Don Henley Biography

Don Henley Biography

Don Henley has been one of the most recognizable voices in the world of music for over 30 years, both as a member of the Eagles and as a solo artist. J. D. Souther may have said it best: “Don Henley could sing anything he wrapped his voice around. That insanely beautiful voice, like 400-grain sandpaper, rough but fine, is incredible to hear.” However, it is not only the sound of the voice, but the words that he has written and sung over the years, that remain with listeners long after each song is over.

That famous voice was nurtured by listening to AM radio over long restless nights in Linden, a small East Texas town almost to the Louisiana border. Donald Hugh Henley, the only child of a NAPA auto parts dealer Con Junell (C. J.) Henley and his schoolteacher wife, Hughlene, was born July 22, 1947 in Gilmer, Texas, and raised in nearby Linden. As a hometown, Linden boasts a rich musical history--blues guitar great T-Bone Walker and ragtime composer Scott Joplin were also born there---so it has contributed greatly to what fellow Eagle founder Glenn Frey calls “the fertilizer of his genius.”

“Music changed my life,” Don wrote in his introduction to Jim Ladd’s book, Radio Waves. ”Radio, the vehicle for that music, was my connection to the world that lay outside my small hometown. During those difficult, adolescent years, it was a friend in the dark; a messenger to a lover; a magic carpet; a ticket out.”

He owes a measure of his success to a quirk of fate: after watching Don struggling to play football at Linden-Kildare High School—a difficult task due to his relatively small build, in comparison to the other football players--his football coach tactfully suggested that he quit the team. He decided to join the high school band instead. He began as a trombone player, but since he was always drumming on his textbooks, his band teacher moved him into the drum section, and the rest, as they say, is history. Within a short time, Don and childhood buddies Richard Bowden and Jerry Surratt formed a garage band called The Four Speeds. “No one really wanted to sing, so we drew names and I ended up being the reluctant vocalist,” Don recalled. Reluctant, indeed.

After graduating from high school in 1965, he joined Richard at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, and then a year later the pair transferred to North Texas State University in Denton. They were still playing in their band, which would go through several personnel and name changes over the next few years. When Jim Ed Norman (currently President of Warner/Reprise Nashville) and Richard’s cousin Mike Bowden joined the band, they changed the name from the Four Speeds to Felicity. It was this iteration that caught the attention of Kenny Rogers, who they met while shopping for bell-bottoms one afternoon in a McKinney Avenue boutique in Dallas. They asked Rogers, then a Top 40 recording artist with The First Edition, to come hear the band playing in a Dallas bar. According to Bowden, Rogers uttered the magic words: "I think I can help you boys out. Get your stuff together and come to LA. You can stay in my house, and go in the studio and cut a single." “Jennifer," the 45 co-written by Don Henley and Jerry Surratt, gave the band their first small taste of success.

When pedal steel guitarist Al Perkins joined the band, they became known as Shiloh, and recorded a self-titled album on Amos Records. Don and the other members of Shiloh became regulars at LA's hottest nightspot, the Troubadour, where they met Glenn Frey and his Longbranch-Pennywhistle partner J. D. Souther, along with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, and a host of other talented singers and songwriters. Linda Ronstadt had asked Glenn to be in her backup band and he extended the invitation to Don as well, reportedly putting it this way: “A friend of mine & I are thinking about starting a band together. In the meantime, do you want to go on the road with Linda Ronstadt and make 200 bucks a week?" It was the beginning of a creative partnership that endures to this day.

In the fall of 1971, Glenn and Don left Ronstadt and formed the Eagles, along with Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon, who had been with Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers, respectively. Each band member contributed to the band’s unique sound, a blend of country, folk, R&B, rock and pop.

The Eagles' first single "Take It Easy," co-written by Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne, soared into the Top 20. Other hits quickly followed, including “Witchy Woman,” the first song where Don sang lead. That song introduced a distinctive voice that many fans regard as the voice of the Eagles. The Eagles would go on to become one of the most creatively and commercially successful bands of all time. Their albums, including Desperado, On the Border, One of These Nights, Hotel California, and The Long Run, would go on to sell over 100 million copies worldwide. In the course of the 1970s, the group won four Grammy awards, topped the album charts five times and became one of the top concert draws of the era. They were the first band in history to sell over 10 million copies of two separate albums – Hotel California and Eagles - Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, which surpassed Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the best selling album of all time in the U.S. According to music historians, nearly one in every 10 Americans owns a copy of this greatest hits album.

As the Eagles’ unprecedented success continued, the band itself began to slowly disintegrate. The pressure to tour continuously while still writing and recording new material began to take its toll. The band went through several personnel changes as they developed a harder rock edge over the years: Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner departed, and new members Don Felder, Joe Walsh, and Timothy B. Schmit came on board. Still, personal and creative difficulties continued to plague the band. Everything came to a head in 1980 at a benefit for Senator Alan Cranston, when a confrontation between Glenn and Don Felder resulted in a call from Glenn to Don Henley saying, “It’s over.”

