Don Felder played a large role in writing one of the most iconic songs in rock history.
Yet even he didn’t realize the worldwide ramifications of the song -- “Hotel California” -- until just a few years ago. The former Eagles guitarist said he was playing a show in New York for United Nations representatives when he finally saw the shimmering light of the classic tune’s reach.
“There were about 450 people there -- either presidents or dignitaries, secretaries of state from all over the world at this show, and about half of them didn’t even speak English,” said Felder during a phone interview from his Beverly Hills, Calif., home in late March. “I went out and did ‘Hotel California’ and got a standing ovation for that song from literally representatives from the whole world -- and it kind of dawned on me the global impact that song has had. ... Until that moment, I didn’t realize how widespread that song had become. And, you know, it was a really pleasant surprise.”
Felder, who is appearing Wednesday at USANA Amphitheatre in West Valley City as the opening act on the “Soundtrack of Summer” tour with Styx and Foreigner, wrote nearly all of the music for the song on a cassette demo that eventually caught the ear of Eagles bandmate Don Henley. With the help of Glenn Frey, Henley came up with most of the lyrical content for the song and provided the legendary lead vocal.
Even when the song was recorded and in the can, Felder said he didn’t really recognize the juggernaut the band had on its hands. It was at the initial listening party with record company executives for the completed “Hotel California” album, Felder said, that Henley declared that the title track would be the record’s lead single.
Ironically, Felder opposed that decision saying the song broke every rule of AM radio play at the time. Namely, to get airplay, a song had to be less than three and a half minutes, it had to fit specifically in one genre and the intro had to be less than 30 seconds before the vocals started.
“ ‘Hotel California’ was exactly wrong on all formats,” said Felder. “It was six and a half minutes long, the introduction was a minute, you couldn’t dance to it, it stops in the middle, it breaks down with no drums and it’s got this two-minute guitar solo on the end of it. It’s completely wrong for AM radio.
“So when Don said, ‘That’s going to be our next single,’ I said, ‘You know, I think that’s wrong. That’s like an FM track, I don’t think that should be on AM radio. I think that’s not the right call.’ And he said, ‘Nope, that’s what we’re going to do.’ And I went, ‘OK, but I told you so.’ And I’ve never been so happy to have been so wrong in my life. He was right. He heard something in that that he believed in, so good for him.”
The song, naturally, remains a huge staple in Felder’s live solo shows -- he was acrimoniously fired from the Eagles in 2001 -- where it is often featured as his opening number. On the “Soundtrack of Summer” tour, however, he’s been playing it at the end of his set -- where he has been joined every night of the tour by Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw, who trades off lead vocals throughout and then swaps guitar licks during the six-string solo showcase duel at the end of the song.
“Playing and singing ‘Hotel California’ with Don Felder and his band has been a real treat for me,” said Shaw via email on Friday. “I started on Day 1 and hope to be there every night. Joining Don on that anthemic solo at the end? Spine tingling every time.”
When groups first promote their packaged summer tours, there is often a lot of optimism and lip service expressed by various musicians about doing a “walk-on” during another band’s set. Rarely, however, does that actually come to fruition as collaborations are more difficult to pull off in the everyday ebb and flow of tour logistics and travel commitments.
Over the past couple weeks, though, the Felder-Shaw alliance has been reciprocated during Styx’s set, as Felder has been making frequent guest appearances during “Blue Collar Man.”
“We came up with the idea of inviting Don to join us on ‘Blue Collar’ as the tour progressed and friendships blossomed between the camps,” said Shaw. “It’s still a logistics thing for that one, but Don seems to be enjoying it and feels like a band member when he’s up there with us. What a supremely talented artist and gentleman. I say he gets MVP for this tour, and he and his band have blown fans away every single night. From top to bottom there is such great music being performed with heart and soul every night, I feel like we are all better musicians now for having done it.”
Felder, who had the nickname “Fingers” during his tenure in the Eagles, dropped his second solo album, “Road to Forever” in 2012. In March of this year, he released an extended edition of the album, which contains a total of 16 songs -- four more than the original release.
In listening to the album -- highlights of which include “Girls in Black,” “You Don’t Have Me” and “Wash Away” among others -- one can’t help but hear an uncanny similarity to, you guessed it, the Eagles. That fact helps illustrate that while Henley and Frey are widely recognized as that band’s primary songwriters -- especially since they wrote most of the lyrics and provided the majority of lead vocals -- Felder’s influence was more directly instrumental in the band’s musical arrangements.
In fact, one could say his “Fingers” print is all over recognizable Eagles material.
“Well, you know, typically songwriting credits go lyrics and music. And that’s typically the way I worked with those guys in the past,” said Felder. “I would write music beds. I would write complete introductions, a couple verses, chorus, bridge, you know, the song structure -- give them these music beds to write.”
In addition to providing those music beds, Felder said he often had melodies for the songs as well, which he would provide if they were asked for.
“There’s a heavy footprint, a ‘Fingers’ print as you called it, on a lot of those records that were partially my sound and my guitar arrangement -- that sort of stamp or signature stuff that was really so obviously missing from their last record that was put out,” he said, referring to the Eagles’ 2007 album, “Long Road Out of Eden.” “It changed, pretty much entirely, the sound of that band -- except for the lead vocals. I mean, you still recognize Don Henley’s voice. He’s got an incredible vocal in my opinion. He’s got probably one of the best rock and roll voices alive today. And very recognizable harmonies and that sort of stuff. But, you know, it shifted into something else, which is fine with me. Many people have told me that about ‘Road to Forever,’ that it sounds like an Eagles record, and I did not go out intending to make a record that sounded like an Eagles record -- it’s just what I sound like.”
Felder’s “Road to Forever” draws heavily from personal experiences, which were forefront in his mind as he was writing his autobiography as well as going through a divorce from his wife of 29 years when most of the original concepts for those songs were conceived. He makes no apologies for wearing his heart on his sleeve, and said most good art seems to emanate from real-life experience.
“I’ve got nothing to hide. I’ve been who I am and experienced what I have in this world, and it should be for anyone that cares to take a look at it or hear it or read it or what not,” Felder said. “I don’t pull any punches. I just lay it out there as I see it, and as I felt it. I think there’s a certain amount of bravery for an artist to do that, but, you know, if you’re timid and shy, you’re in the wrong business. It’s not for the weak of heart or the faint of heart. I just laid it all out there, both in my book and in songwriting. It’s what I do now. I have no fear when it comes to being judged or ridiculed for something I’ve experienced. How can you fear that -- because it’s the truth of what happened?”
With last year’s release of the documentary, “The History of the Eagles,” which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and his continuing estrangement from his former bandmates, one can’t help but wonder if Felder was ever able to truly enjoy his tenure in one of America’s great rock bands or was he too busy looking over his shoulder?
Felder put that question immediately to rest.
“From the day I started playing music when I was 10, till today, I’ve loved playing music. Absolutely, it’s the most fulfilling, rewarding thing in my life,” said Felder, who went on to detail lean times he faced as a struggling musician before getting invited to join the Eagles in 1974. “It’s not about the success, it’s about how much you love what you do. And I think whatever the conditions I would have to put up with, whether it’s the difficult times in a huge band or difficult times in a small band, starving, or driving across country with the whole world ahead of me, you know, kind of on that wing-and-a-prayer kind of lifestyle -- it’s all done because I love playing music. And to this day, I still feel that way. I’ll put up with the best and the worst to be able to do it.”