Eagles co-founder is a collaborator at heart

He’s one of the most respected songwriters of the last 40 years, and a lyricist who helped redefine the modern West in song. Thus, it’s a bit startling to realize Don Henley spent his entire Eagles career collaborating with other songwriters and bandmates to create tunes.

It wasn’t until his first solo album, 1982′s “I Can’t Stand Still,” that Henley would take a solo writing credit. And that was only for one track, “Lilah.” Since then, he has added just one more solo work to his canon, “A Month of Sundays.”

“I’m a collaborator at heart,” Henley says during a break from recording the next Eagles album, which he figures will be ready for pressing in April. “I bounce ideas off people less than I once did, but when you’re making a record, it’s always good to get others involved. Sometimes it’s the entire band, sometimes we pair off into groups of two and three. We try to make this a collaborative effort.”

Henley will be honored tonight at the Recording Academy’s annual MusiCares dinner at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Always a star-studded affair, the evening closes with a concert of stars performing the music of the honoree.

Academy execs are anticipating record attendance of more than 2,300 and that money raised — from tickets, donations and a silent auction — will reach $4 million.

Henley was chosen for his commitment to environmental issues and artists’ rights. In 1990, he founded the Walden Woods Project to preserve historic Walden Woods in Massachusetts. He also founded the Caddo Lake Institute in his native east Texas, a privately operated foundation that acts as an “ecosystem-specific” sponsoring entity, underwriting local wetland science and conservation education.

Henley also was one of the founders of the Recording Artists’ Coalition, a group formed to represent the interests of recording artists with regard to legislative issues.

He even uses his catalog to raise money for causes. When authors request permission to quote an Eagles song in a book, he says he usually asks them to send a $100 check to Walden Woods Project.

Throughout the ’90s, Henley put his solo career on hold, turned his attention to causes such as Walden Woods and — under the banner “Hell Freezes Over” — re-formed the Eagles with Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit and, initially, Don Felder. The reunited band became one of the biggest concert draws in the world.

John Boylan, the man who put Henley and Frey plus original Eagles Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon into Linda Ronstadt’s backing group in 1971, says the Eagles’ staying power is due to the band creating a style that initially defined a time and a place — Southern California in the ’70s — and ultimately transcended it. On top of that, Henley was a rarity — a songwriting drummer with a voice so strong and perfect for the radio that he would often sing lead.

The bar at the Troubadour, says Boylan, “was a Cenacle for musicians. Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther — they would all hang out and talk music and then sing in the bar. Doug Dillard would lead the singing, so they were all learning harmonies.”

The Eagles, Browne and some of their brethren “created a style that seeped into America, a testament of how valid it was artistically. It wasn’t trendy. They were reading good stuff, like Rimbaud, and listening to Dylan and Otis (Redding), and you can hear it in their early records.”

Backing up the notion that Henley was always a collaborator, that circle of songwriters would cross-pollinate each other’s work. Browne, Souther, Jack Tempchin, Tommy Nexon, David Blue, Tom Waits, Robb Strandlund and Paul Craft all had songs or joined in writing with the band members on the first three Eagles albums, released between 1972 and ’74.

Frey helped Browne finish “Take It Easy”; for “Lyin’ Eyes,” Frey handled most of the duties and Henley worked on the verses and melody; “Desperado” was a fragment Henley had laying around for years that blossomed in a jam session. When the band shook its country roots after the departure of Leadon, Henley lyrically and rhythmically shaped the band’s masterpiece, “Hotel California.”

That album, as much as it was Henley’s coming-out party as a leader, was still stocked with collaborations. Even as a solo artist, Henley continues to write with others extensively.

Bruce Hornsby, who spent the ’70s studying jazz but became a fan of Henley’s solo work in the early ’80s, says he was shocked by how fast Henley responded to his melody for “The End of Innocence.” “He left my house and called when he was almost home to say ‘I wrote half the lyrics in the car.’ It was a ride from Van Nuys to up on Mulholland where he was living.”

Henley says going strictly solo can get monotonous. Besides, he seems to relish the journey as much as he does crossing the finish line.

“Maybe it’s not as collaborative as it was in 1972 and ’73, but it really hasn’t changed,” he says of the current Eagles effort that will be available exclusively at Wal-Mart stores. “Some of (the work) is joyous and some is pure agony, but we’ve gotten used to that situation. It’s work. But one thing about us is we’re not allergic to work. We have the ability to get in and be diligent. Perseverance is a big part of this business.”

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