Friday, August 14, 2009

Don Felder brings 'Hotel California' concert to pavilion

For former Eagles guitarist, life’s been good so far

Express Staff Writer

Don Felder strums his electric driver during last year’s Danny Thompson Memorial golf tournament at Sun Valley Resort. Photo by David N. Seelig

Guitarist Don Felder, 61, from Gainesville, Fla. has traveled many dark, desert highways in his half century of playing music. The former Eagles lead guitarist is a creative person who has learned to trust his gut and rely on instincts.

Felder, who was Tom Petty's guitar teacher in Gainesville, said he grew up dirt poor and learned guitar by ear—and by listening to masters like Chet Atkins. It was the late 1950s and 60s, the dawning of rock 'n' roll. "Anything that came by, we latched onto," Felder said.

Last August, on his first visit to Sun Valley for the Danny Thompson Memorial golf tournament, Felder was taking a stroll around Sun Valley Village when he arrived at the newly christened Sun Valley Pavilion. There he latched onto a concert idea in the Idaho sun.

A couple of chords and the germ of an idea started rumbling around in the Felder cosmos, similar to 33 years ago when Felder sat on a couch in a rented Malibu beach house with his acoustic guitar and summoned up the musical inspiration for the Eagles' Grammy Award-winning hit song "Hotel California."

"I saw the pavilion and thought, what a great place to have a show!" said Felder, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member since 1998. "I proposed the idea to (tournament director) Georgie Fenton. The idea was for all proceeds to go to the Thompson Memorial. Her eyes lit up. Hundreds of e-mails later, the idea finally came to fruition."

The concert, called "An Evening at the Hotel California," featuring Felder and his musical guests will be held Wednesday, Aug. 19 starting at 8 p.m. at the pavilion.

Open to the public with tickets still available, it's the kickoff event for the four-day, 33rd annual Danny Thompson festivities Aug. 19-22, which raise money for leukemia and cancer research.

Felder, a 9.6 handicap golfer who has played in celebrity/pro tournaments like the Bob Hope, said it was an honor to be invited to the Thompson Memorial for the first time last year. For years, Felder said he had heard about Sun Valley from his musical friend Peter Cetera, a longtime Sun Valley homeowner.

"My schedule had always been in conflict with making a trip here," said Felder. "But I absolutely fell in love with the place. After hearing Peter talk about Sun Valley so much, when I finally arrived, well, I got it. There's a great feeling here—the town, the people and the charity itself."

Felder said he is donating his time for Wednesday's concert, and is grateful that a number of Thompson sponsors have stepped up to pay for his fellow musicians, "the best singers and players I could find," he said. "This group has been with me for three years. We play a lot of corporate and charity events, and what I call 'billionaire birthday parties'."

"An Evening at the Hotel California" concert sponsors include US Bank, Skywest Airlines, Sun Valley Resort, Horizon Air/Alaska Airlines, Supervalu and Albertsons and Steve's Hometown Toyota of Boise.

As for the concert itself, Felder said three-quarters of the set will feature well-known Eagles songs like "Hotel California," "Heartache Tonight," "Life in the Fast Lane," "Tequila Sunrise," "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and "Take It Easy."

Felder was with the Eagles from 1974 until the band's initial break-up in 1980. After a solo career and other projects, he re-upped with the Eagles for their MTV concert and the "Hell Freezes Over" album and tour in 1994, and stayed until his firing in 2001. It was an ugly divorce, riddled with suits and counter suits and a settlement. Felder wrote about it in his best-selling 2008 book "Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles."

One of the tracks he'll do Wednesday is "Heavy Metal," a song he wrote that comes from a 1981 film of the same name. Felder will also display his guitar virtuosity in two numbers guaranteed to get the audience tapping their feet.

"I do two songs dedicated to my favorite 'Stevies'—Stevie Ray Vaughn and Stevie Wonder," said Felder. "The two songs allow me to play, sing and stretch out on the guitar."

Those songs are "Pride and Joy," and "Superstition." Vaughn, the Texan who died in a 1990 helicopter crash at age 35, was known as one of America's best guitarists, a talent he displayed with his acoustic 12-stringer in "Pride and Joy." Wonder's "Superstition," was a #1 Motown hit in 1972, when Wonder was 22.

"It should be a really fun night," said Felder about Wednesday's show. "Usually by the end of the night everybody is on their feet, singing the words they know and dancing."

Joining Felder is a Los Angeles-based group with bass guitarist and singer Jonathan Clark, Grammy-nominated guitarist and composer Frank Simes, drummer Steve "Stevie D" DiStanislao, keyboardist Loren Gold and, on percussion, Felder's son Cody Felder who was educated at Boston's Berklee College of Music.


Don Felder's musical education, starting in the first decade of rock 'n' roll, was less formal than that of his son, one of four Felder children.

It was hardscrabble in Gainesville, a landlocked northern Florida college town (University of Florida) that produced more than its share of rock 'n'roll guitarists in Felder, Eagles co-founder Bernie Leadon, Stephen Stills and Tom Petty.