Although he admitted he was devastated, Don regrouped and eventually began writing music again with a host of talented collaborators including Danny Kortchmar, Bruce Hornsby and old friend J.D. Souther. In 1982, Don released his debut solo album, I Can’t Stand Still, featuring the hit single "Dirty Laundry," a wry commentary on news reporting set to an infectious driving beat. He followed that impressive debut with the 1984 release of Building The Perfect Beast, which produced four more hit singles: “All She Wants To Do Is Dance," "Not Enough Love In The World, " "Sunset Grill," and the beautifully evocative "The Boys Of Summer." Later that year, he received Grammy nominations for Record, Song and Producer of the Year and won the award for Best Rock Vocal (Male) for "The Boys of Summer."

He finished the decade with the 1989 release of his masterpiece album The End of the Innocence, which yielded more hits, including "The Heart of the Matter," "The Last Worthless Evening," “New York Minute,” and the title track, which garnered another Best Rock Vocal Grammy. The deeply personal nature of "Heart of the Matter" struck an emotional chord with legions of fans. “It took 41 years to write that song, and only four minutes to sing it,” Don has said. “I have a collection of the most amazing letters about that song from people all over the world that I treasure. I will keep them forever.”

In 1990, home from touring to support The End of the Innocence album, Don saw a television report stating that Walden Woods, where Henry David Thoreau had lived for two years while writing Walden, was under threat by real estate developers. The works of Thoreau and his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had a profound impact on Don in high school and college. He immediately became involved in the effort to save the area known as the birthplace of the American environmental movement by founding The Walden Woods Project. “Thoreau’s writing struck me like a thunderbolt. I loved Emerson, too, and his essay, 'Self-Reliance,' was instrumental in giving me the courage to become a songwriter,” Don wrote in the introduction to the book Heaven is Under Our Feet, a collection of environmental essays he compiled and co-edited with writer Dave Marsh. Proceeds from the book along with a number of benefit concerts he organized were dedicated to the support of the Walden Woods Project.

In 1993, Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles, an all-star, country music tribute, generated over 3 million dollars for the Walden Woods Project and went on to be named 1994’s "Album of the Year" by the Country Music Association. The Common Thread album may have been responsible for finally reuniting the Eagles. Travis Tritt recorded "Take It Easy" for the album and he asked Don, Glenn, Joe, Timothy and Don Felder to appear in the video. It was the first time they had all been together since the breakup. Shortly thereafter, Don, Glenn, Joe, and manager Irving Azoff met in Aspen, Colorado to discuss the possibility of a reunion. There, it was decided that the Eagles would reunite for an album and a tour entitled "Hell Freezes Over” after a comment Don had famously made years earlier.

After the record-breaking Eagles tour for Hell Freezes Over was completed in May 1995, Don married in his longtime girlfriend Sharon Summerall of Dallas. The lavish wedding celebration was attended by many of Don’s longtime friends. Don sang “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “In My Life” to his bride. “Everybody performed—Jackson Browne, Sting, Billy Joel, John Fogerty, Glenn Frey, J. D. Souther, Bruce Hornsby, Sheryl Crow, Tony Bennett. It was really touching,” he said later. The couple now have three children, Annabel, Will, and Sophie.

Don continued to tour with The Eagles, and the band celebrated the new millennium by performing at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on December 31, 1999. Their concert was released on CD as part of the four-disc Selected Works: 1972-1999 box set in November 2000. In 2003, the Eagles released a new greatest hits album The Very Best of the Eagles, a two-disc compilation encompassing hits from their entire catalog and including a new single, “Hole in the World,” written by Don and Glenn after the September 11 attacks. The album debuted at number three on Billboard and eventually gained triple platinum status.

After waiting out a dispute with his recording company throughout the remainder of the decade, Don signed to another label, Warner, and released Inside Job, his fourth solo album in the spring of 2000. The new album, his first since The End of the Innocence, reaffirmed his status as one of music's most articulate and respected voices. An extensive solo tour and a DVD concert film recorded May 25, 2000 at Fair Park Music Hall in Dallas followed the album’s release. Inside Job went on to be nominated for the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album. "Taking You Home" was nominated for the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and "Workin' It" was nominated for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.

Don’s new album represented not only his activism and environmental concerns in songs such as “Goodbye to a River,” but songs such as “Taking You Home” and “Annabel” clearly showed that marriage and becoming a parent had a tremendous impact his music. "Certainly when a child comes into our lives we are forced to look at the world through that child's eyes, which is a good thing. Kids have a way of reminding us of some good and simple things we have forgotten," he said, adding that his children are the best gifts that he has ever received, and they have changed his life enormously for the better.

