How Don Henley’s Flu Led to Eagles’ ‘Witchy Woman’
Don Henley's only songwriting contribution to the Eagles' self-titled first album, "Witchy Woman," came about in part because he got a case of the flu.
As he told Cameron Crowe, guitarist Bernie Leadon came up with the music and went to Henley's house to play it for him. The drummer recalled hearing "this strange, minor-key riff that sounded sort of like a Hollywood movie version of [American] Indian music — you know, the kind of stuff they play when the Indians ride up on the ridge while the wagon train passes below. It had a haunting quality, and I thought it was interesting, so we put a rough version of it down on a cassette tape."
Shortly after that, he continued, "I came down with the flu. I had a very high fever and became semi-delirious at times — and that’s when I wrote most of the lyrics."
For inspiration, Henley drew upon a biography he was reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife Zelda, who spent a lot of time in psychiatric hospitals around the world due to schizophrenia. But he was also influenced by the "amorphous images of girls" he was seeing at the West Hollywood clubs - one in particular: his girlfriend's roommate.
"All things occult were popular in those days," he told Rolling Stone in 2016. "Ouija boards, seances, palm reading, etc. A lot of the girls were into what was called 'white witchcraft,' that is, they were practitioners of folk magic for benevolent purposes, as distinguished from malevolent witchcraft or black magic. I think some of them practiced a little of both."
Henley noted that he "thought it was charming and seductive, but I never took any of it seriously. For the most part, it was just a phase people were passing through, part of the overall youth movement and the quest for spirituality, which included a re-enchantment with the 'old ways.' It was harmless fun."
Listen to Eagles Perform 'Witchy Woman' Live
According to Andrew Vaughan's The Eagles FAQ, the band was rehearsing at Linda Ronstadt's house one day when she returned and overheard them working out "Witchy Woman" harmonies. It was then that she realized they were going to be a success.
Released on Aug. 1, 1972, as the second single from Eagles, the song made it to No. 9, topping "Take It Easy" by three positions to become the band's first Top 10 hit. Henley told Crowe that "Witchy Woman" was an "important song for me, because it marked the beginning of my professional songwriting career."
The song has since become a pop-culture touchstone, licensed in the 2001 movie America's Sweethearts and for a 2005 episode of Cold Case. But arguably its most famous use was in a 1996 episode of Seinfeld where Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) uses "Witchy Woman" to try to bond with her new boyfriend, whose favorite song is another Henley composition: "Desperado."