Desperado: The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers & Debby Boone

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Desperado. This is a terrific country-rock song by the Eagles. After discussing the original song, we will review a cover from Linda Ronstadt, and also a duet by Kenny Rogers & Debby Boone.

The Eagles and Desperado:

In the late 60s and early 70s, an extraordinary number of musicians gravitated to Los Angeles, which became the epicenter of the folk-rock scene. Groups like the Byrds, the Lovin Spoonful and the Mamas and Papas first gained a foothold in L.A.

Solo artists such as Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne also appeared about this time.  The Mamas and Papas’ autobiographical song Creeque Alley recounts the experiences of several artists in the L.A. music scene during this period.

Linda Ronstadt was one of these artists. She made her way to L.A. from Arizona where she had been lead singer for The Stone Poneys, and now she was embarking on a solo career.

In 1971, Linda Ronstadt assembled a touring band to promote her Silk Purse album. Among them were drummer Don Henley from Texas, guitarist Glenn Frey from Michigan, guitarist Bernie Leadon from the group Flying Burrito Brothers, and bassist Randy Meisner from Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band.

The group actually performed live on only one occasion, but all four musicians played on Ronstadt’s album Linda Ronstadt. The group then decided to form their own band, which they named Eagles.

Below is a photo of the Eagles from the early 70s. From L: Glenn Frey; Bernie Leadon; Don Henley; Randy Meisner.

The Eagles’ eponymous debut album was released in June, 1972 and immediately made a splash. Their first big hit was Take It Easy; although it reached only #12 on the Billboard pop charts, it made the group instantly famous for their country-rock sound.

The song Desperado is a single from the Eagles’ second album of that title. The song consists of relationship advice offered to a fellow cowboy, someone who is lonely and depressed. The person is advised to temper his pride, form a lasting relationship and settle down.

Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses
You been out ridin’ fences for so long now
Oh, you’re a hard one
I know that you got your reasons
These things that are pleasin’ you
Can hurt you somehow

Don’t you draw the Queen of Diamonds, boy
She’ll beat you if she’s able
You know the Queen of Hearts is always your best bet
Now, it seems to me some fine things
Have been laid upon your table,
But you only want the ones that you can’t get

The song ends with some “words to live by.”
It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you
You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late

Although the album Desperado was not a big commercial hit like the Eagles’ first record, it set an important pattern, as nearly all the songs on that album were co-written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey.

The song Desperado marked the beginning of the Henley-Frey songwriting partnership. Henley had written the melody in 1968, and had sketched out some lyrics.
Jackson Browne had suggested a Western theme for the song, and Frey then helped with the lyrics and gave it structure, and the song became “Desperado”. Henley said of the writing of “Desperado” with Frey: “And that was the beginning of our songwriting partnership … that’s when we became a team.”

And what a powerhouse song-writing team they were! Over the years Henley and Frey churned out hit country-rock tunes, which typically featured hook-filled melodies coupled with memorable lyrics. The duo co-wrote at least a dozen classic songs that defined the country-rock genre.

Although Desperado was never released as a single, it still became one of the most famous Eagles songs. This is quite likely my favorite Eagles tune. The melody is simple and haunting, and the lyrics strike me as just about perfect – concisely stated, but extremely effective.

Here are the Eagles in a live performance of Desperado in Houston from 1976.

The song begins as basically a solo by Don Henley, accompanied by piano. Eventually they add guitar and drums, along with backing vocals by the rest of the band. I find it to be an extremely moving song, even more than 40 years after it was first released.

After their first big hit record, The Eagles became an unstoppable musical juggernaut. They were probably the greatest country-rock group of the late 20th century. The Eagles also enjoyed much success as a touring band, as their ability to reproduce the harmonies from their records made them a major concert draw.

In 1974 the group added guitarist Don Felder to their band. Felder’s arrival marked a shift, as the Eagles added more hard rock songs to their repertoire. However, Bernie Leadon strongly preferred the group’s original country-rock music, and as a result he left the Eagles at the end of 1975. Leadon was replaced by Joe Walsh, who had been lead guitarist with The James Gang before embarking on a solo career.

