October 11, 2015

What Made The Eagles Soar?

From time to time, I write about very successful individuals, teams, groups, and organizations because I believe it is important for us to understand why certain people are more successful than everyone else.

Showtime has broadcast a two-part documentary called “History of the Eagles,” one of the handful of most successful popular bands of all time, and possibly the most successful American band ever. The documentary does a remarkable job analyzing why The Eagles formed and were so successful, predominantly through the commentary of the two co-founders and leaders Glenn Frey and Don Henley.

These were clearly exceptionally talented individuals, but I observe many superficially similar talented people, who will never be as successful and influential as The Eagles. What were the factors that made them successful?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, properly talked about the environmental conditions that enabled people like Bill Gates, Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems, and Joseph Flom of Skadden Arps successful. He isolated two factors: favorable environmental conditions to which these individuals were exposed and what he calls the “10,000 hour” rule, that is, the amount of deliberative practice time they logged to get to the top.

The Showtime documentary sheds significant light on Henley and Frey before they joined forces in the early 1970’s and, in so doing, gives us many wonderful lessons:

Aptitude and ability matter as preconditions for success.

Glenn Frey clearly had a great singing voice. Don Henley commented that he had a predisposition to use his hands and fingers to create drum-like sounds and rhythms, even before he acquired drums and mastered drumming. Both of them had unique talents.

Both had exceptionally supportive family environments, even though neither came from a family of musicians.

Henley, even more than Frey, talked about how his family had many records in the house, and how, on long trips, his father tuned the car radio to stations in New Orleans and Shreveport, even though he grew up in Linden, Texas, a town of 2,500 people in the northeastern part of the state. Henley particularly remembered that his mother drove to a town 90 minutes away to buy him his first new set of drums, after he had previously cobbled together a drum set from spare pieces in the high school band room.

Frey grew up in a home in which his father was a machinist at an automobile plant and his mother worked as a baker at GM. However, both parents gave him freedom to participate in a band in high school, and his mother (like mine) started him on piano lessons when he was five years old. He switched from piano to guitar in high school.

Both families did not discourage their sons from leaving their home towns and moving to California to pursue their dreams.

Both grew up in places and at times in which the musical environment was very enriching and supportive of innovation.

Henley pointed out that Linden, Texas, was a town in a region in which the blues and gospel music belt intersected with country and western music popular in Texas. Moreover, he was exposed to Dixieland jazz and bluegrass music on the radio stations to which he listened. He also pointed out that Linden, Texas, was the birthplace and childhood home of both Scott Joplin and T-Bone Walker, two renowned composers and musicians.

Frey grew up in Detroit during the heyday of Motown Records, and became a protégé of Bob Seger, who reached the top of the charts in the 1970’s with a great song called “Night Moves.” Frey credits Seger with teaching him about the recording business.

Both Henley and Frey commented on how The Beatles profoundly influenced both of them in terms of the power of music as a cultural influence.

Both of them were fortunate to seek out other famous or talented people at the right time and get their help.

Henley left Texas and moved to Los Angeles because he was bold enough to go up to Kenny Rogers, who was performing in Dallas, and ask Rogers to attend a club at which Henley’s group was performing. Rogers commented that he was floored by the request, did attend the performance, and invited Henley and his group Shiloh to live in Rogers’ home in Los Angeles, which they did for four months.

In addition to Seger, Frey went to Los Angeles and met two important influences on his music and life, songwriter J.D. Souther and Jackson Browne. In fact, Browne, who was already established in the music club scene in Los Angeles, lived just below Frey and composed on a piano which Frey could hear every morning.

Frey and Henley came together, and made a great career decision in becoming parts of a back-up band for Linda Ronstadt, which gave them credibility and knowhow, but they knew when it was time to go out on their own.

Frey and Henley became part of the back-up musician crew for Linda Ronstadt, who was already more famous that they were, because of a hit single called “Different Drum” in 1968. As valuable as it was for them to learn from her and get a steady paycheck, they were insightful enough to know when to leave the relative safety of the positions they had as back-up musicians and go out on their own.

Although Frey had some classic music training, neither of them commented that formal music education was a critical factor in their success.

Henley commented that, although North Texas State University had a world-class music program, he was an English major and did very poorly on the one music course he took.

Frey studied piano under a classically trained pianist, but his formative influence was really on-the-job training as a back-up performer for Bob Seger.

Both of these guys knew enough about music to select the right musicians to accompany them. Interestingly enough, when The Eagles were very successful, Randy Meissner, one of their guitarists and occasional vocalists, left the band. However, Frey quickly recalled that Timothy B. Schmit, who had performed on guitar and vocals for another group called Poco, would be the perfect fit for the band because his voice so closely resembled Meissner’s. When Bernie Leadon left, they found Joe Walsh, who was an exceptionally talented and highly innovative guitarist, and did not miss a beat.

Frey and Henley both knew their own strengths and weaknesses.

Both Frey and Henley knew their own strengths and weaknesses. Frey understood that Henley had the best singing voice in the group, and, as time went on, Henley ended up being the lead singer on more songs.

However, Henley did not attempt, in most cases, to sing while he was playing as a drummer, although he clearly did so in live performances of Hotel California, and Henley understood and welcomed Frey’s songwriting talent.

Phenomenal success usually comes at huge costs and creates certain kinds of pathologies. Highly imperfect people often create near perfect works of art.

Sadly, the documentary also commented on the heavy use of alcohol and drugs by all members of the band. Joe Walsh credited Frey, Henley, and Schmit with getting him to enter a rehabilitation program in 1994, when he was at great risk of an early death from substance abuse, and forcing him to get and stay sober.

The other sad fact that came through was the greed and conflict in the recording industry. The Eagles initiated or defended several lawsuits along the way, simply because their outstanding financial success made every dispute far more financially significant. They had two separate litigations involving David Geffen, and battled a variety of other adversaries.

The relationships between the other members of the band and Frey and Henley were often deeply strained. Leadon and Meissner left early on because of particular kinds of conflicts. Don Felder not only had a tempestuous relationship with Frey before the Eagles first broke up in 1980, but ended up in two litigations when he was fired from the group in 2001, seven years after he joined the reunited group. Many Eagles fans felt that the documentary showed Frey and Henley as extremely unsympathetic in their treatment of the other band members.

Broader conclusions

No one factor accounted for the unbelievable success of this group. Many things came together at the right time and in the right place for them to succeed. Luck and circumstance were necessary, but not sufficient, to account for their success.

This is a superb documentary on so many levels, even if the viewer is not a fan of The Eagles or even a rock music fan. Henley made the comment that the song “Hotel California” is about the inevitable evolution from innocence to experience. Sadly, we all follow that path today because resentment by others and predatory behavior tends to be the lot in life of any successful person or organization.

The Eagles and their co-founders Glenn Frey (whom I met briefly when he performed with Joe Walsh at a Pitney Bowes event in 1998) and Don Henley were highly imperfect people who managed to create near perfect music. The miracle of their success makes me think about who and when another group like The Eagles will emerge. It will happen somewhere, and it will be as inspiring as their story has been.