Gary James' Interview With Former Eagles' Guitarist
He is the former lead guitarist for The Eagles. A member of The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame since 1998, he was with The Eagles for 27 years, co-writing "Hotel California". He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles. We are of course talking about Mr. Don Felder.
Q - That was for your second CD "Road To Forever".
A - Yes.
Q - Is that new or has that been out for a while?
A - It was released at the very end of 2012. This song that I co-wrote with Tommy is the second single that's about to be released. I think it was released March 21st, 2013 and the process was that I had written some music for this song, pretty much the best music bed, and had a lot of the melody laid out and I was having trouble really clearly articulating the sentiment I wanted in this song called "Wash Away" and the idea was that as we grow up through childhood traumas, broken hearts, people passing in our family, disastrous love affairs, we kind of wind up with this battered, scarred heart as we go through life. We all do. We all would like to find a place to literally wash that pain away. So, I wanted to write a song about that, especially after coming out of my 29 year divorce and my breakup with The Eagles. So, I wanted to write a song about that and I was having difficulty articulating in a very kind of subtle yet clear way lyrically how to get that idea across. So, I'd been struggling with those lyrics for about a week or so, on and off. Finally I just picked up the phone and called Tommy. By some small miracle, he happened to be in town because Styx are usually on the road pretty much non-stop, 150 dates a year. But he was here. "Tommy, I'm working on this song. I'd really like you to hear it. Can you come over and listen to it and tell me what you think?" So, he hopped in his car and we actually spent three days working on three different songs. That was one of them, "Wash Away". He and I sat down and wrote some lyrics together for it. I've got a studio in my home. So I said "Let's sing the choruses and see how it works." So, we sang the harmonies and melodies on the chorus. It all fit well and sounded great. So, we jumped onto another song called "Heal Me", which was kind of the same subject matter. In the process, Tommy was thinking of working on a Country record. He had the beginning of an idea and I wound up writing a chorus for it and we sang all those harmonies and it sounded like Crosby, Stills and Nash more than a Country track. (Laughs). So, it's something we may use in the future, but it didn't wind up on his record or my record. So in three days we wrote three songs together. Tommy is a real gifted writer, guitarist, vocalist. He's so easy to work with. Stuff just rolls out of us when we're together. I hope we'll have the opportunity to write much more together in the future.
Q - You answered my second question before I had a chance to ask it.
A - I knew it was coming. (Laughs).
Q - So Tommy Shaw was not in awe of working with Don Felder of The Eagles? I know Styx has been successful, but not as successful as The Eagles.
A - We became friends over dinner. I did a benefit for the victims of Katrina right after the hurricane happened and I've recruited a lot of people to come in and perform on that, including Alice Cooper, Tommy Shaw, Jack Blades, David Foster, Cheech of Cheech And Chong. D.L. Hughley hosted the show. Dennis Quaid came with his band. We just had a really great night of people playing music and jamming. We raised a lot of money for it. I met Tommy several times before that, but during that night we really kind of struck up a bond here in L.A. and started having dinner and hanging out, talking music. Wives and significant others got along really well. We just became really close friends when he was in town. I thought it was really wonderful that he could spare the time off the road to come and work on my project. I was just as in awe of his talents as I'm certain he was of mine. So, it's a very mutual, complementary relationship, personally and professionally.
Q - I see The Eagles have a new documentary out called The History of The Eagles. Have you seen that documentary?
A - Yeah, I've seen parts of it. I haven't had the opportunity to sit down and watch the whole thing, stem to stern. Yeah, I've seen parts of it.
Q - What did you think?
A - Well, I think it was really delightful for me to review a lot of the old footage that we shot together. I'd forgotten, first of all, how skinny I was. I was a 29 inch waist. I'm a 30 inch waist now, so I've gained a couple of pounds. Some of the hairstyles were really interesting. Don Henley's nickname was "Furry Basketball". He had this like curled Fro hairdo. I had hair down to my shoulders and a beard. But the most impressive thing that struck me is that we were just five guys in ripped jeans, T-shirts, football jerseys, walking out on stage playing and singing music together. There were no pyrotechnics. No dancers. You watch Beyoncé at the Super Bowl and it's like this visual assault where the music is almost secondary. You're captured by your eyes as opposed to your ears. Looking back at that footage, our band had none of that. It was just about five guys playing Rock 'n' Roll and singing songs together. It really kind of seemed to hold up by itself, especially in those old 'live' recordings. So, I was delighted by the footage that I saw.
Q - Now see, that is what some people have criticized The Eagles for, never having put on a show of any kind. Did anyone at any time say to you guys "Hey, you gotta move on stage", or "We should have some props"? Or that was never discussed?
A - That was never what our form of presentation was in the '70s. Later in the "Hell Freezes Over" there was a set designer that actually designed something that was a little more visual to look at on stage. There was some movements that took place during certain songs where Joe and I would go play together and kind of clown around a little bit. Henley would come out from behind the drums. There was more motion during the "Hell Freezes Over" tour than there was in the '70s. We just played and sang music. We didn't feel that we were the type of show that would be presented in like Vegas or somewhere that had a lot of visuals. Or
Kiss with the makeup. It was not part of our visual concept and you can see that we had very little visual concept. (Laughs). It was all about the music.