Felder said, "It's strange the number of people (in the music world) who grew up in that area."

Listening to Elvis and discovering B.B. King, Felder got his first guitar in 1957 at age 10. He couldn't afford music lessons, so at age 14 he traveled over to Daytona Beach and listened to Chet Atkins' low strings and high strings on "Resolution to the Civil War," and came home and picked away and tried to figure out how Atkins did it.


"I wasn't inspired academically," said Felder, who managed to graduate from Gainesville High School. "It was an instinct I had, a gift. I learned to play by ear. And I became the main guitar teacher in town."

For another source of income, Felder formed his first band, The Continentals, when he was 15. Stephen Stills, a couple of years older and newly arrived in Gainesville, was a member of that band. They played fraternity parties and women's clubs, and worked the coastal strip—Daytona Beach and the like—in the summer.

Felder, still 15, was coming home by Greyhound bus from a gig in Palatka, east of Gainesville, when someone named Bernie Leadon met him at the bus terminal. In those teenage days of the early 1960s, anybody who had a car was a rock star. Native Minnesotan Leadon had a car.

It was a fateful meeting that eventually led to Felder becoming a member of the Eagles 12 years later.

"My mother was supposed to pick me up at the bus, but Bernie was at the Greyhound and somehow he knew about me. We went to the music store where I worked and he took out his acoustic guitar," said Felder. "He taught me bluegrass. I taught him electric rock, and rock 'n' roll."

That "melding of country rock," in Felder's words, was the essence of much of 1970s music. "Bernie went to California and brought country rock with him. I went to New York City." Felder improved his mastery of the guitar and use of styles in New York and Boston.

In California, Leadon played bluegrass with the Flying Burrito Brothers and backed up singer Linda Ronstadt with California musicians Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Randy Meisner. With a tip of the hat to The Byrds, the back-up band formed the Eagles in 1971, and Leadon was a big force in the early Eagles sound—writing "Witchy Woman" and more.

Meanwhile, Felder moved to California in 1972 and started bouncing around from band to band and occasionally rehearsing with the Eagles and his friend Leadon. He was asked to play slide guitar on the Eagles' "Good Day in Hell" in 1974, and then asked to join the band. Felder and Joe Walsh, who replaced Leadon in 1976, are generally credited with bringing a harder electric edge to the country sound of the early Eagles.

After finishing their fourth studio album, "One of These Nights," in 1975 and welcoming former James Gang guitarist Walsh, the Eagles were on the verge of creating the "Hotel California" song and Grammy Award-winning album by the same name that was their biggest success.

But they needed a concept and a push to get there.

And Felder, the guitar teacher from Gainesville, played a major role.

He said, "I remember sitting on a couch in a rented house in Malibu. It was a glorious day. My oldest son Jesse was barely a year old and our newborn daughter was in the bedroom. I was playing the guitar and out came the chords, oozing out, chords that became the introduction to 'Hotel California.'

"I had a reel-to-reel tape machine in the bedroom, and went in there to record that chord progression four or five times. In the meantime I had been assembling other song ideas I had written, 15 or 16 of them, but that one song was the one I kept coming back to. I put the song ideas on a cassette, made copies and gave them out, telling them, if there was anything that anybody liked and wanted to work on, to let me know.

"Well, I got a call from Henley, and he said, you know that #7 song, that Mexican Bolero or reggae sound, I really liked it.

"We got together and started to talk about the concept for an album. Bernie had been from San Diego, but he was gone and we started kicking around the idea that none of us had come from Los Angeles. Everybody had come from somewhere else.

"We had all driven in from Texas, Ohio and Detroit, on Route 66 through the desert. At night for a good 75 miles all you can see is the glow of L.A. You have all that stuff you fantasize about L.A. and that's what we started talking about. That's pretty much where the words came from for 'Hotel California,' and the concept for other songs came from it—'New Kid in Town,' and 'Wasted Time' and 'Life in the Fast Lane.'"

Henley and Frey penned many of the words to "Hotel California," which began with the spot-on first words, "On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair." Hard rockers Walsh and Felder blended memorably on the guitar solos.

Released in December 1976, "Hotel California" has sold over 16 million copies in the U.S. alone and has made several lists of the all-time greatest albums. The album was #1 for eight non-consecutive weeks in 1977. The "Hotel California" song, one of nine tracks on the album, was #1 in May 1977.

In a nice touch of symmetry, considering next week's concert, the Thompson Memorial golf tournament was first held in August 1977 at Sun Valley, and has since raised over $10 million for leukemia research.

So, for a kid from Gainesville, where did those "Hotel California" groundbreaking chord progressions come from, a sound that resembled Mexican or flamenco? Felder said, "Well, you know a lot of it came out of Cuban music, a calypso sound," a sound he grew up with in Florida.

Felder added about his career and charity work, "You look at your gifts in life and really have to be grateful for all the blessings you've been given. I've been able through this gift to do a lot of good."

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