November 15, 2019

FTV: Don Felder


     When former Boston Red Sox star Bill Buckner passed away in May of 2019, every news report I read or heard said something along the lines of, “Bill Buckher’s career should be remembered for a lot more things than the ground ball that rolled through his legs and lost the World Series for the Sox.”  Okay, I agree with that wholeheartedly, but yet that mistake was the one touchstone all the reports used to help us remind us who Bill Buckner was. Don Felder is a lot like that: “Hey, isn’t he the guy that Glenn Frey threatened to punch out after a concert? Didn’t he cause the Eagles to break up?  Wasn’t he the guy who got kicked out of the Eagles – twice?” I won’t get too high and mighty about the Bill Buckner thing because I have repeated the ‘Frey-Felder feud leads to the end of the Eagles’ story myself (FTV:  Eagles Abide 4-24-19).  Just like Buckner’s life story, there are a lot more pieces that fit into Don Felder’s puzzle.  Misplacing one or two shouldn’t detract from Felder’s career (much, anyway), but his involvement with the Eagles makes those particular puzzle pieces rather large and therefore, highly visible parts of the big picture. 

     The east and west coast were glamourized as hotbeds of the emerging 1960s music scene.  It turns out there was a third coast involved and one can not overlook the tremendous number of great bands that came out of Florida during that same period.  Hailing from Gainesville himself, Felder was well acquainted with the talented musicians coming out of the Florida scene. Felder found his fame outside of Florida, but the Florida boys were a brotherhood and kept in touch even after many had dispersed to New York, California, or someplace in between.

     That Felder became a musician at all is a small miracle.  His family wasn’t dirt poor, but they lived on the border line between the have-nots and the almost-haves in Gainesville.  He picked up his first beat up acoustic guitar (minus a couple of strings) from a neighbor who traded it to Felder for some cherry bombs.  Lessons were out of the picture (too expensive) so the ten year old Don Felder sat down and listened to records. He found he could replicate what he was hearing without knowing much more than how to string and tune the guitar, something showed to him by another neighbor.  Felder told Dave Everley in Classic Rock Magazine (CMR 263, June 2019), “I could hear something over and over and figure out where that person was playing on the neck of the guitar.  I could just see it in my head. Even today, I can hear something two or three times and play it.” His inspiration for picking up the guitar?  Elvis, of course.

     One of his first encounters with another Florida musician took place when a kid from his school showed up at a frat party with his acoustic guitar.  Felder remembered the encounter for CRM:  “He started playing and singing, and his voice was so good and his playing, rhythm-wise, was so great that I said:  ‘You need to be in my band’.” The kid was Stephen Stills and they remain good friends today. That Stills was only a member of Felder’s band (The Continentals) for a year isn’t as important;   Stills had his own path to follow. Stills replacement when he left was a transplanted Californian named Bernie Leadon. Leadon was old enough to have a driver’s license so, as Felder tells it, “That was useful.”  Leadon and Felder would each have a history with the Eagles, but that was future stuff. They still had musical paths to blaze in Florida.

     The competition included a rough and tumble bunch in Jacksonville called My Backyard who (many members later) morphed into Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Daytona Beach had The Escorts who used to routinely beat Felder’s group in battle of the bands competitions. Felder didn’t take it too hard:  “If I was going to lose a contest like that, I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather lose to.” Did I mention The Escorts featured Duane and Greg Allman?  It was one big family with Felder’s band crashing at the Allman Brothers mother’s house when they had gigs in the area. Duane showed Felder how to play the slide guitar, another thing he would carry forward to the future.  Felder remembers, “[Duane was] still the best slide player I’ve ever heard.” Then there was a younger school kid named Tommy who came into the Gainesville music store Felder was working. Tommy was planning to switch from bass to guitar and took a few lessons from Felder.  Eventually, Tommy formed a band called Mudcrutch who would migrate to California, dissolve, and then partially reform as Tommy’s backing band, The Heartbreakers. Add Tom Petty to the roster of Florida bred musicians mentioned above and you have all the makings of the third hotbed of music that could stand toe to toe with NYC and CALI (not to mention the vibrant scene in Michigan, but that is another story for another day).

     When the Felder-Leadon band dead-ended, Bernie went back to California and Don headed for New York City, circa 1970.  They stayed in touch. Felder was going in a more Jazz-fusion direction and hooked up with a band called Flow. Struggling musicians living in a squalid part of town, the members of Flow were trying to figure out if they would starve or freeze to death first.  To survive, they risked life and limb to take the bus to Harlem so they could get the sixty cent yellow rice with black beans special at a Chinese-Cuban restaurant. In this neighborhood, they stood out because they were the only white people in sight. Failing to make a dent in the NYC music scene, Felder relocated to Boston.

