Written By: Steve Rushin
The following is excerpted from LIFE’s new special anniversary issue on the Eagles, available here online and at newsstands:
The night after Glenn Frey died, in January 2016, Bruce Springsteen played the United Center in Chicago. He opened his encore with the Eagles’ first hit. Forty-four years after “Take It Easy” debuted on the radio, with Frey on lead vocals, 20,000 Springsteen fans who didn’t know what was coming sang along to every indelible word. Like so many of the Eagles’ songs, “Take It Easy” is burned into the national memory and instantly evocative of sunny Southern California—to say nothing of Winslow, Arizona—in a distant decade that the Eagles made their own. “His songs, those sounds, perfectly captured those days,” as Bette Midler said of Frey and the band he cofounded. “ ’70s L.A.”
Frey was from Michigan. His bandmates came from Texas, Nebraska, Ohio, and Florida. The Eagles recorded most of their hits in London and Miami. And yet they somehow became the quintessential California band, their music navigating dark desert highways, tequila sunrises, and young women holed up in houses with rich old men. Take it easy? The Eagles failed to follow their own advice. They had glorious harmonies on records that concealed chronic disharmony on tours. Those tours left in their wake a trail of splintered hotel furniture and bathtubs full of Budweiser.
And yet with those songs, and on those tours, the Eagles conquered the world. Fifty years after the band formed, there is a Hotel California on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, a Hotel California on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, and an Otel’ Kaliforniya on a less glamorous thoroughfare in Moscow. Their checkout policies are less inflexible than the one in the song, whose mirrored ceilings and pink champagne on ice are repeated on the radio every hour somewhere in America. But their allure is undimmed by age.
The Eagles are nearly as ubiquitous now, in the streaming era, as they were a half-century ago. Frey’s writing partner and Eagles cofounder Don Henley was raised in Texas on country and western. Frey, from Detroit, grew up on Motown, with a twist of bar-rock anthems courtesy of his early mentor, Bob Seger. That alchemy—a country-rock alloy—became the Eagles’ sound when Frey and Henley met in Southern California, starting a partnership that would dominate the 1970s the way two other singer-songwriters had done the previous decade. “[Frey] and Henley were America’s answer to Lennon and McCartney,” the country singer Clint Black said, and McCartney himself remains a fan, pumping his fists for the Eagles at their last concert at Madison Square Garden in 2020, just before the pandemic shut down live events.
Another fan, Jimmy Buffett, calls the Eagles the best American band of his generation, and they are certainly the most popular, with their first greatest-hits album selling 38 million copies and Hotel California selling 26 million copies in the United States, an absurd feat for any band—but for the Eagles, that was just 1976, when both LPs were released. In America’s bicentennial year, the Eagles were unquestionably America’s band, named for America’s national emblem, with songs that played into the American impulse to move west, to a promised land, ideally in a muscle car with an eagle-like bird emblazoned on the hood.
The Eagles were (and remain) the sound of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, when Billy Joel moved there from New York. “The Eagles pretty much represented that Southern California thing, like the Beach Boys used to do, and then I found out later you were from Texas,” Joel once said to Henley, who—like almost all of his bandmates—had moved to the Golden State from somewhere else, making the band at once quintessentially Californian and quintessentially American.
“It’s the sound of not just a California band but one of America’s signature bands,” as President Barack Obama put it when honoring the Eagles at the White House in 2016. The band—like the sound and songs they created—endures 50 years after it formed. Their songs issue from taxicabs in Auckland and karaoke bars in Tokyo and tribute bands in London. But Bette Midler pinpointed where and when the Eagles’ story began, and where it reached its fullest expression: in Los Angeles in the 1970s.
Here is a selection of photos from LIFE’s new special issue, Eagles: Their Story. Their Music. Their Lives.