Who Is Don Henley?
Don Henley’s band the Eagles had two top 10 singles—"Take It Easy" and "Witchy Woman"—with their first album. The Eagles then became one of the most popular bands of the 1970s. Their next three albums—Desperado, On the Border and One of These Nights—were all huge hits. Henley went on to a huge solo career after the Eagles broke up, with singles such as “Dirty Laundry” and “Boys of Summer.”
Singer, songwriter, musician and activist Don Henley was born on July 22, 1947 in Gilmer, Texas. He was raised in Linden—a small, dusty town near the Arkansas and Louisiana border with a population of only 2,400. His father, C.J. Henley, was a World War II veteran who owned an auto parts store, and his mother, Hughlene McWhorter, was a teacher. Henley was exposed to music from a very young age.
"I had piano lessons when I was kid," he recalls. "My father loved music; my mother loved music. They always had records on in the house." Growing up in Texas in the 1950s, Henley was exposed to a diverse and eclectic mix of musical genres: "all the World War II and postwar big band stuff. There was an old black lady who worked for my grandfather who was always singing spirituals, what they called 'negro spirituals' back then. My grandmother was always singing hymns. My father also listened to country music on the radio."
Despite this wide exposure to music as a child, Henley's decision to pursue music seriously came largely as an accident. As a high school student, having long since given up on his piano lessons, Henley tried out for the football team. After a brief and disastrous stint on the football field, Henley instead joined the marching band under the encouragement of childhood friend Richard Bowden, whose father had a Dixieland band. Henley proved a natural at the drums.
"I was always beating out a rhythm on my schoolbooks and on the dashboard of the car," he recalls. "It used to drive people nuts, but the drums sort of came naturally to me." In 1962, at the age of 15, Henley earned a spot in his friend Richard's band playing mostly Dixieland and rock 'n' roll instrumentals.
Like so many other people around the world, Henley found his musical tastes entirely transformed by the emergence of The Beatles in the 1960s. "The Beatles were the soundtrack to my life," he recalls. "When The Beatles came along, life changed, the planets all shifted somehow—that's when I became very serious about doing music as a profession. Before, it had just been for a laugh." Henley's band (initially named The Four Speeds and later renamed Felicity, and then Shiloh) chose him as its lead singer. He was also the band's primary songwriter, and one of his compositions—a tune called "Hurtin'"—was even produced and recorded by a local record company.
Henley graduated from high school in 1965 and enrolled at nearby Stephen F. Austin University. A year later, he transferred to North Texas State University, where he majored in English literature and took especially to the works of Emerson and Thoreau. In fact, it was Emerson's essay "Self Reliance" that convinced Henley to pursue his dreams of a music career. His favorite line from that essay reads, "Beware what you set your heart upon. For it surely shall be yours."
After three semesters at North Texas State, Henley returned home to Linden to spend time with his father, who had developed heart disease. While at home, Henley reunited with his old band, Shiloh. They played frequent concerts in Dallas, and one night in 1968 the popular country musician Kenny Rogers, who had also begun working as a producer, attended a Shiloh show and liked what he saw. In 1970, with Rogers' help, Henley and the other members of Shiloh moved to Los Angeles to record a self-titled album on the independent label Amos Records.
It was in Los Angeles that Henley befriended guitarist Glenn Frey; the two were invited, along with Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner, to play as backup musicians for popular singer Linda Ronstadt. In 1971, the four backup musicians decided to form their own band, the Eagles, signing with the newly created Asylum Records. In 1972, they flew to England and recorded their self-titled debut album in only two weeks.
The Eagles cracked the top 20 on Billboard's album charts and scored two top 10 singles: "Take It Easy" and "Witchy Woman." After that first album, the Eagles become one of the most influential and popular bands of the 1970s. Their next three albums—Desperado (1973), On the Border (1974) and One of These Nights (1975)—were all huge hits. Too busy touring to record another new album, in early 1976 the Eagles released Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975; in 2018 the Recording Industry Association of America reported that the compilation record had sold 38 million copies, pushing it past Michael Jackson's Thriller (33 million) for the top-selling album in history.
Late in 1976, the Eagles released Hotel California, a landmark record whose title track won the 1977 Grammy Award for Record of the Year and has become perhaps the band's quintessential song. Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner left the band and were replaced by Joe Walsh and Timothy Schmit before the Eagles released their fifth album, The Long Run, in 1979. Despite the band's astronomical success, the Eagles broke up in 1980, promising not to reunite until "Hell freezes over."
Henley then embarked on a successful solo career. He released his first solo album, I Can't Stand Still, in 1982, featuring the popular single "Dirty Laundry." In 1984, he released a second solo album, Building the Perfect Beast, which featured the iconic single, "The Boys of Summer." Five years later Henley released his third, and most successful, solo project: The End of the Innocence.
Despite their earlier proclamations to the contrary, the Eagles did reunite in 1994. The resulting album was fittingly titled Hell Freezes Over. In 2007, they released another album, Long Road Out of Eden, which Henley expects to be the group's final album. In December 2016, The Eagles were celebrated at the 39th Kennedy Center Honors.
In addition to his illustrious music career, Henley is also a prominent activist for causes ranging from the environment to reform of the music industry. In 1990, he founded the Walden Woods Project in Massachusetts to preserve the "land, literature and legacy" of Henry David Thoreau, and in 1992 he founded the Caddo Lake Institute to preserve the ecological integrity of Caddo Lake in his native Northeast Texas. Henley and Sheryl Crow co-founded the Recording Artists Coalition in 1999, and Henley has testified before Congress concerning media ownership issues.
As a founding member of the Eagles, a band that boasts five No. 1 singles, four No. 1 albums, numerous Grammy Awards and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Don Henley ranks among the most important figures in modern American pop music. Nevertheless, Henley now regards his music as secondary to his environmental work through the Walden Woods Project. He says, "Everybody has a Walden. In every community, there is something that needs to be kept."
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