In 1993, Don co-founded the non-profit Caddo Lake Institute, a wetland science research institute to benefit environmental education programs both in the public school system and in colleges and universities in his native East Texas. Then in 2000, Don founded the Recording Artists’ Coalition along with Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morisette, and a number of other top featured recording artists. The purpose of the RAC is to protect musicians’ rights against the common music industry business practices. He testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2001 and the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transporation in 2003. Throughout his life he continues to support a wide range of causes, including the passage of clean water legislation in California; the preservation of wildlife habitat and open space in Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Mountains; and restoration in his hometown of Linden, Texas. He has also participated in numerous other fundraising efforts including Farm Aid, The Race to Erase MS, The Rhythm and Blues Foundation and The Rainforest Foundation.

Don was formally recognized for his range of charitable work, as well as his efforts on behalf of artists' rights, when he was named the 2007 MusiCares Person of the Year by the MusiCares Foundation, an organization founded to help provide assistance for music industry professionals in times of need. MusiCares President Neil Portnow called Don “one of the most relevant and respected musical voices of our time." MusiCares Chairman Les Bider added, “Henley has consistently defied expectations over the course of his high-flying career. His inestimable musical contributions have helped the Eagles become the best-selling American band of all time with album sales exceeding 120 million and three GRAMMY Awards. His equally distinguished solo career has resulted in four platinum albums and two GRAMMYs.” The gala event, a sold-out dinner at the LA Convention Center on February 9th, 2007 with 2,300 attendees, featured performances by the Dixie Chicks, Michael McDonald, Trisha Yearwood, Seal, and Shawn Colvin. Before thanking the foundation and performing a short set of his hits, Don led the audience in a sing-along of Happy Birthday to his son, Will, who celebrated his 9th birthday that night.

In 2005, the Eagles released Farewell 1 Tour-Live from Melborne, a two-DVD set featuring two new songs: the Glenn Frey-penned “No More Cloudy Days” and Joe Walsh's "One Day at a Time." The next year, the Eagles released a teaser to their long-awaited new album: a special edition of the Farewell 1 DVD including a bonus audio CD with a studio version of "No More Cloudy Days" plus two new songs, "Fast Company" and "Do Something.” In August 2007, they released their new single, a new version of “How Long,” written by J.D. Souther, a song they originally performed as part of their live sets in the 1970s.

The Eagles’ new double CD of 20 new studio tracks, Long Road Out of Eden, was released to widespread acclaim on October 30, 2007 by the new Eagles Recording Company. The album was available in the U.S. exclusively through the band’s website, Walmart, and Sam’s Club. It debuted at No. 1 in the U.S. and became their third studio album and seventh release overall, to be certified at least seven times platinum. The Eagles made their first-ever award show appearance playing “How Long” at the Country Music Association Awards in Nov 2007. They won their fifth Grammy in 2008 for “How Long,” in the category Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. They launched their Long Road Out of Eden world tour in March at the O2 Arena in London. According to Nielsen’s 2007 year-end report, Long Road Out of Eden was named the top selling album of all new records and the best selling album in 2007 by a group in the United States.

When questioned about the length of time it took to finally complete the new album, Don said, "My greatest concern is the songwriting process, because we're competing with our own legacy. The trick is to try to be ourselves and make a record that is current. We don't want to trend-hop. We don't want to try to latch onto the latest fad. We want to be The Eagles and we want to bring, to retain, all the qualities of our music that people love.”

They have succeeded beautifully. The haunting title track, written by Don, Glenn and Timothy B. Schmit, envelops references to America's excesses and the war in Iraq in beautifully evocative lyrics, asserting that "all the knowledge in the world is of no use to fools." Rockers like "Somebody" are paired with the a-cappella showcase "No More Walks in the Wood," which came from a poem called "An Old-Fashioned Song" by John Hollander, Professor Emeritus at Yale. Don found the poem in the Oxford Dictionary of American Poetry, and with help from Eagles' guitarist Steuart Smith, he set it to music and made a demo singing all four harmonies himself, which he then sent to Hollander for his blessing.

Don's ballad "Waiting in the Weeds," also written with Steuart Smith, is a masterfully layered song that not only deals with themes of aging and lost love, but the line "I've been biding time with crows and sparrows while peacocks prance and strut upon the stage" reveals what it must be like to write songs for over three decades as a member of one of the world's most successful rock bands. Don sums it up this way: "'Waiting in the Weeds' is about life's cycles, and you could say it makes reference to the Eagles. It's about having faith that your time will come around again and quality will prevail."

Don joined the Eagles to tour for several years behind Long Road Out of Eden, also performing a few solo shows now and then (including a mini-tour in 2009).

Don touried for two years with the Eagles on their History of the Eagles tour, which promoted the DVD of the same name released in 2013. He released the country-flavored solo album Cass County in 2015 and toured behind it as well.

After Glenn Frey's death in 2016, Don Henley said he would not continue with the Eagles, but in 2017, he changed his mind. He invited Vince Gill and Glenn's son Deacon to play under the heading Eagles at the Classic East and West Festivals. It is unclear how long Don intends to pursue this venture. The future, as always, remains to be seen.

Last Updated July 19, 2017