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Music Journeys: Don Felder

Michael Helms

Former Eagles guitarist Don Felder will be in Cleveland tonight for the opening of a new exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll includes iconic instruments and the stories behind them from 1939 to today. Felder has plenty of stories too and released new music earlier this year. In this edition of Music Journeys, Felder reflects with Mike Foley on his time with the Eagles, his new material and explains how the love of music began.

Don Felder spent almost 30 years with the Eagles and co-wrote one of the band's most beloved songs. Hotel California earned the 1977 Record of the Year. When the band reunited in the mid 90's for the Hell Freezes Over tour, the acoustic version of the song garnered another Grammy nomination. And in this age of streaming, the 2013 remastered version of Hotel California has more than 531 million plays according to Spotify.

"Lyrically, it's just a perfectly-sculpted mysterious piece," Felder said of Hotel California. "That combination of Henley/Frey, to me, was every bit as powerful as Lennon/McCartney. They were sort of the American Lennon/McCartney, if you want to know what I thought of those two guys. Just brilliant song writers. I had a lot to do with the music, the chord progression, the bass part, the reggae feel. It was a spectacular combination of the feeling that was in that music track and the really beautiful lyrics that Don and Glenn wrote."    

More on that song a little later in the podcast.

American Rock 'N' Roll plays...

Since his departure from the Eagles in 2001, Felder has released two solo projects - the most recent coming earlier this year with the 11-track American Rock 'N' Roll. Felder has a number of musical connections besides the Eagles. Growing up in Gainesville, FL, he formed a band with Stephen Stills. Felder even had a teaching stint in his hometown. Among his students, a young Tom Petty. Felder became friends with Greg and Duane Allman, and credits Duane with teaching him slide guitar. But the biggest influence on Felder's love of music, his ear for sound, and even the guitar skills he's mastered all came from his dad and an innovative recorder.

"I remember my father had music playing in our house constantly," Felder recalled. "When he was not working, he would lay back in this big reclining chair and put on Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, or one of the big bands. He loved that era. I would look at him and just see him relaxed and enjoying the music. Subconsciously later on, I really wanted to please my father by doing something he would love and appreciate." 

Falling in Love plays...

"My dad bought a Voice of Music tape recorder," Felder said. "It had this phenomenon on it called Sound on Sound. Most of the records back in the 50's were mono. So we would borrow mono and put them on this turntable we bought at a swap meet and record them onto one side of this recorder. I could plug in a little amp or in the back of the tape recorder and play Elvis Presley songs and learn to play by hearing them on one side and recording myself on the other side and then realizing which chord was wrong until I would go back and listen to it over and over until I could play it perfectly. It was a really great way to develop my ear training as well. Even today, I can hear something two or three times and pick up a guitar and play it. When you learn to speak that language, when you hear it you can speak it pretty easily." 

Little Latin Lover plays...

"The funny thing about it all is that the initial inspiration and enthusiasm about music started back when I was 10 years old," Felder reflected. "I think that's what's driven me my whole life. It's why I still do it today. I wrote this last record because I love be in the studio and write and create."   

Rock You plays...

"I was flipping through old Eagles pictures and found one of me standing on the stage at Wembley Stadium," Felder said. "It must have been 1974 or 75. We were on the bill with Elton John. There must have been 110,000 people there. I wanted to write a song that everybody in that crowd could really rock to. I came up with this stadium rock song called Rock You. I called up Sammy Hagar, a friend since the 80's. He said come on up, and we'll record it in my studio. So I fly to his studio in San Francisco. He's already got a mic set up. I play him the track and have the lyrics printed out for him. After we told all the jokes we could remember and had a cup of coffee, we're singing this piece of music. So 30 minutes later, we finish the vocals." 

Rock You with Sammy vocals...

"We go back to get another cup of coffee and Bob Weir is walking down the hallway," Felder continued. "He has a studio just a couple blocks from Sammy. So I said Bob, you've got to come in and sing on this track. So I set him up in front of the mic, and he asks what I want him to sing. I say I just want you to yell rock you. So we have about six or eight Bob Weirs singing rock you among all the other people singing." 

Rock You continues...

"Then Joe Satriani comes over, and he and I plug in a couple of guitars in the control room just out of the blue," Felder continued. "We just kind of mapped out some stuff to play together and solos. I have sat in the studio, toe to toe with some of the greatest guitar players around. I have never been so intimidated and nervous as I was with Joe Satriani. He's just such a technical master and just on fire when he plays. So I had to dial it up. The two of us kept going at each other, and we came up with some fun stuff. So stuff just sort of happened for that song." 

Rock You continues with guitar solos...

Much of the record just kind of came together that way, according to Felder. Take for instance the song Limelight with Richie Sambora. 

Limelight plays...

"I've known Sambora for a long time and called him and asked him if he'd play some guitar on this song with me," Felder said. "I went over to his house, and he has a studio set up in his kitchen. Now I've made records in just about every place you can imagine but never in a kitchen. Great thing is you could just lean over and grab the coffee to refill your cup. We're playing away and trading off on these two guitar parts, and I turn around and walking down the staircase is Orianthi. I've known her 12 years or so. She's an unbelievable guitarist. We've played together at benefits and different stuff, and I forgot that she and Sambora were together as a couple. So I say go get a guitar, you have to play on this record. She had literally just got out of bed. She comes over and grabs this guitar and plugs in and absolutely kills it. This is like 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning. I think it's maybe one of my favorite solos, if not the favorite solo on American Rock 'N' Roll."  

