“Let’s be honest: A band cannot be a democracy,” Eagles drummer and singer Don Henley told Rolling Stone in 2008. “It doesn’t work. Just like the United States is not really a democracy. It’s a facade. All the great bands in history had one or two people at the helm.”
It’s a worthy observation. Henley and late guitarist Glenn Frey have remained the group’s guiding forces throughout its numerous personnel and sonic shifts, writing the bulk of material and singing most of the lead vocals. But if any band could operate as a true democracy, it’s this one: Each of the Eagles’ seven studio contributors — Henley, Frey, guitarists Joe Walsh, Don Felder and Bernie Leadon, and bassists Timothy B. Schmit and Randy Meisner — have served as lead singers and songwriters within the lineup.
There would be no “Hotel California” without Felder’s central guitar progression, no “Life in the Fast Line” without Walsh’s stammering electric riff. And some of the Eagles’ most famous lead vocals are from guys not named Henley or Frey — from Meisner’s falsetto leaps on “Take It to the Limit” to Schmit’s soulful quiver on “I Can’t Tell You Why.”
We looked through the band’s catalog and did the vocal math, breaking down who sings lead on every Eagles tune.
Glenn Frey – 4: “Take It Easy,” “Chug All Night,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Get You in the Mood” (B-side)
Randy Meisner – 3: “Most of Us Are Sad,” “Take the Devil” and “Tryin”
Don Henley – 2: “Witchy Woman” and “Nightingale”
Bernie Leadon – 2: “Train Leaves Here This Morning” and “Earlybird”
The Eagles were closest to a vocal democracy in their early years, allowing each of the four songwriters multiple leads apiece on their self-titled debut. Two of Frey’s showcases, the breezy country-rock hits “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” became career-wide set-list staples — and they’ve remained in their live repertoire even after the guitarist’s death in 2016, with Frey’s replacement, his son Deacon, taking the reins.
Meisner’s and Leadon’s leads are relegated to the deepest cuts. But it’s worth noting that Leadon co-wrote “Witchy Woman,” the song that introduced Henley’s smokey delivery to his future home: the radio.
Glenn Frey – 4: “Doolin-Dalton” (with Henley), “Out of Control,” “Tequila Sunrise” and “Outlaw Man”
Don Henley – 4: “Doolin-Dalton” (with Frey), “Desperado,” “Saturday Night” (with Meisner) and “Doolin-Dalton” / “Desperado” (Reprise)
Bernie Leadon – 2: “Twenty-One” and “Bitter Creek”
Randy Meisner – 2: “Certain Kind of Fool” and “Saturday Night” (with Henley)
After Henley’s career-altering turn on “Witchy Woman,” it was clear the Eagles needed to carve out more space for their charismatic drummer. The co-frontman took sole lead duties on the soft-rock ballad “Desperado” and the song’s reprise that’s coupled with the lonesome strummer “Doolin-Dalton.” He shared the spotlight on two tracks: “Doolin-Dalton”(with Frey) and the mandolin-laced, group-penned “Saturday Night” (with Meisner).
Frey’s most famous vocal came on the album’s twangy lead single, “Tequila Sunrise.” And Leadon contributed two of his six Eagles vocals on this LP, including the bluegrass-leaning “Twenty-One.”
On the Border (1974)
Don Henley – 5: “You Never Cry Like a Lover,” “On the Border,” “Ol’ 55” (with Frey), “Good Day in Hell” (with Frey) and “Best of My Love”
Glenn Frey – 4: “Already Gone,” “James Dean,” “Ol’ 55” (with Henley), “Good Day in Hell” (with Henley)
Randy Meisner – 2: “Midnight Flyer” and “Is It True?”
Bernie Leadon – 1: “My Man”
Henley and Frey dominated the final early quartet album, setting a division of labor precedent that’s lasted throughout the band’s career. They split vocals on the strutting co-write “Good Day in Hell” and their cover of Tom Waits‘ piano ballad “Ol’ 55,” and they handle the best-known hits: Frey on the hard/country-rock anthem “Already Gone” and Henley on the starry “Best of My Love.” But the first side still flaunts the band’s versatility, including Meisner on the banjo-heavy “Midnight Flyer” and Leadon on the silky “My Man.”
One of These Nights (1975)
Don Henley – 3: “One of These Nights,” “Hollywood Waltz” and “After the Thrill is Gone” (with Frey)
Glenn Frey – 2: “Lyin’ Eyes” and “After the Thrill is Gone” (with Henley)
Randy Meisner – 2: “Too Many Hands” and “Take It to the Limit”
Bernie Leadon – 1: “I Wish You Peace”
Don Felder – 1: “Visions”
Eagles weren’t hurting for songwriting and vocal talent, but they added another contributor, guitarist Don Felder, for their fourth album. The new recruit turned in a somewhat buried lead on the greasy rocker “Visions,” rounding out a second half that also features Leadon’s string-draped closer “I Wish You Peace.” In a display of well-roundedness, different players fronted each of the LP’s three singles: Frey on the low-key “Lyin’ Eyes,” Henley on the title track’s disco-soul departure and Meisner on “Take It to the Limit.”
Ironically, Meisner’s brilliance on that signature song contributed to his departure from the band in 1977. “I was always kind of shy,” he told Rolling Stone. “They wanted me to stand in the middle of the stage to sing ‘Take It to the Limit,’ but I liked to be out of the spotlight. One night in Knoxville, I stayed up late and got the flu. We did two or three encores and Glenn wanted another one. I told them I couldn’t do it, and we got into a spat. That was the end.”
