Glenn Frey, as a guitarist, could hold his own among virtuosos like his fellow Eagles Joe Walsh and Don Felder. But Frey's most potent instrument proved to be one of popular music's most expressive voices, which he wielded in the group's trademark clear-as-a-California-morning harmonies and in often-plaintive lead vocals on songs he co-wrote about cloudy hearts.
Frey's mournful, resigned-to-deceit tones told you he could see through "Lyin' Eyes." Hurt seeped from his expertly controlled tenor in "New Kid in Town," a cautionary tale about "restless hearts that never mend." In "Heartache Tonight," he sounded an outright alarm in the form of a catchy rocker that presaged the Eagles' breakup.
News of Frey's death at age 67 brought heartache Monday to millions of fans who were left to take solace in the formidable catalogue of a great musician who helped the Eagles soar.
Frey, like the group he cofounded, defied easy labels. The band combined a country ethos and rock chops to produce a pop friendly string of hits, beginning with "Take it Easy," a buoyant ode to the joys and pitfalls of the road, sung by Frey and co-written by him and Jackson Browne. Frey also gave voice to other early Eagles standouts, among them "Peaceful Easy Feeling," "Tequila Sunrise" and "Already Gone."
At the height of the 1970s California-driven singer-songwriter movement, the Eagles emerged the supergroup of the genre. While the band's lineup changed over the years, the constants were Frey and primary songwriting partner Don Henley, with whom he penned, among other classics, "Desperado," "Take it to the Limit" and "Hotel California," which told of a hell from which "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."
The line proved prophetic after the Eagles broke up in 1980 and saw their popularity only grow, making them, in some respects, prisoners of their success.
Frey broke back onto the charts – and onto "Miami Vice" – with solo hits like "Smuggler's Blues" and "The Heat is On," which came to life in 1984's "Beverly Hills Cop." Still, a decade later, Frey joined most of his fellow Eagles for the "Hell Freezes Over" tour, cheekily named after their previous vow never to regroup. They went on to play together over the next two decades, drawing big crowds – and big bucks.
The band had been set to reunite last month to be honored at the Kennedy Center, but canceled because of Frey's health woes. It's unclear if or how the band could go on without the man, who, with Henley, is most responsible for giving the Eagles their sound and their songbook. But the next Kennedy awards are shaping up as an opportunity to honor a fallen Eagle whose legacy will last for the long run.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.