At the end of 1976, the Eagles released their blockbuster album, Hotel California. The title cut from this album was a gigantic hit for the group, became their signature song, and has been voted “best guitar solo ever” in several polls. Don Felder produced the melody for the song, and the lyrics were co-written by Felder, Henley and Frey.

During the tour for this album, bassist Randy Meisner left the group and was replaced by Timothy Schmit. This lineup persisted until 1980, when the group disbanded after particularly nasty and lingering disagreements amongst the members.

The individual Eagles members then embarked on solo efforts or joined other bands, with varying degrees of success. Don Henley had a most impressive solo career, with a number of acclaimed solo hits.

The group re-formed in 1994. When a band names their reunion tour the “Hell Freezes Over Tour,” you know the dissolution was a contentious one! After their reunion, the Eagles once again became one of the highest-grossing touring acts, in part because of the astronomically high ticket prices they charged for their concerts.

The Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. In a classy move, both the original lineup and their current lineup performed at their induction ceremony. In terms of record sales, they are the best-selling American band in history. Their Eagles: Greatest Hits album alone has sold over 42 million copies.

Glenn Frey died just a few months ago, so I will dedicate this blog post to him. Frey grew up in a suburb of Detroit, where he joined the local rock music scene. Frey was supported and strongly influenced by local rocker Bob Seger, who quite likely inspired Frey to be a singer-songwriter.

Frey then moved out to L.A., where he became friends with many of the young rock musicians in that area, including Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. Glenn Frey met Don Henley in 1971, when they were hired to be Linda Ronstadt’s band for her album tour.

Frey and Henley not only co-wrote nearly all of the Eagles’ big hits, but they were also the lead vocalists for the group. Frey was the lead singer on songs such as Take It Easy, Peaceful Easy Feeling, Tequila Sunrise, Lyin’ Eyes and New Kid in Town.

After the Eagles broke up in 1980, Frey embarked on a reasonably successful solo career. In particular, two songs that he co-wrote became big hits in movies or TV shows. These were The Heat is On, which was featured in the 1984 Eddie Murphy movie Beverly Hills Cop; and You Belong To The City, for the TV series Miami Vice.

Frey was also an actor. In particular, he had roles on two of Don Johnson’s TV series, Miami Vice and Nash Bridges. He also appeared in some movies.

Glenn Frey died in January, 2016, of complications from pneumonia and ulcerative colitis, after undergoing gastrointestinal surgery. He will be deeply missed.

Linda Ronstadt and Desperado:

We previously discussed Linda Ronstadt in our blog post on the Chuck Berry song Back in the U.S.A.; in our post on the Buddy Holly song That’ll Be The Day; our post on the Everly Brothers’ When Will I Be Loved; and our blog on the Smokey Robinson song Tracks of My Tears. So here we will briefly review Ronstadt’s career and her work.

Linda Ronstadt is one of the most successful women artists in rock history. She has a stunning number of albums to her credit and has sold over 100 million records. In the process, she has garnered a slew of awards and honors, culminating with her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Ronstadt is an exceptionally versatile artist; she has collaborated with artists in the fields of rock, country, jazz and Hispanic music.

In the early days, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles occasionally performed in concert together. Below is a photo of them, together with Jackson Browne, from circa 1975. From L: Randy Meisner; Glenn Frey; Don Henley; Jackson Browne; Don Felder; Linda Ronstadt; Bernie Leadon.

Ronstadt was born in Tucson where her grandfather had emigrated from Germany, married a Mexican and became a prosperous rancher and early settler in Arizona. She began her performing career in the mid-60s as the lead singer in a folk-rock-country trio, The Stone Poneys.

However, she became a blockbuster star in the 70s, when she produced a series of best-selling albums, produced posters that found their way onto the walls of millions of impressionable teen-age boys, and could fill up venues on stadium tours with fellow West Coast folk-rockers such as The Eagles, Jackson Browne and The Doors.

Here is a live performance of Desperado by Linda Ronstadt, from about 1974.

The video is listed as “Linda Ronstadt & the Eagles.” The video quality is not great, but it certainly looks like the Eagles performing with her.

