02/18/2013 02:39 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

Eagles Land, Then Soar in New Documentary

In 1972, I was the singles reviewer for the music trade Record World. It was an awesome job, but someone had to do it.

There were lots of mediocre records to plow through, but what a thrill it was when a clear-cut hit arrived -- like Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," "Oh, Girl" by the Chi Lites and "Take It Easy," the first single from the Eagles.

The breezy, hooky "Take it Easy," written by Jackson Browne (the "Winslow, Arizona" verse was added by Eagle Glenn Frey), distilled the California country rock sound pioneered by such winged-mates as the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The Eagles -- Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner -- soon scored again with the spooky "Witchy Woman." Their third straight 1972 hit, "Peaceful Easy Feeling," assured their place in history as the only act to have two "Easy" chartmakers in the same year.

I asked Henley whether the band knew they had a hit with "Take It Easy." He said, "We had no idea what would happen. We were pretty sure that we had made a compelling recording, but you never really know what is going to be a hit. There are so many other factors besides the music." Once the record began to surge, he added, "We couldn't believe it was really happening. We kept waiting for the bad news, but the single just kept climbing up the charts. We had a few brief, celebratory moments, but mainly we just kept working. We were always thinking about what to do next. It was important not to lose momentum."

Later in '72, my Record World colleague John Gibson (yes, that John Gibson; he was a great guy and a great reporter) joined his then-wife Sandy in the greenback pastures of Atlantic Records, which distributed David Geffen's Asylum label, where the Eagles nested. Les Gibsons took me and the guys to dinner at the fabulous Café Nicholson near Manhattan's groovy 59th Street Bridge, and it was clear they were hell-bent on taking their enterprise to the limit.

Fast forward 40 years to this week's airing of History Of The Eagles, an eye-opening two-part documentary produced by Oscar- and Grammy-winning documentarian Alex Gibney and directed by his frequent collaborator Alison Ellwood, which bowed impressively at Sundance and debuted on Showtime February 15 and 16.

Part I draws from scads of material, including vintage footage beginning several years B.E. (before Eagles). In a sequence worthy of the St. Hubbins/Tufnel Spinal Tap back story, we learn that among the bands for whom Henley and/or Frey toiled were the Mushrooms, The Four of Us, The Heavy Metal Kids, the Subterraneans, Longbranch Pennywhistle, The Four Speeds and Shiloh.

Spoiler alert: Frey recalls that he learned the value of relentless attention to detail in songwriting courtesy of Jackson Browne, who lived in a crummy Echo Park studio below the crummy digs Frey shared with fellow mellow man J.D. Souther, who would later co-write such Eagles standards as "Best of My Love," "Victim of Love," "Heartache Tonight" and "New Kid in Town." Early each morning and punctuated only by the occasional tea whistle, Browne played and sang the same riffs ad infinitum until they were perfect. It was, for Frey, as valuable as it was annoying.

During pre-production of the Eagles' eponymous debut album, famed producer Glyn Johns (The Faces, The Who, The Stones) was not crazy about the group until, at a certain moment, he grokked the distinctive, crystalline blend of voices that would propel them to superstardom.

Henley and Frey were anything but mellow when it came to their careers. Their desire to rock out led to the laid-back Leadon's departure and the arrival of Joe Walsh, a certified power guitarist and one of the funniest musicians ever to grace a stage. (Turn off the volume and watch the film's concert footage of Walsh in action and you will laugh out loud.) Of course, there's a boatload of pain -- and redemption -- in Walsh's story, which plays out in Part II.

As much as Henley and Frey defined the Eagles, erstwhile members Leadon, Meisner and Don Felder and current bandmate Timothy B. Schmit contributed mightily, and each gets to tell his unvarnished story.

The band reached its highest altitude during the mid to late 1970s, when the single and album Hotel California cemented what Rolling Stone called their "note-perfect Hollywood-cowboy ennui." Gibney's film draws on excellent footage from a 1977 concert in Washington, D.C. which features the memorable dueling guitars of Walsh and Felder at the end of a chilling "Hotel California."

By 1980, the Eagles were done and the record industry was in a pre-MTV, pre-CD tailspin. Fourteen years later, the band reunited with their current lineup: Henley, Frey, Walsh and Schmit. What happened during the past 30 years is the subject of History Part II.

Wendy (aka my wife) is a long-time, passionate Eagles-lover whose enthusiasm became infectious as we watched a screening of Part I together. By the film's end, I appreciated the group more than ever.

Difficulties notwithstanding, Henley says, "All of it was fun. For me, hearing a song we'd written come to fruition in the recording studio was very gratifying, and then, of course, hearing it on the radio. Being onstage before a crowd of enthusiastic fans was a real rush, too ... and still is. Best job in the world."

Except maybe for being a singles reviewer, circa 1972.