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Tequila Sunrise: How Eagles Wrote Their First Truly Classic Song
Warner Music
In Depth

Tequila Sunrise: How Eagles Wrote Their First Truly Classic Song

The song that kick-started the Don Henley and Glenn Frey partnership, Tequila Sunrise ushered in a new dawn for Eagles’ core artistic force.

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“I love the song,” EaglesGlenn Frey said of Tequila Sunrise. “I think the goal of any songwriter is to make a song appear seamless, to never show the struggle. Nothing should sound forced. Tequila Sunrise was written fairly quickly, and I don’t think there’s a single chord out of place.”

Released as the first single from Eagles’ second album, Desperado, Tequila Sunrise was the sound of a band who – having established their commercial potential with their debut album – now explored a more conceptual bent to their music and lyrics. Riffing on themes of outlaws, Eagles created a song that fused louche Californian drinking culture with ghosts of rebel ancestors.

Listen to ‘Take It To The Limit: The Essentials Collection’ here.

Who wrote Tequila Sunrise?

Eagles’ songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey wrote Tequila Sunrise together. This was different from the approach taken on Eagles’ self-titled debut album, where, although the pair had been bandmates, they were not yet a songwriting partnership. For Desperado, things changed, with Frey and Henley collaborating on the title track and Tequila Sunrise, writing both within a week.

Tequila Sunrise began with a Glenn Frey guitar riff (“kinda Roy Orbison, kinda Mexican”, as Frey described it), and the pair worked on the song from there. “I was a terrible songwriter when I got in this band,” Henley freely admitted in 2013. “I learned from Glenn and JD Souther and Jackson Browne.” Since future Henley-Frey compositions included Lyin’ Eyes and Hotel California, it’s fair to say that Henley learned well; and it all began with Tequila Sunrise and Desperado.

“We were fortunate,” Henley added, when speaking of the duo’s songwriting influences. “Growing up on The Byrds and The Beach Boys and before that The Mills Brothers and The Four Preps and Four Freshman – the people who influenced Brian Wilson.” The Beach Boys influence feels particularly keen on Tequila Sunrise, which features some exquisite harmony work from all members of Eagles.

What is the story behind the song Tequila Sunrise?

Fitting in with Desperado’s overall loose concept of anti-heroes, Tequila Sunrise centres on a loner. Its references to Texas and “dealin’ friends” means it’s alive to the American frontier theme of Desperado, yet it stands slightly apart from it, tapping into a sense of isolation felt by a musician constantly on the move (and frequently drunk). This sense of contemporary rock’n’roll anxiety, as well as the references to the fashionable cocktail of the title, modernise the song. It also allowed Glenn Frey to indulge in some clever wordplay.

“I believe that was a Glenn title,” Henley wrote in the sleevenotes to Eagles’ 2003 compilation, The Very Best Of. “I think he was ambivalent about it because he thought that it was a bit too obvious or too much of a cliché because of the drink that was so popular then. I said, ‘No – look at it from a different point of view. You’ve been drinking straight tequila all night and the sun is coming up!’ It turned out to be a really great song.”

Henley also revealed a more relatable theme to Tequila Sunrise. “‘Take another shot of courage’ refers to tequila – because we used to call it ‘instant courage’,” he wrote. “We very much wanted to talk to the ladies, but we often didn’t have the nerve, so we’d drink a couple of shots and suddenly it was, ‘Howdy, ma’am.’”

What album was Tequila Sunrise on?

Tequila Sunrise was on Eagles’ Desperado album, whose artwork depicted the band as cowboys. “We were quite taken with the idea of being, or at least portraying, outlaws,” says JD Souther, known as an ‘honorary Eagle’ for his close relationship with the band. “It was a serviceable metaphor for our story.” The band were thrilled with Desperado, carrying producer Glyn Johns out of the control room high on their shoulders when it was finished.

Over the years, Desperado has grown from commercial flop – which even the band’s label allegedly dismissed as “a fucking cowboy record” – into a cult classic. This lack of immediate success was almost priced in by Eagles. “Frey said at the time, ‘We’ve had the hits, now what we want is critical acceptance as serious artists. We’ll do that with this album,’” as fellow Eagle Bernie Leaden has recalled.

Who originally sang Tequila Sunrise?

The Eagle who sang lead on Tequila Sunrise was Glenn Frey, with Don Henley, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon on backing vocals. The vocal blend on the song is one of Eagles’ most stunning.

Tequila Sunrise can be seen as the real beginning of the powerful Henley-Frey partnership. This was not only in songwriting terms, but also in something less tangible: the duo becoming the centrifugal artistic force of Eagles. “The natural dynamic was more like a Beatles vibe, with two main guys [Frey and Henley],” Bernie Leaden has said. “But Glyn [Johns] pushed hard to make sure Randy and I had two songs each on Desperado, and it worked out OK.” This compromise wouldn’t last, but, for now, the band (largely) remained in personal and musical harmony.

When was the song Tequila Sunrise released?

Tequila Sunrise was released on 17 April 1973, as the first single from Desperado (which came out on the same day). There was only one further single lifted from the album, Outlaw Man, issued in August 1973. While initially a poor seller (Tequila Sunrise peaked at No.64 on the Billboard Hot 100), the reputations of both Tequila Sunrise and Desperado have blossomed over the years.

Ultimately, Tequila Sunrise – with its skilful mix of country, folk and thoughtful rock – succeeded on its own terms, as well as being a blueprint for future Henley-Frey powerhouse compositions. “That was the beginning of our songwriting partnership,” as Henley put it. “That’s when we became a team.”

Buy ‘Take It To The Limit: The Essential Collection’, plus Eagles box sets, vinyl and more at the Dig! store.

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