Glenn Frey, one of the founding members of the country-rock band Eagles, often engaged in marathon sessions of poker, particularly a game he invented called “Eagle Poker.” Frey was an avid card player along with his songwriting partner Don Henley. It didn’t matter if they were backstage, or on a tour bus, or playing in their own homes, poker was a popular pastime for the Eagles.
The unglamorous side to the rock biz involves arduous traveling from gig to gig or killing time in between sound check and show time. Bands, no matter the type of music or era, often share universal experiences. More than a few have utilized cards to pass the time, maintain their sanity, and earn a little cash on the side. Musicians play a range of card games from drinking contests to high-stakes poker. The Eagles were one of the many card-slinging bands out there, and they happened to also be one of the most successful bands of all time.
ORIGINS WITH LINDA RONSTADT AND BACKSTAGE WITH SMOKEY
Frey and Henley befriended each other in 1971 when they were hired as sidemen in Linda Ronstadt’s backing band. John Boylan, record producer and manager, assembled the best country rock musicians in the Los Angeles area to join Ronstadt’s band. Boylan specifically scouted musicians who could also sing, which is why both Henley and Frey were added to the roster with Frey on guitar and Henley on drums. Music historians point to that moment as the origin of the Eagles which formed soon after when David Geffen signed them to Asylum Records in 1971.
During downtime backstage, Ronstadt’s touring band frequently played poker with each other and other bands, because everyone knew the basic rules and the rankings of poker hands. During a series of gigs at Disneyland in 1971, Ronstadt’s band hung out backstage with the legendary Smokey Robinson. A poker game fired up initiated by Ronstadt’s new guitar player, Glenn Frey.
In a remembrance piece about Glenn Frey in the L.A. Times, Ronstadt explained, “We had to do four shows a night. You’d play a 20-minute set, then be off for three or four hours, then play another 20 minutes — there was a lot of time to kill between sets. At one point we got into a poker game with Smokey Robinson, who also was booked there. I had a huge crush on Smokey at that time, and we were playing poker, and Glenn kept winning. I told him, ‘Quit winning!’ That’s the kind of poker player I was.”
Ronstadt also expressed how Frey’s poker skills extended way beyond the tables and spilled into his dealings with the murky world of the music business. “Glenn was always smarter, and better prepared than you thought he would be. It was like going into a card game with him. We used to play poker, and you’d go into a game thinking you were going to take his money, but he always ended up winning.”
THE KIRKWOOD CASINO
During the early 1970s, the Laurel Canyon neighborhood nestled in the Hollywood Hills blossomed into a popular enclave for musicians and artists along with many iconic members of L.A.’s counterculture. Frey rented a bungalow which became the meeting place for the band and their friends. The close proximity of Laurel Canyon to the Sunset Strip meant that Frey’s house in the hills attracted a steady stream of revelers once the bars closed and friends’ gigs were done. The party and poker games lasted all night and spilled into the next morning.
In an interview with Vanity Fair about the Hollywood Hills music scene, Frey described his pleasure palace: “In 1974, I moved to a place at the corner of Ridpath and Kirkwood in Laurel Canyon, and we had poker games every Monday night during football season. Notorious card games. Joni Mitchell got wind of those card games, and she always was a good hang, so she started coming every Monday night and playing cards with us. We’d watch football from six to nine and then play cards until the wee hours. They called our house the Kirkwood casino.”
The Kirkwood Casino resembled a fraternity house decorated with an empty beer can pyramid in the corner, a nonstop poker game, and with multiple TVs to keep an eye on sporting events. According to To the Limit: The Untold History of the Eagles, Monday nights at Frey’s Kirkwood Casino were devoted to Monday Night Football and poker. So long as they had enough players, they’d play cards on any given night. Henley, one of the co-founders of the Eagles, grew up in East Texas where he learned the basics of the local pastime called Texas Hold’em. Henley was well-versed in poker strategy before he arrived in Los Angeles as an aspiring musician and songwriter. Like a true Texan, Henley held a deep love for football. He also enjoyed betting on games, particularly the NFL. Monday nights at Frey’s Kirkwood Casino in Laurel Canyon combined two of Henley’s passions: football and poker.
In addition to Joni Mitchell, other musical figures from the L.A. scene were in attendance, including songwriter J.D. Souther, roadies from the Eagles, members of the Flying Burrito Brothers, record producer Bob Buziak, Eagles’ manager Irving Azoff, and an older rodeo trainer nicknamed Wild Bill. According to the book To the Limit, one of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Rob Roberts, lost a gigantic pot to Wild Bill at Frey’s Monday Night game. Normally, the regular musicians in the game kept the vibe friendly, so they forgave any ridiculous debts. However, in that instance, Wild Bill insisted on getting paid. When the indigent Burrito Brother could not pay the debt, Wild Bill took matters into his own hands. He walked through the front door of Rob Roberts’ house and helped himself to one of Roberts’ vintage guitars to settle the debt.
Frey claimed he invented Eagle Poker while growing up in Detroit, Michigan. Eagle Poker is a derivative of Acey Deucey (aka Red Dog,). The rules are simple: you bet on whether or not a third card’s value will fall in between two other dealt cards. The Eagles moved to London in 1972 to record their self-titled debut album with renowned producer Glyn Johns. Johns ran a tight ship with no drinking or drugs in his recording studio, so the Eagles lived a monastic life while diligently working on the album. Johns did not have any problems with gambling or cards, therefore the band soaked up the only vice they could engage in. While bored out of their skulls in London, the Eagles gambled for endless hours and perfected a game that would become Eagle Poker.
