When the Eagles signed to Asylum Records in September 1971 with great expectations, bassist Randy Meisner was the most accomplished and successful of the four band members. He had been in Los Angeles the longest, and although his career had a haphazard start and he sometimes survived through petty criminal ventures, he had achieved the most.
Meisner, who died Wednesday of heart disease at the age of 77, joined Buffalo Springfield in the spring of 1968 when the band’s country-rock hybrid was all the rage in LA, but left the band almost immediately with Richie Furay to join Poco found, and played there celebrated first album. Meisner also toured and recorded with Rick Nelson in his impressive Stone Canyon Band. He had more success than fellow Eagles Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Bernie Leadon, and Marc Eliot, in his book “To the Limits: The Untold Story of the Eagleswrote that Frey “felt privileged to play with Meisner”.
The title of Eliot’s book recognizes the vital role of Meisner’s best-known song, 1974’s “Take It to the Limit,” in the Eagles’ success, endurance and myth. Not only is it one of the best-loved and best songs by the best-selling American band of all time, it’s also one of the best-sung songs in the Eagles’ or anyone’s catalogue, a controlled, soulful masterpiece.
In “Take It to the Limit,” which Meisner wrote with Henley and Frey, LA isn’t specifically mentioned, but it’s due to the mood of the song. Several Eagles songs find themselves in a state of melancholic reverie, with a dour, troubled feeling that the singer, seduced by beauty, danger and a post-’60s ideal of freedom, has wasted time and romantic opportunities. “Take It to the Limit” does that, but in a more hopeful way than some of the Eagles’ other love songs.
Whether or not this was planned during the writing phase, Meisner’s performance benefits from the song’s structure: two verses and two choruses, no bridge. The first chorus doesn’t start until about 1:20, which is very late for a hit, and when the second chorus ends at about 15:00, the song is practically over, save for a coda longer than 1:40. in which Meisner underlines his reputation as a great singer. He repeats the refrain phrase “take it to the limit,” then counterpoints it with range-expanding interjections (“please,” “come on and,” “you gotta”) that build tension and urgency, culminating in a solid falsetto note. He probably holds up at the peak of his unique vocal range.
“This fade is remarkable,” said guitarist/vocalist Vince Gill, who joined the Eagles in 2017, in a phone interview. “It’s a great song, and then there’s this gorgeous fade that allows it to do all these things. God, he had the most beautiful voice.” Gill is now tasked with singing it at Eagles concerts. “Anyone would say to a man, ‘I’d definitely rather hear it if Randy sings it,’ including myself,” says Gil, laughing.
“Take It to the Limit” shows that the Eagles’ sound was more than a mixture of country and rock. Frey’s slow strumming and ringing, open chords bring a country feel to what is essentially an R&B waltz, and Meisner’s walking bassline conjures up a bluegrass feel. The string arrangement by Jim Ed Norman, Henley’s pre-Eagles Texas bandmate and future president of the Warner Bros. Nashville label, kicks in with the first downbeat and doesn’t swell cheesy, but instead remains stable, adding emotional balance to the song mix.
“Take It to the Limit” was the third single the Eagles released from the One of These Nights LP, and it peaked at #4 on the Hot 100 chart. It has been covered by R&B, country, rock, bluegrass and pop artists: Etta James, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, Suzy BoggusBlue Denim, Cher, Ruby Turner and Miley Cyrusamong many.
On the first Eagles album, Meisner has three lead singers, the same as Frey and one more than Henley. The band released five albums in five years, a breakneck pace, and Henley and Frey proved outstanding writers, the faces of the band and their leaders. On 1976’s “Hotel California,” Meisner’s last album with the Eagles, he sang just one song that had similarly great “Try again and love again‘ what he wrote.
Meisner did not relish the pressure of singing “Take It to the Limit” live, which created tension in the band. One night in Knoxville he refused to go back on stage and sing it as an encore. Meisner hit Frey backstage – the bassist said he was ill and Frey was bullying him. Henley said Meisner was a hypochondriac and “a big pain in the ass”.
Meisner made three solo albums after leaving the Eagles and had three songs in the Top 40, including “Blazing heart“, which made it to No. 19. But in 1982 he stopped solo recording. He presumably had enough royalties to live on, from the releases “Take It to the Limit” and “Try and Love Again,” as well as mechanical royalties on “Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975,” the Eagles compilation that’s considered the best-selling album of all time with certified sales of 38 million copies.
Meisner had a difficult first act: Born in Nebraska to sharecroppers, he married at 14 and dropped out of school to earn a few bucks in the Midwest bar scene. He moved to Los Angeles in mid-1968 and “almost starved to death,” he told Eliot. Meisner paid the rent by selling weed and stealing milk bottles from people’s doorsteps when he was hungry. He later claimed the Eagles “put him under pressure” in the music business, which is not credible, and with hindsight the moderate success of his three solo albums matched their quality.
Randy Meisner had remarkable range and emotion in his voice, and under different circumstances he might have found more flagship songs and earned even more recognition and respect. But with “Take It to the Limit” he created a song that will never fade.