     Working at a recording studio, Felder began learning the producer – engineer end of the business.  When Leadon’s tales of sunshine and great music finally convinced him to move west, Felder packed up a U-Haul and headed across country with $600 burning a hole in his pocket.  Leadon had just joined a country-rock outfit called the Eagles. Glenn Frey had heard Leadon and Felder jamming backstage when the old friends got together on one pass through town and filed Felder’s name under ‘slide guitar player’ for future reference.  Leadon went on tour with the Eagles and Felder hunkered down on Leadon’s floor while he looked for his own gig. He ended up working with a band that was opening for Crosby and Nash. One night, C&N’s guitar player got sick and Felder filled in for him to cover parts that had been written by his old Florida pal, Stephen Stills.  He ended up in the backing band for Crosby and Nash. When not on the road with them, he would join Leadon and the boys jamming. Hanging out with the Eagles proved to be the next key piece in the Felder musical puzzle.

     Asked to add slide guitar on a track called Good Day in Hell for the Eagle’s On the Border album, Felder found himself on the phone with Frey the next day.  Frey wanted him to join the band, but having heard Bernie’s tales of how volatile the situation could be, Felder was reluctant.  Plus he was making $1,500 a week with Crosby and Nash. Coming from the poor side of the tracks in Gainesville, that wasn’t chump change.  Graham Nash convinced him to dive right in, telling Felder, “You don’t want to be a sideman for the rest of your life, go and join the band.”  He signed on and within 18 months, the Eagles had their first number one album with One of These Nights (1975), the first full album Felder recorded with them.  

     During the run up to the next Eagles album, he was noodling on the guitar and came up with a nifty pattern that he eventually showed to Frey and Don Henley.  Henley dubbed it Mexican Reggae when he and Frey sat down and to work up lyrics to go with the guitar part.  The working title eventually went away and the song became the title track of the Eagles’ biggest record yet, Hotel California.  The lyrics are a bit of mystical mumbo-jumbo about the state of culture in the late 1970s, but the twin lead guitar solo that Felder and Joe Walsh created is as recognizable and as humable as the chorus.

     What caused Frey and Felder to almost come to blows?  The usual suspects that affect bands who are wildly successful:  Too much money, excess everything, and clashing egos. Felder was married and had young children, so he wasn’t quite as deep in the ‘excess everything’ part, but by July 31, 1980, the cracks in the band’s foundation were too deep to be repaired.  Felder has moved on and told CRM, “Let’s keep it bright,” when asked to talk about where the band had gone wrong.  Of course, he pulled no punches in his 2008 book Heaven and Hell:  My Time in the Eagles where he referred to Frey and Henley somewhat facetiously as ‘The Gods’.

     On his own from 1981 to 1983, Felder found modest success with his solo work and doing  studio work with Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross, and the animated feature Heavy Metal.  After 1983, he removed himself from the music business to concentrate on raising his kids.  He did the whole soccer dad, little league coach, make lunches for the kids domestic thing full bore.  The Eagles weren’t even on his radar. When Henley asked him to join his solo band, Felder declined in favor of sticking around home.  It was country star Travis Tritt who finally got the Eagles together again. The previous attempts at a reunion failed swiftly, but in 1995, Tritt recorded a cover of Take It Easy and convinced the band to come together for a video shoot.  They had a good time and suddenly began to think about working together again.  The whole Hell Freezes Over era of the band began and as Felder tells it, “It was joyous.  Happy. Very warm.”

     By 2001, Felder was out again.  In a royalties dispute that turned into a war of suits and counter suits, the ‘joyous’ feelings of the late 1990s were replaced with something much less ‘happy’.  They eventually settled the case out of court, but this time, the damage was too severe to overcome. The 2008 book drove the final spikes in the coffin lid and Felder hasn’t performed with the Eagles since.  That doesn’t mean that he has been sitting at home much because during the last fracas, he also lost his wife via divorce. Music has again proven to be Felder’s grounding point.

     On a brighter note, Felder has a new album in the can called American Rock’N’Roll and he is pleased with how it turned out.  It won’t sell like an Eagles’ album, but it does represent where Felder comes from, musically.  “Music has been a stabilizing force in my life since I started playing at ten years old,” he says now.  “It’s gotten me through hard times, through destitute poverty growing up in Florida, through nearly starving in New York, through all the ups and downs.  It has been the one constant.” In the old days, there was a studio in Miami with a long hall and each room would be filled with groups like the Bee Gees, Clapton, Stills, the Eagles, and Chicago.  Felder said it was common place for one to walk down the hall and and get pulled into sessions to play on all kinds of music. He took a similar allstar approach with American Rock’N’Roll and I for one am anxiously awaiting my copy so we can share it with our listeners.

Top Piece Video:  We don’t do ads, but here is a peak at the promo materials for Don Felder’s newest album.