DON FELDER: BEYOND HOTEL CALIFORNIA

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By Steve Houk

So, what makes a song timeless, long-lasting and unforgettable? Well, a few things.

One is the melody. Does it stick in your head? Do you want to keep singing it, like “Satisfaction,” “Johnny B Goode” or “Hey Jude”?

Or perhaps it’s the lyrics that move you, make you think or keep you guessing what it really means; as in “Imagine,” “What’s Going On,” “Like A Rolling Stone.”

And yes, there’s the mass appeal; that people from all over the world know the song, can hum the tune, or sing the chorus by heart. Come on, you can sing along right now to “Light My Fire,” “Respect” or “Let It Be.”

Around 1976, Don Felder came up with the melody to such a song that covers all of those attributes, and even now, almost forty years after it was written, it remains one of the world’s most recognizable and well-known songs. Felder is constantly reminded of the depth of its breadth, sometimes in truly profound fashion.

“Two years ago, when I played in New York City for the United Nations, there were 450 or 500 heads of states, presidents, secretaries of state, all these kinds of bluppity blups from all over the world were at this event,” Felder said. “And when I went out and played “Hotel California,” half the people in the audience didn’t even speak English, yet I got a massive response, a prolonged standing ovation, for that one song. You continue to realize that it had such a global impact.”

It has to be hard, and even somewhat daunting, to top being a co-writer of an epic tune like “Hotel California.” But don’t tell Don Felder that. After crafting that classic song about ’70s-era excess and isolation, plus other popular radio-friendly tunes as a member of The Eagles, Felder has had a successful career as a solo artist, a sought-after session man (he just played on Sarah McClachlan’s latest record and co-wrote one of the songs), respected producer, hit songwriter, composer and everything else under the sun; you name it, Felder’s done it. Yes, there is life after Hell.

And who wouldn’t end up as a musical icon after cutting his teenage rock and roll teeth with a who’s who of future rock icons, including fellow North Central Floridians Stephen Stills (he and Felder had a band called The Continentals), future Eagles co-founder Bernie Leadon, and good buddies Duane and Gregg Allman. Truth be told, Duane taught Felder to play slide guitar while sitting on the floor of the Allman family home often into the wee hours. Felder also worked at a local music store where he gave guitar lessons to a gawky Gainesville kid named Tommy Petty who was tired of playing bass. Yes, that Tommy Petty. Not a surprise Felder’s music career worked out pretty well after palling around with those kids.

These days, Felder, who’s 66 but looks 15 years younger, plays dozens of shows a year and currently has a top ten song on classic rock radio, “You Don’t Have Me” from his accessible 2012 CD “Road To Forever.”  And his latest venture, as opening act on the 2014 Sounds of Summer Tour with Styx and Foreigner, is a calculated yet sincere career move aimed to target devoted fans that can sing along to a slew of hit songs from all three ’70s bands in one evening, including a newly arranged collaborative version of “Hotel California.” 

“When the idea first came up and was presented to me,” the easygoing Felder told me from his studio in California, “I was pretty excited about it because I know the guys in Styx well, and [the Styx and Foreigner] fan base was very similar to the Eagles’; same genre so they’ll know all the hits and songs. Plus, it’s gonna actually be fun, instead of arguments and yelling, and I thought, hey wait a minute, we can actually go out on the road, play great music and have fun? Wow, OK, that’s something I haven’t done for a long time. There’s no ego, there’s no drama, it’s just great music and good people.”

The Eagles with Don Felder (second from right) in the early 70's (courtesy Getty Images)

The Eagles with Don Felder (second from right) in the early 70’s (courtesy Getty Images)

Well, you had to know a chat with Don Felder couldn’t go by without a salty reference to his tumultuous past with Papa Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey; a legendary period of major collaborative rock genius marred by massive egos, bitter infighting and later, dismissal and lawsuits. But Felder knows the reasons for all that, ones that similarly affected bands as huge as The Beatles. In fact, Felder got a heads up about said band unrest from childhood buddy and Eagles co-founder Leadon before he joined up. And from the first day at the studio, all the warnings he had gotten were unfortunately dead on.

“I had heard from Bernie about all the turbulence and dissent and arguments, and how difficult it was personally in that band,” Felder said. “Anytime you get four or five A-type personalities that all write, sing and play together in the same room, there’s gonna be this struggle for who’s in charge and who’s the boss and what songs and what lyrics and who’s gonna sing this. There’s gonna be this just constant friction going on. So I just stepped to the back and went, ‘I’m here, whaddya want me to play?’  I always thought I had joined a band that was always breaking up. Every day, somebody was upset about something. But at the time, my wife was pregnant with our first child, so I wasn’t going to go storming out of the room in a huff with the opportunity I had there, so I just took a really deep breath and hung in there and played guitar and wrote songs.”

Felder hung in as long as he could, but the band disintegrated under it’s own inflated weight in 1980. They would regroup in 1994 for the Hell Freezes Over reunion and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 (yes, they all showed up), but things got uglier in 2001 when Felder was summarily kicked out of the band; the reasons differ depending on who you ask. There were suits and countersuits before a settlement was reached in 2002. But Felder relishes his time during the Eagles heyday, while also understanding the pros and cons of both band and solo life.

“There’s a lot of great stuff about being in a band, especially a unique band where everybody sings and writes and plays,” Felder said. “But there’s also that friction and struggle at the same time, that you don’t necessarily have when you’re doing soundtrack or solo and session work. They both have their likes and dislikes about them, ya know?”

But even though he has had solo success in a variety of musical areas since he flew high with The Eagles, it’s “Hotel California” that he regards as his career pinnacle. He is reminded of its reach and impact over and over, and remains grateful to have been a part of rock and roll history.

“I got a text message a few days ago from a friend of mine who’s down in Buenos Aires,” Felder says, likely with a smile, “and it said, ‘You won’t believe this, but they’re doing the Argentinian version of “Hotel California” right here, right now!’ (laughs) You just realize that you were fortunate to be part of writing something that went on to have global success. So I would have to say that’s my crown jewel.”

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