A Conversation With Don Felder – Part 1
I recently had the honor of interviewing one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock, Don Felder. For 27 years he was a member of one of the most influential and popular rock groups of all time, the Eagles. During his tenure with the band, Felder wrote the music for “Hotel California” and applied his signature sound to countless hits, including “Victim of Love,” “One of These Nights” and “New Kid in Town.”
Felder was inducted with the Eagles into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. After parting ways with the band, he went on to become a New York Times best-selling author with his autobiography, Heaven and Hell: My Life in The Eagles, and in 2013 released Road to Forever – Extended Edition.
He is currently touring with Foreigner and Styx on the The Soundtrack of Summer Tour and they released a companion album, The Soundtrack of Summer: The Very Best of Foreigner & Styx, featuring a new version of “Hotel California” that’s performed by Felder, Styx and Foreigner.
Below is part one of my two-part interview with this legendary artist. You can read part two here.
This summer you’re touring with Styx and Foreigner in what’s being billed as The Soundtrack of Summer tour. What brought you guys together for this great tour?
It’s interesting. Tommy Shaw and the guys of Styx and I have been friends for years. We done a bunch of benefits together. We did a benefit for victims of Katrina. We’ve done benefits for Alice Cooper’s Solid Rock Foundation. We just do a lot of work together that’s not public touring but we have done some shows together where it’s my band and Styx together on the same ticket. We just became friends. Tommy Shaw co-wrote two of the songs on my last CD, Road to Forever. He co-wrote a song called “Wash Away The Pain” and another song called “Heal Me,” which was really great.
Styx does about 120 or 125 shows a year on the road. So for him to take three days out of his home schedule to come over and work in my studio is a real testament of friendship and how much we enjoy working with each other. We’ve just become friends. Go to dinner when he’s in town.
So when this came up as a proposal, I really wanted to leap at the chance, straight away. And I started to think, geez, Foreigner has so many hits in their catalog. Styx has so many great hits. Stuff that I’ve recorded with the Eagles and co-wrote with the Eagles. Some of my solo stuff, like Heavy Metal and this new CD, what a great show this is going to be – really a lot of fun. And knowing the people in the bands and crews, it was a really easy answer to say, “Yes, I’d love to do this.”
So far, nearly every show has been sold out to the rafters. It’s four hours of, like I said, hit after hit after hit. Everybody just leaves there having been rocked to death (laughs). Having a great rock and roll show. And everybody in the bands and crews and management are actually really nice people. It’s an unusual thing for me to be on the road and for people to be so friendly and fun. We play golf together. We have group dinners together. Ya know, it’s like a big family. It’s really nice.
I saw that Tommy Shaw joined you on “Hotel California” during a recent performance. What is it like performing this song with him in front of packed crowds?
Well, I’ve been performing that song for, gosh, the last 10 or 12 years with my solo band, and I’ve had a lot of different guitar players come in and play it with me. I did it with Peter Frampton last summer when I was out with Peter. Richie Sambora. Tommy Thayer from KISS. Just different guitar players I end up playing with either on tour or on a show or at a charity event.
But Tommy comes out, especially at this big show, and the crowd goes nuts. We wait until the end of my set and then I bring out Tommy to help me with “Hotel California.” The crowd just explodes because they see me with the white double neck guitar and they know what’s coming, and then Tommy’s comes out to join me. It’s a really a special treat for those people and Tommy’s a great player and a great singer. We rip it up pretty good and have a lot of fun doing it (laughs). Something that I look forward to in the show every night.
Also Todd Sucherman, Styx’s drummer, comes out and joins us and plays percussion. We’re working on getting Kelly Hansen to come out and sing a verse with us, so who knows. It’ll be like the new version of “Hotel California” on the Soundtrack of Summer CD we recorded.
Are you Styx and Foreigner also jamming together on other songs?
Well, I don’t want to divulge any surprises. There are unique things that happen. The one where Tommy comes out is the most publicized on all the social media, so far. But there are things in the works, and we do things at soundcheck and are rehearsing some stuff, and just having a good time.
You joined the Eagles in 1974. How did this come about?