BIG STAKES AND SURLY DON
Henley had an ongoing spat with David Briggs, one of Neil Young’s record producers, which developed while the Eagles and Neil Young toured the United Kingdom together in 1972. Henley did not take kindly to Briggs’ constant razzing of the band and did not let the grudge go until he found a way to enact revenge. Henley challenged Briggs to Eagle Poker, and a marathon session ensued on their tour bus. When it was over, Henley beat Briggs for $7,000, a sizable sum today, let alone 45 years ago.
The pots in Eagle Poker and other high-stakes games grew so large that one of the band members stopped playing after losing a nearly $2,000 pot. In his memoir “Heaven and Hell,” Don Felder, one of the Eagles’ guitar players, wrote about poker games that started up out of sheer boredom yet quickly ballooned to high-stakes action. When the band migrated to Miami, Florida to record their seminal album “Hotel California” at Criteria Studios with producer Bill Szymczyk, Felder quipped that the band spent many hours playing poker to kill time while waiting on a perpetually-tardy Henley.
“We had a saying, ‘Hurry up and wait,’ because you’d hurry to be in the studio on time, and then you’d wait and wait and wait,” explained Felder. “We’d play marathon Eagle Poker games that lasted several days, where thousands of dollars would be won and lost. One night, I lost $1,800 in one hand to a roadie, and it hurt so much, I never really played again.”
The music of the Eagles evokes the freedom of the western frontier. A couple of their earliest albums, particularly On the Border and Desperado, have an overt outlaw cowboy theme, while also paying homage to their 1960s hippie and folk influences. The cowboy lifestyle, including poker, is an elemental competent of Western Americana roots music. The embodiment of the gambling spirit is entrenched deep into the base of the Eagles’ music and lyrics.
In an interview with Cameron Crowe, Henley revealed the origins of the title track “Desperado.” The band had grown disillusioned after critics marginalized them as a “California laid-back.” They actively sought to alter the music industry’s perception of their band.
“Jackson Browne suggested a Western theme — something to do with playing cards — which is sort of where we were headed anyway,” explained Henley. “The theme turned decidedly Western… you know… mythical, majestic images of the great American Southwest.”
The Eagles’ second album, Desperado (produced by Glyn Johns in 1973), is a concept album with a few card references. The poker lyrics fit the western theme, but in real life the band played nonstop cards while in London during the album’s production. The track “Out of Control” (co-written by Henley and Frey) contains a specific reference to poker at the end of the last verse.
You got to gamble on your story
You got no guts, you get no glory
And I’m bettin’ my money on an ace in the hole
Think I’m gettin’ out of control
“Desperado,” the title track off the album, tells the story about an old loner cowboy’s desire to settle down, but he’s skeptical to shed his outlaw past because he always got burned by women. Frey and Henley equated the search for love to gambling. They included specific references to love interests as both of the red queens.
Don’t you draw the queen of diamonds, boy
She’ll beat you if she’s able
You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet
Now it seems to me, some fine things
Have been laid upon your table
But you only want the ones that you can’t get
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
In another interview with Crowe, Frey revealed the origins of the song “Life in the Fast Lane.” Frey also told the infamous story again in the “History of the Eagles” documentary. The music was based on a riff that guitarist Joe Walsh often diddled around with while warming up. The lyrics were based on a real-life experience for Frey while a friend sped along Pacific Coast Highway without a care in the world driving them to a weekly poker game.
“The true story is: I was riding in a car with a guy we used to call ‘The Count’ because his count was never very good. We were driving out to an Eagles poker game. I was in the passenger seat. He moved over to the left lane and started driving 85-90 miles per hour. I said, ‘Hey, man, slow down.’ He goes, ‘Hey, man, it’s life in the fast lane!’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what a title!’ I didn’t write it down. I didn’t have to.”
One of the characters in the film “Almost Famous” (directed by Crowe) is loosely based on Frey. Crowe had also hired Frey to work on the film as a consultant. In the original screenplay, Crowe referenced a poker game attended by road managers from various 1970s rock bands. In that scene, they played Eagle Poker. Because Eagle Poker is not film-friendly, Frey and Crowe altered the screenplay and changed the game to Blind Man’s Bluff. That’s the type of poker that appears in a pivotal poker scene in the final cut of the film.
HISTORY OF THE EAGLES AND POKER
The Eagles are not just the band that The Dude poked fun at in the movie The Big Lebowski, but they are also a part of American gambling lore. It didn’t matter if the band members were relaxing at home, in the studio recording an album, or passing time backstage before their set. Poker was an essential part of the Eagles’ lifestyle.
When Frey moved to California, he put his own spin on his favorite poker game that he played in Detroit home games. He tweaked Acey Deucey and rebranded it Eagle Poker after he taught his bandmates and roadies how to play. From that moment on, the band notoriously played poker whenever they could find some time.
Poker became a vital aspect of the band’s life, and the gambling bug seeped into the creative process. Lyrics penned by Frey and Henley were peppered with poker and gambling references. The history of the Eagles is entwined with poker from its earliest days as a backing band to Linda Ronstadt to playing high-stakes poker on the Eagles private jet at the pinnacle of their career.
Pauly McGuire is a freelance contributor to PokerStars and the author of Lost Vegas. His newest novel, a rock-and-roll novel titled Fried Peaches will be released at the end of the year.