Limelight guitar solos...

Other contributors on Felder's latest include Peter Frampton, Mick Fleetwood, and Slash. There's a few slower songs as well, including a rewrite of a tune Fedler crafted during his Eagles days titled Sun.   

"I wrote that song for my son right after he was born, must have been about 1974 or 75," Felder recalled. "It had a totally different set of lyrics, but the same music track. I played it for Don and Glenn as a suggested track for One of These Nights, but they wanted something more rock. It sat there and sat there. I kept thinking about the musicality of it and the feeling that's in it. Writing the lyrics about your son limits the audience to those with male children. Then, a lot don't have kids, so they may or may not relate to it. So I changed son to sun. You see the sun, the sun rises, you go through life's experiences. Then at the very last verse, there's a line about a warm crossing of life and seeing the sun on the other side of what we have now. So, it became a more spiritual song about life experience. Myself and Timothy Drury, who was with the Eagles during Hell Freezes Over and also in Whitesnake for seven years, we sing all of those voices in the harmonies. But we layer them so thick, it sounds more like a small men's choir than just two guys singing multiple tracks."   

Sun plays...

When he reflects on those days with the Eagles, Felder has more of a sense of gratitude rather than regret.

"I think it was an absolutely magical combination of all the people that were in that group at the time with the history and talents that we had," Felder said. "We had a massive pool of songwriting, a great pool for vocals, incredible guitar collection between Walsh, myself, and Glenn. Glenn was a great guitar player and wrote some of the greatest guitar solos ever. The ability to write and select the right songs and the right singers for them and have the right producer. It was a magical combination that produced stuff that not any one of us individually has been able to climb anywhere near to that height since."   

If there's a signature song from the Eagles, it's arguably Hotel California, a song inspired from a cassette of instrumentals Felder had been working on. During a conversation we had back in 2013, Felder shared his recollection of how it all came together and confirming he still has the cassette. 

"Yeah, I actually several years ago found it in a large box of other demo cassettes that I had," Felder said during our 2013 interview. "I found that track, and It was remarkably similar to the final result but without lyrics and melody. The music track to it was fairly close to what you hear on the record today with the exception of a few Joe Walsh-isms on the end of the song where he plays. He's just Joe."

"We got into the studio to record it, and I always thought we would just set up two guitars, and Joe and I would just go toe to toe and have fun playing and pushing each other," Felder continued. "That's what we started doing, and then Don Henley walked into the control room and asked us to stop and play it exactly like the demo. I didn't remember what I played because it was over a year ago. We're in a studio in Miami. I had to call my house in Los Angeles and ask someone to find that cassette tape, put it in a blaster and play it. She held the phone up to the front of this blaster, and we recorded it in this studio in Miami over the phone."

"We get to the end of it, and Joe says we need to do something that sounds like diddly diddly diddly diddly," Fedler recalled. "Since I written the chord changes, I had to sit down and figure out what diddly diddly diddly was over all the different chords that went by across that progression, work out my part, and then the harmony for it. Joe and I practiced literally almost bar by bar through the progression what we were going to play. Then we went back and recorded it bar by bar or chord by chord until we had assembled really a perfect execution of that idea."

Now 72, Felder remains grateful for what music has given him and listeners.  

"I don't know what I would do without it," Felder said. "I've been blessed with this gift to do this, and there's a reason for it. It gives me an outlet to express, and it pours out in the notes. It's an emotional expressive way to communicate with people. It's an honor and thrill to do it, but I don't write and play and record so much for other people as I do as an outlet for my own feelings and thoughts." 

"Here's something else to consider," Felder continued. "I went up to Calgary to a brain institute full of people who've had brain damage, and they're all in wheelchairs. Most of them can't speak. There were probably 15 patients in a big horseshoe in front of me, and all of their parents and children were behind them. I would play songs like Best of My Love, Take it Easy, Peaceful Easy Feeling, those older songs. You could see these people responding, even though they couldn't speak. They were unreachable in any other form of communication, but there was still someplace in their brain where they stored those memories and the joy and that part of their life that they had related to that song. The parents started crying. I was doing my best not to cry and sing at the same time. It was a very moving moment for me to realize how that gift can touch people in a very strong, deep soul to soul way. So that's what music means to me."

Check out more from Don Felder here, and the Rock Hall exhibit here.

Mike Foley joined WCBE in February 2000, coming from WUFT in Gainesville, Florida. Foley has worked in various roles, from producing news and feature stories to engineering Live From Studio A sessions. A series of music features Foley started in 2018 called Music Journeys has grown into a podcast and radio show. He also assists in developing other programs in WCBE's Podcast Experience. Foley hosts The Morning Mix, a weekday music show featuring emerging and established musicians, our Columbus-area and Ohio-based talent, and additional artists that inspire him.
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