I really like Ronstadt’s version of Desperado, which was featured on her 1973 album Don’t Cry Now. Don Henley has been very gracious in giving Linda Ronstadt credit for spreading the popularity of his song. Henley said that her cover of the song was “poignant and beautiful.”

Nearly all Ronstadt’s hits were covers of standards by classic artists like Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison. However, the songs tended to feature great country-rock arrangements and catchy hook-filled production values. Plus, being marketed as a sex symbol certainly didn’t hurt Ronstadt in a business dominated by male artists.

In recent years Linda Ronstadt had concentrated on albums of traditional Mexican folk songs that she remembered from her youth. However in 2011 Ronstadt announced her retirement from touring, and in 2013 revealed that she had contracted Parkinson’s disease which prevents her from performing.

Kenny Rogers & Debby Boone and Desperado:

Kenny Rogers has had a long and fascinating career. Rogers was born in Houston in 1938, and initially focused on folk-rock music. In 1966 he joined the New Christy Minstrels as a singer and double bass player.

Rogers and three other Minstrels musicians subsequently split off and formed their own group, The First Edition; this later became Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. The group’s biggest single was probably the 1969 song Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town).

Here is a portrait of Kenny Rogers from 1979; photo by Harry Langdon.

I first became aware of Kenny Rogers when the First Edition hosted their own musical variety show, Rollin’ on The River. This was a weekly show that reviewed the top pop hits of the week. The show brought in guest performers, and the First Edition also covered some of the current rock songs. The program was produced by Canadian TV and was broadcast from 1971 to 1973.

The First Edition broke up in 1976, and Kenny Rogers then embarked on a solo career. He made a very successful shift from folk-rock to country music, where he became a real superstar. He churned out a number of top country hits, most notably the 1978 album The Gambler, whose title song became his signature song (“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em”).

The Gambler was the first of five straight Rogers songs to hit #1 on the country charts. After that, Rogers received all of the perks of a top star on the country circuit. He headlined major tours, hosted Christmas specials, and appeared in duets with top female country stars including Dottie West, Dolly Parton, and Sheena Easton.

Along the way, Kenny Rogers also garnered a number of Country Music Association (CMA) Awards, and in 2013 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Rogers retired from performing a couple of years ago.

Here are Kenny Rogers and Debby Boone in a live duet of Desperado.

This is from the late 70s. I can’t say that I am very fond of this version of the song. What should be a simple and direct melody has been embellished to the point where it seems more like an exercise in vocal gymnastics than a straightforward, heartfelt tune.

However, both Rogers and Boone have impressive voices, and you may have a different reaction to their version of Desperado.

Debby Boone was the daughter of the pop star Pat Boone and Shirley Foley Boone.   Her mother was the daughter of country music star Red Foley, so music was certainly in Debby’s blood right from birth.

Below is Debby Boone shown rehearsing a televised concert in 1977.

In 1977, Debby Boone had a colossal pop hit with the song You Light Up My Life. The song, her very first single release, spent 10 weeks at #1 on the Billboard pop charts, and won her a Grammy Award as Best New Artist.  In fact, You Light Up My Life was the top-selling pop song in the entire 70s decade!

At that point, it looked like Debby might carve out a pop career that rivaled that of her famous father. However, in pop music Debby Boone turned out to be essentially a one-hit wonder. Her follow-up singles were extremely disappointing, and she never again cracked the top 50 in the pop listings.

Undaunted, Ms. Boone then switched over to country music, where she had significantly more success. She later transitioned to Contemporary Christian music, where she was even more successful.

Debby Boone is married to Gabriel Ferrer, the son of actor Jose Ferrer and singer Rosemary Clooney. She and her husband, who is a priest in the Episcopal Church, have four children, and Debby and Gabriel have co-authored a number of children’s books.

As I was reading up on Debby Boone for this blog post, I came across the Web page Top 10 Debby Boone quotes.” I was somewhat taken aback to find that there were only 8 quotes on the page – and #7 was “I love music” (!) Hard to argue with that memorable saying!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Desperado (song)
Wikipedia, Eagles (band)
Wikipedia, Glenn Frey
Wikipedia, Linda Ronstadt
Wikipedia, Kenny Rogers
Wikipedia, Debby Boone
Top 10 Debby Boone Quotes

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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