With Randy Meisner, the Eagles were one of the greatest rock groups in American history. After the founding bassist left the band, they became merely very good.
The Eagles were the closest thing to the Beatles this country ever produced. Where Britain’s Fab Four blazed trails, the Eagles mostly carried forward trends established by others. Both groups boasted remarkable musical chemistry. In both bands, a dynamic duo dominated, but every member wrote and sang some songs, lending pleasing variety to each album. And in both cases, it was the quiet ones who brought the secret sauce.
Stunning creativity allowed the Beatles to excel despite merely good pipes and chops. The Eagles augmented capable in-house writing with polish from pros like Jackson Browne and J.D. Souther. They surpassed the Beatles as musicians only by adding ringers — Don Felder and Joe Walsh — to contribute scorching guitar.
Of course, the real key to the greatness of the Eagles lay in that magical mix of incomparable voices. Meisner’s high harmony vocals comprised the key ingredient in that blend.
Consider their first hit, “Take It Easy” (1972). There is nothing remarkable about Glenn Frey’s lead vocal; it’s the backing harmonies that set the song apart. The Eagles really take flight for the first time when Meisner joins Frey on the “Standing on a corner” verse, exuding pure joy.
On that first album, the bassist sounds even better supporting Don Henley’s singing. Meisner sounds even more joyful on “Nightingale,” but he conjures dread and danger on “Witchy Woman.” The Eagles have rarely even attempted the latter song without Meisner; his voice is too integral to the verse and chorus harmonies and its epic call-and-response climax.
The rest of that first album was uneven, but Meisner and the band came into their own with their superior sophomore effort, Desperado (1973). His bandmates dominate the first half of the album, but the bassist basically takes over Side Two. On the autobiographical “Certain Kind of Fool,” Meisner sings prescient misgivings about musical fame. Two-and-a-half minutes into “Outlaw Man,” he throws down a menacing undertow of blistering bass lines to accent the song’s climax. His impossibly sweet harmonies and bridge vocals make “Saturday Night” perfectly exquisite.
For On the Border (1974) — the band’s third album — Meisner sang lead on two tracks, harmonizing with himself through the magic of multitracking.
On “Midnight Flyer” — the most chipkicking track the Eagles ever recorded — Meisner manages a credible impression of a train whistle to evoke the elation of declaring independence from a suffocating relationship. His walking bass drives the relentless cut-time groove for most of the song, but at 2:35, Meisner’s instrument declares independence, too: Leaving the timekeeping to Henley’s drums and Bernie Leadon’s banjo, Meisner busts out a brief bass solo to kick off a 4/4 coda featuring his four-string trading licks with the guitarists.
Meisner’s affecting vocal wrings maximum heartache from the pedestrian lyrics of “Is It True?” He shines on his instrument here, too, punctuating the chorus with some tasty bass accents.
His complementary musicianship enriches several other On the Border tracks. Meisner’s jaunty bass powers the up-tempo grooves of “Already Gone” and “James Dean.” On the album’s title track, his four-string lays down a syncopated minimalist groove that lures the band into funk territory. His vocal harmonies on “Ol’ 55” enable his band’s cover to reach ecstatic heights unapproached by the original Tom Waits recording — or by the Eagles, after Meisner left.
One of These Nights (1975) was Meisner’s masterpiece. Right out of the gate, he slays with his dog whistle falsetto on the disco-inflected title track. He then piles on with impassioned vocals and a nice little bass solo on the exotic “Too Many Hands.” At the top of Side Two, after Frey lulls listeners with the dreary, overlong “Lyin’ Eyes,” the bassist steals the show by singing the rousing ballad, “Take It to the Limit.”
His signature song became so successful that Meisner — always more comfortable in a supporting role — sometimes became too nervous to sing “Take It to the Limit” in concert. His shyness elicited rage and at least one beating from Frey. It also led to a reduced role for Meisner on Hotel California (1976): just one lead vocal, on the earnest “Try and Love Again.” His most distinctive contribution to the band’s best album came on the epic title track, where his cunning bass line helps lay down the irresistible reggae groove.
Meisner left the band after the ensuing tour. He pursued a half-hearted solo career, scored a few minor hits, did some session work, and spent time in a few undistinguished bands. Though financially set, the son of Nebraska sharecroppers fell afoul of addiction, poor health, and estrangement from friends and family. In 2016, his wife died in an accidental shooting.
As for the Eagles, they made The Long Run (1979) without Meisner, but then broke up for more than a decade. They did not invite him to the band’s first several reunion tours. When the call finally came a few years ago, Meisner’s health had failed. His former bandmates gallantly covered his hospital bills, but he may never fully recover to the point where he could perform. Late addition Vince Gill reportedly now sings “Take It to the Limit.”