On the surface, this song is about a cowboy who refuses to fall in love, but it could also be about a young man who discovers guitars, joins a band, pays his dues and suffers for his art. The stress of being a rock star is a recurring theme in Eagles music (e.g. "Life In The Fast Lane"). The overall theme is how you must suffer for your art.
Don Henley began writing parts of this in the late '60s, but it wasn't arranged into a song until his songwriting teammate Glenn Frey came along. It was the first of many songs Henley and Frey wrote together.
Henley explained in the liner notes for The Very Best of the Eagles: "Glenn came over to write one day, and I showed him this unfinished tune that I had been holding for so many years. I said, 'When I play it and sing it, I think of Ray Charles - Ray Charles and Stephen Foster. It's really a Southern gothic thing, but we can easily make it more Western.' Glenn leapt right on it - filled in the blanks and brought structure. And that was the beginning of our songwriting partnership - that's when we became a team."
The album had an Old West theme. It was inspired by The Dalton Gang, a notorious group of outlaws. The Eagles recorded it in the very cosmopolitan setting of Island Studios in the Notting Hill section of London with the British producer Glyn Johns, but they went Western for the tour, making their set look like Deadwood.
Country music is filled with songs that look beyond the archetype to show the nuanced emotions of a cowboy, but "Desperado" was a touchstone in bringing this kind of song to the rock genre. One of its most famous descendants is Bon Jovi's 1986 song "Wanted Dead Or Alive," which draws similar parallels between the life of a cowboy and that of a rock star.
"Desperado," the title track to the second Eagles album, is a classic rock staple, but it was never released as a single. Holding it back from single release helped boost sales of the album, and also the various compilations it would later appear on.
Linda Ronstadt recorded this song and released it on her 1973 album Don't Cry Now a few months after the Eagles' Desperado album was issued. Don Henley and Glenn Frey toured as part of Ronstadt's backing band in 1971 and formed the Eagles shortly after playing on her 1972 self-titled album, which also featured the two members they recruited to round out the group: Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon. Ronstadt was very supportive, encouraging Henley and Frey to form the group even though it meant losing some of her best talent.
Ronstadt was a once-in-a-generation singer who was well known in the industry but still a club act until her single "You're No Good" took off in 1975. It took five albums for Ronstadt to find her groove, but the Eagles made inroads right away, landing a hit with their first single in 1972, "Take It Easy."
Ronstadt's "Desperado" wasn't released as a single, but it exposed the song to a much wider (mostly female) audience. "I was extremely flattered that Linda recorded 'Desperado,'" Don Henley said. "It was really her that popularized the song. Her version was very poignant and beautiful."
It's worth noting that Ronstadt and the Eagles were all transplants to Los Angeles, where they found each other. She was from Arizona, Henley was from Texas, Frey was from Michigan, Meisner was from Nebraska, and Leadon was from San Diego.
"Desperado" plays a huge role in the 1996 Seinfeld episode "The Checks," where Elaine goes out with a guy who won't let her speak when the song is playing. The Wonder Years also used the song in the 1992 episode "Stormy Weather," and it appears in the 2002 movie In America. There was also a TV movie broadcast in 1987 called Desperado that used the song.
The director Sam Peckinpah, who made many popular Westerns, including The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, was at one time interested in making a film about the Doolin-Dalton gang based on the Desperado album. The project never came to fruition.
Guitarist Randy Meisner claims he came up with the guitar intro, but was not given songwriter credit, meaning he does not get royalties from it. The allocation of songwriting credits was one of many issues that caused turmoil within the band.
The Eagles included this on their album Greatest Hits 1971-1975, which, mostly because of catalog sales, is the best selling album of all time in America, with certified sales of 38 million (Desperado has sold 2 million). This song is a big reason for its success. Since it was never released as a single, it provided a lesser-known track that fit in very well. The Eagles' "Outlaw Man," which was released as a single, was left off the album.
Artists to cover this song include Kenny Rogers, the Carpenters, Bonnie Raitt and Ringo Starr.
In 2004, Linda Ronstadt caused a stir when she dedicated this song to the filmmaker Michael Moore during a performance at the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas. Moore had a movie out called Fahrenheit 9/11, which made US president George Bush look very bad. Ronstadt said Moore "Loves his country deeply, and he's trying to get the truth out." This didn't go over well with the casino's president, who made her leave immediately. It's unclear what happened when Ronstadt performed the song, but stories circulated that patrons got upset and booed the singer. She had been dedicating the song to Moore throughout her tour without incident.
Don Henley has always been unhappy about his vocal on this song. He explained to Mojo in 2015: "When we are in England, recording 'Desperado,' I was a nervous wreck. I was standing in this huge room, Island Studios, a big orchestra right behind me, and they were bored to tears. Some older gentleman had brought chessboards and they would play between takes. I would hear these remarks like, 'Well, you know, I don't feel much like a desperado.' I was so intimidated that I didn't sing my best. Our producer Glyn Johns, who is still a friend of mine, I think, wanted to get the album done quickly and economically, and he didn't let me do many takes. I wish I could have done that song again."
This was the last song the Eagles performed in concert with Glenn Frey. It closed out their show in Bossier City, Louisiana on July 29, 2015, the last stop on their History of the Eagles tour. Frey died about six months later.