I grew up in Gainesville, Florida and had been associated with lots of young musicians in the area, like Tom Petty was one of my guitar students at the music store I worked at. Stephen Stills and I were in a band down when we were 15 down there together called The Continentals. When Stephen left and moved away from Florida, Bernie Leadon moved to Gainesville. His father was hired by the University of Florida to start their nuclear research department. He sought me out through this music store. I got him to buy an electric guitar and I bought a flat top acoustic guitar, and he taught me country bluegrass music and I taught him rock and roll. We started this band together called The Maundy Quintet, had a regional hit in the southeast, and after we graduated from high school Bernie wanted to move back to California, instead of living in Florida. He took off and he kept calling me in Gainesville, then I went to New York and he called me in New York. Then I moved to Boston and he called me in Boston. He’d say, “What are you doing on the east coast? Come to California. This is where the music scene is, man. Come out here.” So finally I decided to pack up and move out there. Bernie was the only person I knew in California, and I wound up sleeping on the floor of his apartment the first few days, and wound up getting a job that first week with a band called Crosby Nash, ironically enough, playing Stephen Stills’ parts with his ex-bandmates at the time because Stephen was out doing solo work.
So, I was around the Eagles and had known Bernie since high school…jammed with them backstage; I went to their rehearsals. We were just friends. So they wanted to do this record that was more rock and roll called On The Border, so they called me to come in and play slide guitar on this one song called “Good Day In Hell.” So I went in the studio, like any other session I played on, played slide guitar, hung out with one of my buddies for a little while, left and got a call the next day asking me to join the band.
You wrote the music for the Eagles most famous song, “Hotel California.” What’s the story behind how this song came to be?
I had a great friend of mine who was a bass player, a jazz bass player. And when I was in New York, I had a jazz fusion rock band, and he taught me chromatic chord progressions and taught me some other things about this jazz bass.
So, I was sitting on a couch in this rented beach house in Malibu watching my kids play in the sand and watching the beautiful summer sun glistening on the Pacific…had this guitar and a pair of cut-0ff shorts, just sitting there playing. And out came that chromatic, descending chordal progression. I played it four or five times. I went back to my daughter’s bedroom, which served as my demo studio while she was awake, recorded a bunch of it in a loop, around and around and around. And finally I turned it off and went back out to the beach.
Later when we were assembling ideas for what was going to become the Hotel California record, I think I had 16 or 17 song ideas. Then I went in and finished playing guitar on them, put drums on them. Some with vocals, some without. Put them on a cassette and gave a copy to Henley, Frey, Walsh, and Randy Meisner, at the time. I said, “If there’s anything on here that you like, let me know. We’ll finish writing it.” I got a call from Henley a couple days later and he said, “I really like that song that kind of sounds like a Mexican reggae or bolero.” And that was the only track on there that had a 12-string intro on it, so I said, “Great!” We got together and started talking about it. Don came up with the concept of “Hotel California” since none of us were from California – we had all moved to California from different states.
We wanted to make a commentary on all the propaganda that everybody in the world had about California, with the palm trees and the beaches and the bikinis, and the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, and the romance of Hollywood; the movie industry and show business, and what it’s like when you get there. So, that’s the framework of the Hotel California record, and other songs came out of that concept. Like when your’e the “New Kid in Town,” you have your first hit and everybody loves you, right? And then after a while it becomes “Life in the Fast Lane.” And then pretty soon, after enough years of working really hard, you start wondering if it’s all been “Wasted Time.” So, it was the musical foundation that started that concept album, that I wrote, and I’m very fortunate and proud to be part of it.
Following the release of 1979’s The Long Run, the Eagles broke up in 1980. Why did you guys decide to go your separate ways?
There was a lot of conflict between Don Henley and Glenn Frey. They could no longer write together comfortably. A lot of the songs – like Lennon and McCartney – they were written by Henley and Frey, with help from me or Bernie Leadon or other people. But they had gotten to a point where there was so much distress in their relationship that they were finding it very difficult to work together and write together. So, Glenn finally quit. He said, “That’s it.” He called up Don Henley and said, “I can’t work with you anymore. I’m gonna’ go do my solo record. See ya.”
So, the remaining four of us had a meeting and said, “Well, what are we going to do? Are we going to continue without him? Are we gonna’ stop?” Henley said, “I think we should all take a break. Everybody go do some solo records and we’ll see if we ever get back together again.” And that’s kinda what happened. For 14 years we tried…there were multiple attempts in those 14 years to kind of regroup but Glenn really wasn’t ready to rejoin the party until 1994 when he agreed to do it.