(Vince Gill, who joined the band along with Deacon Frey in 2016, has recently subbed in for both Meisner and Glenn Frey songs onstage, including “Take It to the Limit.”)
Hotel California (1976)
Don Henley – 5: “Hotel California,” Life in the Fast Lane,” “Wasted Time,” Victim of Love” and “The Last Resort”
Glenn Frey – 1: “New Kid in Town”
Randy Meisner – 1: “Try and Love Again”
Joe Walsh – 1: “Pretty Maids All in a Row”
Felder spearheaded the music for two Hotel California tracks, heavy rocker “Victim of Love” and the epic title track — easily the definitive contributions from his Eagles run. But the guitarist didn’t wind up singing on either, and that initially led to some frustration.
“Originally I was supposed to sing lead on the track,” Felder told Ultimate Classic Rock‘s Uncle Joe Benson on his radio show. “I hadn’t even really seen the finished lyrics until that day. So I went out and set up a mic and sang it. I wasn’t feeling comfortable with it. I wanted to have some more time to work on it. And then while I went to dinner, I think Don went out and sang it, just as a demo for me to hear how he heard it. When I came back and heard it, it was great. He was fantastic. But I was really upset because [everybody was] supposed to have a song on that record. … I was told that I was going to be able to sing that, so I was quite disappointed and upset that I didn’t get a chance to sing on that Hotel California record on ‘Victim of Love.’ But when I listen to it now, Don did a great job on it. (“Don Felder, for all of his talents as a guitar player, was not a singer,” Frey bluntly proclaimed in the 2013 documentary The History of the Eagles.)
Meisner and new guitarist Joe Walsh each handled one lead on Hotel California‘s home stretch, and Frey took over on the sweetly crooned “New Kid in Town.” But Henley picked up the heavy lifting with five vocals, including the title track and the Walsh-co-written riff-fest “Life in the Fast Lane.”
“Please Come Home for Christmas”/”Funky New Year” Single (1978)
Don Henley: 2
Henley added a suave soft-rock glow to blues pianist Charles Brown’s 1960 holiday track “Please Come Home for Christmas.” (He also fronted the single’s B-side, a fittingly funky cut with purring slap bass and dizzying waves of keyboards and guitars.)
The Long Run (1979)
Don Henley – 7: “The Long Run,” King of Hollywood” (with Frey), “Those Shoes,” “Teenage Jail” (with Frey), “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks” and “The Sad Cafe”
Glenn Frey – 3: “King of Hollywood” (with Henley), “Heartache Tonight” and “Teenage Jail” (with Henley)
Timothy B. Schmit – 1: “I Can’t Tell You Why”
Joe Walsh – 1: “In the City”
Former Poco bassist Timothy B. Schmit contributed a staple with his first Eagles co-write, the after-midnight soul ballad “I Can’t Tell You Why” — and his lead vocal, after some coaching from Frey, became a definitive moment on The Long Run. “I said, “You could sing like Smokey Robinson. Let’s not do a Richie Furay, Poco-sounding song. Let’s do an R&B song,'” Frey told Cameron Crowe. “He said, ‘Sure, love to try!'”
Walsh churned out a sturdy lead on his shimmering track “In the City,” revived from The Warriors soundtrack. And despite his co-writing credits on “The Disco Stranger” and “Those Shoes,” Felder was once again left without a vocal showcase. Henley had a stranglehold on The Long Run, including the grooving R&B throwback of the title track, but that’s Frey’s blustery lead on the bluesy strut of “Heartache Tonight.”
Hell Freezes Over (1994)
Don Henley – 2: “Get Over It” and “Learn to Be Still”
Glenn Frey – 1: “The Girl From Yesterday”
Timothy B. Schmit – 1: “Love Will Keep Us Alive”
Hell Freezes Over documents the band’s 1994 reunion with a live set of classic material and an EP’s worth of new studio cuts. In the latter camp, Schmit contributed another butter-smooth lead on the acoustic ballad “Love Will Keep Us Alive,” Frey slipped into crooner mode for the lightweight “The Girl From Yesterday” and Henley split time between adult-contemporary (“Learn to Be Still”) and sneering rock (“Get Over It”).
Long Road Out of Eden (2007)
Don Henley – 10: “No More Walks in the Road” (with Frey, Walsh and Schmit), “How Long” (with Frey) “Busy Being Fabulous,” Waiting in the Weeds,” “Fast Company,” “Long Road Out of Eden,” “Somebody,” “Business as Usual,” “Center of the Universe” and “Hole in the World” (bonus track)
Glenn Frey – 8: “No More Walks in the Road” (with Henley, Walsh and Schmit), “How Long” (with Henley), “What Do I Do with My Heart,” No More Cloudy Days,” “You Are Not Alone,” “Somebody,” “I Love to Watch a Woman Dance,” “It’s Your World Now”
Joe Walsh – 3: “No More Walks in the Road” (with Frey, Henley and Schmit), “Guilty of the Crime” and “Last Good Time in Town”
Timothy B. Schmit – 3: “No More Walks in the Road” (with Frey, Walsh and Henley), “Do Something” and “I Don’t Want to Hear Any More”
Eagles slimmed down to a four-piece after Felder’s contentious 2001 exit, but their next (and, so far, final) record was anything but slender: 20 tracks across 91 minutes on the double-LP Long Road Out of Eden. Henley holds court on roughly half the project, including the slick country-rock of “Busy Being Fabulous” and “How Long” (appearing alongside Frey on the latter). The quartet earn equal billing on the stripped-down opener “No More Walks in the Wood,” each voice interwoven in blocks of harmony.