Q - Have you ever seen any Eagles tribute bands?
A - I have never seen any of them perform 'live' to tell you the truth.
Q - Would there be a reason why?
A - It's like looking at a carbon copy of yourself, someone else doing what you do. I just have no interest in going to see it to tell you the truth.
Q - Some of these guys were born well after the debut of The Eagles. They hold your former band on the highest pedestal.
A - To me, it's really flattering to have someone kind of clone you and go play your music and play your music verbatim and even portray you as a character on stage. For me to go see that, I've heard all those songs, I played all those songs, I co-wrote some of them, I recorded a lot of them and played them for years on the road. I really don't have much interest in going to see a tribute band to tell you the truth.
Q - If you ever had the occasion to go on stage and play a song with one of those groups, they'd probably feel as if they'd died and gone to Heaven.
A - (Laughs).
Q - When you were 10 years old, you traded in some cherry bombs for a guitar. That was a smart move because had you kept the cherry bombs, one could have exploded in your hands and there would have been no career for you as a guitar player.
A - (Laughs).
Q - Had you ever thought about that?
A - No, I never thought about that. Both of my grandparents were carpenters. My father built the house I grew up in and so I always had the smell of sawdust in my veins. So, in one of my homes it had a barn and I built a woodworking shop. It had table saws and lathes. I just really enjoyed that, wood shapers, until one day I had a near miss with one of my hands and realized that it's really a great hobby but it is a potentially career ending hobby. So, I decided to sell that woodworking shop and I took up pottery. (Laughs).
Q - That's a little safer! When you were 14, you went to see B.B. King and all the women were screaming. Screaming over B.B. King or his music?
A - At his music. He was playing the Blues and those women were just so moved by it. They were going "Tell it like it is, baby! You say it B.B.!" They were really emotionally moved by his music. Elvis Presley was more of a visual icon, although his songs were great. I think he was much more physically attractive. That attracted a lot more women to be screaming. B.B. was actually moving people with his music and that's what really resonated with me, because I felt moved by it too.
Q - You've said "Who would have ever thought that a guitar player from Gainesville would go on to be in The Eagles and then become a best-selling author?" The public always thinks you have to be in L.A. or New York to be in the music business. You can't possibly come from some small town or some small city. But in fact, that's where some of the biggest artists in the world have come from.
A - Yeah, but I had to move to New York and then moved to Boston and then moved to L.A. to eventually wind up doing all of that. Fortunately I was in a small enough town like Gainesville, Florida, which had a university in it, so I met a lot of other students at that college who had come from New York, Chicago and Miami and outside of the Deep South and really got glimpses of kind of what life was like and what culture was like outside of Gainesville, and several times took field trips to Boston, went to New York with a couple of bands before I actually moved there and really just got a glimpse of the world before I kind of packed my suitcase and guitar and moved up there.
Q - Was there a lot going on musically in Gainesville?
A - During the college year there were a lot of fraternity parties. Every weekend there were fraternity parties, either Friday or Saturday night or sometimes both. There were a couple of bars there. Gatorland. Every time there was a home game, they would have a band that afternoon before the football game and after the football game when everybody let out and came to drink. There was another place, Dubs, The Steer Room, which had music six nights a week. I think my favorite show was on Wednesday nights at Dubs, which is when he had the wet T-shirt contest. I think that also sold me on being a musician on stage. But yeah, there were a couple of opportunities. Then during the school year when University of Florida was in recess, everyone would go over to Daytona, which is maybe a little over an hour, an hour and 20 minute drive, and we'd play the dance clubs over there or The Pier. Just that whole Daytona strip during the summer. It was non-stop work over there. We were gigging all year long.
Q - Duane Allman taught you how to play slide guitar. What kind a guy was Duane Allman?
A - Duane was really a brilliant musician in my opinion. He was able to take an instrument that up until that time had been primarily used in old traditional Blues, with acoustic guitars and guys playing very un-technical approach to playing slide guitar. He was the first guy that I saw that played electric slide guitar in that E tuning and had just taken it light-years above where everyone else that I'd ever seen or heard was able to play it. So that's why when we were finally together and sitting on the floor of his mother's house I said, "You got a show me how to do that" and he sat down and basically showed me the tuning and a lot of the basic slide positions on the fret board and how things worked. I never tried to emulate or copy Duane because I always felt that even though it's flattering, you have to develop your own style and your own approach to music. I didn't want to be a Duane clone, although he had influenced me and started me, I needed to find my own technique, and I did.
Q - Is it fair to say if you hadn't met Bernie Leadon early on in Florida, the invitation to join The Eagles might never have come?
