just went over to the piano and I started playing this little minor descending progression, and he comes over and goes, (singing) “One of these nights.” I go, yeah, yeah.
So in the best of times, it just kind of flows. We would just get together every day and work, and you have great days and some days are not so great, but I think the level of trust is really the key.
Tavis: Obviously the relationship between you and Henley kicks up when you guys are both, as you said, hanging out and playing with Linda Ronstadt, but what did you learn from her, being with her, and I ask that because as I think about this new project of yours, “After Hours,” one of my favorite Linda Ronstadt projects was when she did the thing with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra.
Is that an amazing record? That Nelson Riddle piece was absolutely phenomenal. But what did you take away from being with her all that time?
Frey: Follow your musical instincts. Do what you feel is right. Don’t be relegated to a certain category. Linda Ronstadt, she had a whole string of hit records with the “Heart Like a Wheel” album – “You’re No Good” and the Everly Brothers song and a Neil Young song, so she had all these pop records.
All of a sudden – now, I wasn’t playing with her anymore, and the Eagles are off doing their thing, and I hear, “Where’s Linda?” “Oh, she’s in New York doing ‘Pirates of Penzance’ with Kevin Klein.” (Laughter) She’s singing – and I go, “Wow.”
Tavis: And not the mariachi stuff.
Frey: Yeah. Then she did the records with Nelson Riddle. Now, in my humble opinion, those are the best records. Those records are nearly perfect.
Tavis: I think you’re right about that.
Frey: I also loved Harry Nilsson, “Touch of Schmilsson in the Night,” Willie Nelson’s “Stardust,” but Linda’s records, I thought, were – the Nelson Riddle arrangements were perfect. Her voice is like chocolate – it’s sweet, it’s rich. Those were great records. I’m excited – I hope she gets this record. I might have to send her a copy or two and say, “See what you started? I always wanted to do this after I heard you.”
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughs) Well, I feel better knowing that Glenn Frey and I agree on Linda Ronstadt and Nelson Riddle. That was good stuff.
Frey: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: What do you, then, make of whether you guys are on tour or not, the enduring, abiding love for the Eagles catalogue?
Frey: Well, I think that’s what it is. People connect – the songs connect with people, and somebody once said something really interesting to me. They said, “People didn’t just listen to the Eagles. They did things to the Eagles.”
They broke up with their girlfriend, (laughter) they got in a car with a bunch of guys and drove from Chicago to California. They asked somebody out that they never had the nerve to. You know what I’m saying? I think there was a big connection.
We were just trying to be as good as the people we admired. Our goals were not any bigger than that, really, but we did a really good job. We learned how to write songs, we learned how to make records, and we had a unique vocal sound. But I really think it’s the songs, and that’s why we’re still around.
Tavis: You just said something that I find really fascinating, and it’s not rocket science, but I never thought about it in that way, as a benchmark. So what say you to young songwriters about the advice you just offered, which is just try to be as good as the folk that you admire? That’s a pretty good benchmark to shoot for.
Frey: Yeah, I think you do have to have your influences, and I think if you were to – for example, as a songwriter, if I said to you, “Okay, I want you to get the Beatles songbook and I want you to get Motown’s songbook. I want you to learn all those songs. If you do that you will have spent some time with some of the greatest material, and some of it’s going to rub off on you.”
I’ve been talking recently in New York City at NYU and here at USC with some of the young songwriters in the music programs there, and the other thing I tell them is – and I don’t mean this in an unkind way, but I say, “People don’t care how you feel. You need to paint pictures, you need to tell stories. That’s what people want. They want to be entertained. Then all of the other stuff kind of filters across as part of the whole thing.” But really, people want to be entertained.
Tavis: This is like a master class with Glenn Frey. (Laughter) I love this, and it’s free, thanks to public television. (Laughter) That’s great advice, though – paint pictures and tell stories. That is true, though. And if you can put a little melody in there –
Frey: Well, take “Hotel California” as a song as an example. I really think one of the greatest allies you can have is the imagination of your audience, and because we wrote – we were visual songwriters. There were no videos. We didn’t have any of that.
So we tended to be visual songwriters. We wanted people to see things while they were listening to our records. But “Hotel California,” it’s just sort of one-shots of – we talked about it when we were writing the song. It’s like the “Twilight Zone.” I said, “It doesn’t really matter. Just show these pictures.”
Guy’s in the car, guy lights up a cigarette. (Laughter) Guy gets to the hill. Guy sees the lights, he pulls over. He opens the door; he’s in a weird hotel with strange people. It doesn’t matter. Everybody imagines.
Everybody always asks, “What is ‘Hotel California’ about?” and I always say, “What do you think it’s about?” Because I think that’s a powerful thing, to be able to engage your audience and let them put some of themselves into the music.
Tavis: What stirs that?
Frey: Well, in music it can be a number of things. Sometimes it’s just the mood. So I think that it’s just a sort of matter of finding out what’s interesting, what makes people want to listen, painting a little picture, and creating a mood with the chords and the instruments.
Tavis: Kind of like “The Heat is On.”
Frey: Well, now, “The Heat is On,” that’s another – (laughter).
Tavis: That pulls you in, man.
Frey: That’s a funny –
Tavis: Go ahead and tell me. I want to hear it.
Frey: Okay, here’s “The Heat is On” story.
Tavis: All right.
Frey: Okay, the Eagles are broke up and it’s in the middle ’80s, and Irving Azoff, my manager, calls me up and said, “Glenn, you got to come to a screening. We’re going to show this movie, this Eddie Murphy movie. It’s going to be huge. You’ve got to get a song in it. Come on.”
So I went to the screening and I’m sitting there, and Don was there and Irving was there, and we’re waiting for the movie to start, and I look over my shoulder – Quincy Jones. Okay.
I look over my shoulder – Stevie Wonder. (Laughter) Look back over here, it’s the Pointer Sisters. (Laughter) I’m sitting there going, “I’m dead. There’s no way I’m getting a song in ‘Beverly Hills Cop.'” So we watched the movie with temp music and it was fabulous and we laughed, and everybody said, “This movie is going to be huge.”
But I never thought I’d get a song in it. So a month or two goes by and then all of a sudden somebody says, “Hey, we’re going to send you a song. See if you maybe want to sing it. It’s written by these guys, Keith Forsey and Harold Faltermeyer, the guys in Munich that do the Donna Summer records are going to send you something. See if you want to sing it.
So they sent me a demo of “The Heat is On.” It sounded kind of like a Huey Lewis thing, the saxophone in it. Kind of sounded like something I might do. So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” So I met the guys, I came in, I sang it one day, I played guitar and did background vocals the next day and I got a small check, I think 15 grand. I had a little Christmas money, and I was happy. (Laughter)
Tavis: Hold that thought, hold that thought. I’m out of time.
Tavis: I’m going to convince Glenn Frey to stay here. Can you stay a few more minutes?
Tavis: I’m going to have Glenn Frey stay here for another night, and we’re going to pick this story up tomorrow night (laughter) about what happened after he got his little spending money for Christmas for “The Heat is On.”
The new project from Glenn Frey is called “After Hours.” It’s a wonderful collection of standards and classics. He puts his own flavor and own spin on it, and I think you’re going to love it. His parents like it; I think you’ll love it too.
We’ll continue this conversation tomorrow night with Glenn Frey right here on PBS. Until then, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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