When the Eagles arrived in New Orleans for a January 23, 2009 concert at New Orleans Arena, they had long ago had assumed their place among rock’s icons.
Few bands had ever made as much money, partied with as much exuberance, and did as many drugs as the Eagles. They started as friends and ended as enemies—the relationship between founding members Don Henley (who grew up listening to WNOE-AM as a boy in Texas) and Glenn Frey badly fractured as a result of dislike and mistrust stemming from ingesting copious amounts of cocaine over the years.
Nearly 40 years after playing together for the first time as Linda Ronstadt’s support band, the Eagles remained intact and their sound was perfect on this night in the Big Easy. Veteran New Orleans radio DJ Bob Mitchell still calls the show the “greatest concert I’ve ever seen.” Mitchell was one of the first DJs to play the band’s debut single, “Take It Easy,” on New Orleans radio in 1972.
They played flawlessly. They were always about the songs and the sound. They knew they weren’t the Beatles and never tried to be, and they sure weren’t glam rockers. As Don Felder said, they “didn’t give a damn about fireworks or wearing makeup like Kiss. We didn’t leap around on stage and smash guitars like the Who or dress up in outrageous costumes like Elton John. We didn’t need gimmicks, nor did we need to sell lunch boxes with our faces on them.”
That night, they regaled the crowd with stories of shows they played at the Warehouse in ‘72 and ‘73. “Before their third encore they announced, “The next song we’re going to play for you we did at the Warehouse,” recalls the venue’s founder Bill Johnston with a proud papa smile on his face. “And then all the people went absolutely crazy.”
As the midnight hour approached, the Eagles had been performing from one of the most beloved greatest hits catalogues in classic rock history for almost three hours.
B Minor / F-Sharp / A / E / G / D / E Minor/ F-Sharp.
Thousands erupted into applause to the opening chords of “Hotel California.” The song’s so big and the band so absurdly famous that it’s hard to imagine there was once a time when rock critics couldn’t even get their names right.
When the Eagles arrived in New Orleans in July 1972 as an opening act, a Figaro music writer referred to Don Henley as “Con Herley” and wrote of the “Eagles, a new country rock band from California currently afloat in the updraft of a hit single…my guess is that on the wings of a successful tour, they will begin to wheel and bank in even wider circles.”
“Take it Easy,” the Eagles debut single and introduction to America, had been released just weeks earlier and was blaring non-stop from every record store stereo in the French Quarter, and New Orleans radio stations were playing it seemingly every fifteen minutes. At the time, radio station airplay was hardly automatic for a band that was then on the frontier of a brand new sound. Phillip Rauls knew he had his work cut out for him when he arrived in New Orleans in advance of the band that summer 40 years ago.
“You had to go in there and beat the doors down,” says Rauls, a former Atlantic Records executive who found himself promoting the group in the South through a distribution arrangement between record moguls Ahmet Ertegun and David Geffen. “You would think because they were long hair and they were considered of the youth movement, that FM radio would be the first to play it. It was just the opposite.”
The Eagles with their “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” stuff were more Top 40-oriented and they had a banjo. AM radio, the enemy at the time of all things rock, was more inclined to play it than FM radio given the unproven source.
“Just like when you launch any new product on the market, [country rock] had to sprout roots, gain legs and it had to grow. That’s where I had my challenges,” says Rauls. “I had to roll up my sleeves and try to convince the Bob Mitchells and the Mike Greens and the Bob Walkers at WTIX and then the Captain Humbles, ‘You need to give these guys a chance because they’re really big on the West Coast.’ Their ears perk up when you say ‘West Coast’ and ‘West Coast Rock’ because there’s a huge movement happening in the industry happening at the time with West Coast Rock.” The WTIXs, the WNOEs and the WRNOs of the world eventually came around as the Eagles charted three top-10 singles off their debut album that year.
“It was a turning point in New Orleans history because two weeks earlier, I had been in there trying to promote R&B to all those stations,” Rauls says. “That’s quite a difference between King Floyd’s ‘Groove Me’ and within a short period of time you’re out there with ‘Take It Easy’ and ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ and ‘Witchy Woman.’”
It’s another Tequila sunrise in New Orleans in July of ’72 and Rauls is walking through the French Quarter with some of the Eagles playing tour guide and looking for “that place that served chicory coffee down in Jackson Square”—Café du Monde.
“When we would get out of the hotel,” says Rauls, “I would take Frey and maybe [Randy] Meisner, maybe [Bernie] Leadon to the chicory coffee place to have them taste it and give them a feel for New Orleans. That was a nice walk from the hotel too. We walked it, and for a budding rock star that’s a long walk. Walking the French Quarter, walking Royal Street with all the clothing shops and jewelry shops. Walking down there was more of an attraction because if you’re looking for clothing, I would always take artists there. And The Mushroom. I would always take them there because they were always setting the stage for what was happening musically in the underground arena.”
The Eagles toured with British bands during the Summer of ’72, including Jethro Tull and Yes. On this night in July, they opened for Procol Harum. Vincent Fumar covered the concert for The Vieux Carre Courier and wrote in his review of a “crowd that was treated to an unnecessarily short set of some short and streamlined mid-tempo numbers from a group that is very much on the coming as they say.” Fumar observed that “Offstage, Procol guitarist Smilin’ Dave Ball seemed more intent on checking the scorebox and bouquet of his wine than catching the tail end of the Eagles’ set.”
Forty years later, Fumar recalls, “The group I heard that night was clearly well-rehearsed. It was clearly a band that was comfortable with the material they were doing, that is, there wasn’t a psychedelic boogie aspect to it. Obviously, they were going to be around, and the band itself appeared to be a bunch of guys reconciled to doing this material. They seemed confident. Everybody was loud in those days. I don’t remember the Eagles being particularly loud, but they were enough of a rock band to win over any audience.
“They were trying to get their material across as songs. It didn’t come off as any kind of freak show or ‘Hey look at me.’ The song was the thing to them. They were trying to get their songs across. And Glenn Frey wore a sports jacket and jeans.”
The Eagles play Jazz Fest on Saturday, May 5 at 5 p.m. on the Acura Stage.