One James Fidler Walsh has been an insanely-busy guitarist for over five decades. He was born in 1947 in Wichita, Kansas. At age two, he would lose his father, Air Force flight instructor Robert Fidler in a military plane crash, but retained his father’s name as his middle name and his stepfather’s last name, who adopted him.
He grew up in a family where his mother was a classically trained pianist. After moving to New Jersey, he enrolled in band class at Montclair High School and began playing the oboe. At age 10, he switched to guitar and never looked back. Even so, after moving to New Jersey, his first role in a rock band was as a bassist in the local band, The Nomads. And this would kick off a slew of musical releases.
After high school, Walsh moved to Ohio to attend Kent State University. He played guitar in several bands but left college after one term after witnessing the Kent State massacre. He joined a local band called The Measles, releasing songs both on their own album and on a release by Ohio Express. Walsh both sang lead and played lead guitar. After a few lineup changes, even going from a 5-piece to a 3-piece band unexpectedly before a concert, Walsh’s next band, James Gang, finally provided the exposure he needed. The band would play as headliners for several concerts in 1968, finally releasing Yer’ Album in 1969. They caught the ear (the good one) of The Who’s Pete Townsend, who complimented Walsh and asked them to join their European Tour. Their biggest hits came on the next two albums, James Gang Rides Again (1970) and Thirds (1971), which included the now classic “Funk #49” and “Walk Away”, both with Walsh on lead vocals and guitar.
He would leave James Gang to form Barnstorm, though albums released by this band were credited as solo works by Walsh. The first album, Barnstorm (1971), was noticed by critics but had limited commercial success despite much experimental work by Walsh using a variety of effects boxes, slide guitars, and synthesizers. But the second album, The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get (1973), again released as a solo Walsh work (even with Barnstorm backing him) yielded the mega-hit “Rocky Mountain Way”, which peaked at 23.
Walsh then worked with Duane Allman to learn slide guitar and played as a guest guitarist on his fellow Barnstorm’er and college friend Joe Vitale’s album.
Not one to stay with a band for long, Walsh left Barnstorm in 1975 and was asked to join supergroup The Eagles as keyboardist and guitarist after founding member Bernie Leadon departed. Eagles’ drummer Don Henley felt Walsh was too crazy for the fairly low-key lineup, but Walsh prevailed. The first album Joe played on was none other than Hotel California (1978). His guitar work on the solo for that song, which he recorded with Don Felder, is considered one of the greatest guitar solos of all time.
“Life in the Fast Lane” was a Joe Walsh original and another hit for the album and the band. The Eagles’ second album, The Long Run (1979), continued to tap Walsh’s guitar abilities with songs like “In the City.” The band subsequently broke up in 1980.
Despite being in a variety of bands, Walsh had been releasing solo work since 1973. His first solo release, So What, was in 1974, followed by You Can’t Argue with a Sick Mind in 1976. While The Eagles were desperately pulling together a follow-up album after Hotel California, Walsh released the solo work, But Seriously, Folks… (1978), which included his hit comedic take on success, “Life’s Been Good.”
After the Eagles broke up in 1980, Walsh released There Goes the Neighborhood (1981) and You Bought It, You Name It (1983), but neither was well received by critics nor listeners. Walsh had been dating Stevie Nicks when she helped him with his next album, The Confessor, by bringing in a cadre of well-respected studio musicians. The title song received some airplay, but the LP was otherwise not a success.
His next album, Got Any Gum? (1987), was followed by Ordinary Average Guy (1991), and then in 2012, he released Analog Man, which he suggested was his final album. He later rejoined the Eagles for a short reunion tour of the band.
Throughout his career, Walsh has collaborated with a surprising number of bands and artists. Beyond the ones listed, he worked with Dan Fogelberg on his Souvenirs album, John Entwistle’s solo album Too Late for Hero, the Ringo and His All-Star Band, Dr. John, Etta James, Albert Collins, the Best (with Who bassist John Entwistle), Glen Frey when he embarked on a solo career, REO Speedwagon, Wilson Phillips, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Steve Winwood, Richard Marx ( “Don’t Mean Nothing”), and Foo Fighters on Sonic Highways, to name just a few.
He also appeared in the movie The Blues Brothers. You can see him in the closing scene when the band is playing in the prison. He is the first to jump up on the table when the closing song starts.
Walsh is easily recognizable both in guitar playing and vocalizations. Much of his music is personal or includes songs that are warnings about too much success and substance abuse. An early song, “Song for Emma,” is about the loss of his three-year-old daughter in an auto accident as she was on the way to preschool. He’s prolifically philanthropic, contributing to charities related to halfway houses for displaced women and to environmental causes in Santa Cruz, CA. He even mockingly ran for president in 1980, promising “free gas for everyone.”
Walsh has been married 5 times and suffered a life of substance abuse, including an addiction to cocaine that caused the breakup of his relationship with Stevie Nicks. Since 2004 he’s declared himself recovered.
Given his many collaborations and albums, there’s not one that sums up his talent and personality. But to get a taste of the talent, queue up Joe Walsh Essentials on Apple Music, YouTube, or Spotify and be amazed at the variety of music he’s created over the years — “Life’s Been Good”, “A Life of Illusion”, “Funk #49”, “The Confessor”, “Life in the Fast Lane”, “Already Gone”, “Hotel California”, “Victim of Love”….. a staggering tribute to his musical talent and diversity of style.
Photo: Joe Walsh in 2019 (Derek Russell via Wikimedia Commons)