A - Well, I think all of your history is relevant of who you meet, who you have relationships with. If you never met those people in any walk of life, then your future would be different. It was just a very serendipitous coincidence that Stephen Stills was in the band The Continentals. He left and moved to California. Bernie moved to Gainesville because his father had been hired to start the Nuclear Research Department at the University of Florida. Bernie was looking for someone to play with and found me. So, I would have to say it was a very serendipitous, fortunate encounter for us both that we not only became friends but we had our first single that we wrote and recorded together and released there in Florida, went to New York with the band, came back. It was our really early, formative high school band years. When Bernie graduated, after a couple of years, he moved to California and I put together another band and moved to New York, which I'd been to several times. Then later, Bernie kept calling me and saying, "You gotta move to L.A. The music scene is in L.A. It's not a New York. It's not in Boston. Come to L.A." So, when The Eagles came to Boston on their first tour in '71, I think it was '71 or '72, and they were opening for
Yes, I went down to see my friend playing in this other band and just went backstage and hung out and met those guys in The Eagles. I met Bernie and he again said, "You need to come to L.A. That's where the music business is." Eventually, about a year later, two years later, I took his advice and packed up my Volvo and a U-Haul trailer in the back with what few worldly possessions I owned and drove across the country and wound up in L.A.
Q - Bernie Leadon's father moving to Florida is something that neither you or Bernie had any control over. This was just pure fate.
A - Yeah, that's right. To me, that's the way life works. If you are looking for a woman to marry or a great relationship and you are out there in clubs and bars trying to find it, very rarely will that happen. When you least expect it, you'll turn around and something will happen and that crosses your path. At least that's been the story of my life, where things have just continued to come to me. I remember seeing
Graham Nash and The Hollies at the University of Florida. And then ironically enough, after Stills left the band in California. When I got to California, one of the first acts I played with was Crosby, Nash. Then later Graham's son, Jackson and my son went to the same high school and Graham's son, Jackson, was my son's, Cody's big brother because he was coming into his high school. Then we wound up playing golf together. Just having a friendship on those times where our paths crossed. Stephen and I are still close friends. As a matter of fact, I'm doing a gig April 13th, (2013) for Autism Speaks, with Crosby, Stills and Nash and a few other people to raise money for this charity that Stephen is so committed to because one of his sons is autistic. You make friends. They came and sang on my record. We are just friends, you know. Just like we were in Gainesville.
Q - When did you join the band?
A - I joined the band in '74, very early in '74.
Q - Did you write the guitar parts you played on The Eagles' songs or did somebody else in the group tell you how they wanted you to play?
A - I wrote almost every part that I played on every song.
Q - You co-wrote "Hotel California". Did you get publishing credits for other songs as well?
A - No.
Q - Some groups will do that. Led Zeppelin for example shared songwriting credits with each member.
A - Well, I wrote the bass part for "One Of These Nights". I wrote the rhythm guitar part. I wrote the solo on it. I got no writer's credit or publishing, but it wasn't a matter to me, that aspect as much as it was a matter of everyone putting everything they could on the table to make a great record, the best possible record we could make, whether it was Henley singing or Glenn singing or me singing. What ever made the best possible record was the ultimate outcome. And so there were times when Joe's solo was better than the solo I had made up or Glenn's solo was better than one of the solos that I had made up. It wasn't ego. It was about making the best possible record.
Q - Talking about records, it says in your bio, "The Eagles Greatest Hits was named the top-selling album of the 20th century by the R.I.A.A., selling 29 million copies." I always thought Michael Jackson had the top-selling album of the 20th century with "Thriller".
A - Well, you should contact the R.I.A.A. who presented us with that award. They are the people that verify record sales and the Gold, Platinum and Diamond awards to artists that reach certain levels or plateaus of sales. They were the ones that presented us with that award. I know it was a close horse race towards the finish there, between us and Michael, but they presented us with the award.
(Note: we did contact the R.I.A.A. This is what Cara Duckworth Weiblinger, the Vice-President of communications for R.I.A.A. (Recording Industry Association of America) had to say: "Our Gold and Platinum program certifies albums according to sales info submitted by the artists label, but we don't track sales. You may want to check with the Nielsen SoundScan for that. However, according to our Gold and Platinum certification program, and this is totally on
our website that lists the top albums certified by the R.I.A.A., Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and "The Eagles' Greatest Hits 1971 to 1975" are both tied for the highest certified album at 29 times multi-Platinum, meaning they have both sold more than 29 million copies. Again you may want to check with Nielsen SoundScan to determine exact sales levels. However, it is likely that The Eagles Greatest Hits was the highest certified album of the 20th century given the sales bump in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" after his death in 2009 that took the album to 29 times multi-Platinum." Something tells me, more research needs to be done on this topic.)
Q - You wrote your autobiography, Heaven And Hell: My Life In The Eagles back in 2008. I admit I didn't read the book. The Heaven part I can understand, the money, the fame, the critical acclaim. You did achieve everything as a musician you wanted to achieve. But what was the Hell part?
A - The Hell part was how difficult it was to function in a band with five musicians that all wrote, sang and played and were all front men. Anyone of us had, and could have fronted our band ourselves. So we had five triple-A personalities struggling for the power, what songs, what lyrics, what touring, for control, as well as I was married. I had to spend a great deal of time on the road away from my family when I had four small kids. That was very difficult. It was before Skype. It was before cell phones. It was a long time on the road away from my wife and family. So, there were a lot of difficult elements that were involved in the Hell part.