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Music

The five best vocal performances by Eagles singer Don Henley

It’s not often you get a drummer who also takes on the responsibility of lead vocals, though the Eagles’ Don Henley is a man who has done just that. There must be something about a singing drummer that makes their trade so lucrative; after Ringo Starr, Phil Collins and Dave Grohl – who, it must be noted, all also sing – Henley is the fourth wealthiest drummer in the world with an estimated fortune of $200million.

Don Henley was born in Texas in 1947. After initially playing American football at high school, he joined the school band after his coach suggested he quit football due to his slight frame. Henley first started playing the trombone before switching to percussion.

After an early career in the band Shiloh, Henley met Glenn Frey and together, they formed the Eagles alongside Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon. Eagles released their first studio album in 1972 and went on to make several hit records throughout the 1970s before their breakup in 1980.

Following this, Henley embarked on a solo career that proved just as successful as his journey with the Eagles had been. His success can, without doubt, be attributed to his fine ability as both a drummer and a singer. Today, on Henley’s birthday, we’re listening to some of his best-ever vocal performances.

Don Henley’s five best vocal performances:

‘Life in the Fast Lane’ – Eagles (1977)

The third single from the Eagles’ fifth album Hotel California peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song’s theme concerns a young couple with an excessive lifestyle that takes it close to catastrophe. The song’s title came from Glenn Frey, who, riding down a freeway with a drug dealer, asked him to slow down, to which the dealer replied: “What do you mean? It’s life in the fast lane!”

A straight-up rocking track featuring a reverb-laden, somewhat distorted Henley vocal showcases his endless ability to hold a note before effortlessly diving into the following line. A seeming homage to the vocal style of Rod Stewart.

‘Dirty Laundry’ – Don Henley (1982)

Written in partnership with Danny Kortchmar, ‘Dirty Laundry’ is a single from Henley’s debut album I Can’t Stand Still. It reached number one on the Billboard Top Album Tracks chart in October 1982. The lyrics explore the mass media frenzy of the 1980s and the fact that television coverage often focuses on sensationalist news stories. Joe Walsh of the Eagles performed on the track, playing the first guitar solo.

Hitting the 1980s, Henley adapted his overall solo career sound and his vocal style to match the pastel suits of the decade, exemplified most wonderfully on ‘Dirty Laundry’. Surely an inspiration for his 80s contemporaries Huey Lewis & The News.

‘Desperado’ – Eagles (1973)

One of the Eagles’ best-known songs, despite not being released as a single, was taken from the 1973 album of the same name. The song was based on a song Henley started writing in 1968 about a friend of his named Leo. The track opens with the line, “Leo, my God, why don’t you come to your senses”. It was not a hit for the band until Linda Ronstadt re-recorded it.

When showing the song to Glenn Frey, Henley said, “When I play it and sing it, I think of Ray Charles and Stephen Foster. It’s really a Southern Gothic thing, but we can easily make it more Western.” Despite only being given five takes to record the vocals, Henley delivers an excellent performance that captures the Western spirit. He said: “That was the beginning of our [Henley and Frey’s] songwriting partnership … that’s when we became a team.”

‘Hotel California’ – Eagles (1977)

Released in 1977 as a single taken from the Eagles’ album of the same name. Known as the band’s best-loved track, it was once voted as containing the best guitar solo of all time. The track’s lyrics have been interpreted as the story of living the high life in Los Angeles, though Henley once claimed it was actually written about a “journey from innocence to experience”.

One of the best-known songs of all time, on which Henley sings in his trademark scratchy-yet-sweet manner. The reverb of each vocal line dissipates into the patient rhythm section of the song. Here Henley evokes standing around in sunglasses outside a crumbling Los Angeles hotel where things have gone terribly wrong. Truly iconic.

‘Boys of Summer’ – Don Henley (1984)

The lead single from Henley’s album Building the Perfect Beast was released on October 26th, 1984. It climbed as high as number five on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Billboard Top Rock Tracks chart. Tom Petty’s guitarist Mike Campbell originally wrote the demo version of the track, and after Petty turned it down, he showed it to Henley, who wrote the lyrics. However, he re-recorded it after Henley decided to change the song’s key.

A song equal in icon status to ‘Hotel California’. As with ‘Dirty Laundry’, here Henley delivers a performance that is undeniably ’80s. There is passion in his voice, desperation even, as he laments the passing of everyone’s favourite season and missed opportunities for romance. Perfect.