Rock star Don Henley has become an outspoken advocate for musicians' rights, complaining loudly and often about greedy music labels that allegedly shortchange bands out of their royalties.
"Record companies have been screwing artists for ages," he said in an interview last year. "It's time we organize and fight back."
But now, in a little-noticed court case bubbling through the system, the 55-year-old Henley finds himself accused of essentially the same unfair practices by one of his own former bandmates. Longtime Eagles guitarist Don Felder has sued Henley, claiming that the singer and fellow band member Glenn Frey cheated him out of his share of album and concert earnings.
The legal showdown follows an internal dispute last year in which Henley and Frey fired Felder, a member of the band since 1974. The case could expose the inner workings of one of America's best-selling bands and decide what will become of hundreds of millions of dollars the Eagles earned after reuniting in 1994 for a successful tour and new album.
Feuds among band members are not uncommon in the music business. The Eagles turmoil is the latest in a long history of intra-band legal wrangling that runs from the Beatles to Guns N' Roses to Destiny's Child. But this dispute is unusual because it involves bandmates who had managed to play together for such a long time.
And it could be a particularly big blow to the reputation of Henley, who has blasted the music labels' contracts and accounting practices in testimony before California lawmakers. He also leads the Recording Artists Coalition, which this year demanded fairer agreements and additional disclosure of financial data from the industry.
Felder's lawsuit accuses Henley and Frey of bullying him into "one-sided" agreements divvying up band profits, withholding financial information and firing him without cause.
Felder, 55, declined to be interviewed but issued a statement to The Times referring to Henley: "It is absolutely the height of hypocrisy for him to attempt to reinvent himself as the champion for artists' rights."
The lawsuit, filed last year in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeks past earnings and potentially lost income totaling more than $50 million. Felder is seeking to dissolve Eagles Ltd., the corporation that holds rights to the band's name, some unreleased recordings and other property.
Henley, who is scheduled to give a deposition in the case Tuesday, could not be reached for comment last week. But Daniel M. Petrocelli, the attorney representing Henley and Frey, said the band's various contracts had been disclosed and "fully approved" by Felder.
"He's not offering to return the 15 or 20 million he made since 1994, is he?" Petrocelli said. "Everything in that complaint is: 'I regret what I did, even though I made $15 or $20 million, and I want to rewrite history.' Felder jumped at the chance to get back in this band when it reunited, because it made him a lot of money."
Henley and Frey countersued Felder in August, alleging he breached his contract by writing and trying to sell a "tell-all" book about his life in the band. The book has not been published.
Record executives who have been following the case say they expect the two sides to reach a settlement eventually. But Felder has complained that Henley and Frey have withheld crucial documents during the discovery process, prompting a judge in the case to sanction them $5,600 earlier this year.
Irving Azoff, the band's longtime manager and Henley's personal manager, said: "I'm really proud of what Don Henley and other artists have accomplished" in pressuring labels to reform their business practices.
Felder, he added, "should be saying thank you."
Azoff said the lawsuit would not interfere with the band's plans. The Eagles have toured without Felder for the last year, adding guitarist Steuart Smith to their lineup. Azoff said the band was recording a new album and planned to mount another tour next year.
The Eagles are regarded as one of the most successful American bands ever, having sold more than 80 million albums in the U.S. alone since forming three decades ago. The band's "Greatest Hits 1971-1975" ranks as the best-selling album of all time, with an estimated 28 million copies sold, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
The Eagles were founded in 1971 by Henley, Frey, bassist Randy Meisner and guitarist Bernie Leadon -- four musicians who had played backup for Linda Ronstadt. After scoring early hits such as "Witchy Woman" and "Take It Easy," the band added Felder to its lineup in 1974 as part of a shift to a harder rock sound. The band also made him a shareholder in Eagles Ltd.
The band continued its ascent toward megastardom but was beset by infighting. Leadon left in 1975. Meisner left two years later, after the completion of the album "Hotel California," whose title track was co-written by Felder.
After contentious recording sessions for their next album, the band members halted their work together in 1980. Each continued to receive royalties on sales of Eagles albums.
Each of the band members pursued solo careers. Henley and Frey scored the biggest individual successes, but neither approached the blockbuster success of the Eagles as a recording artist or concert draw.
After more than a decade apart, the band reunited in 1994 for a tour titled "Hell Freezes Over," a reference to a remark Henley once made about the prospects for a reunion.
Before getting back together, Felder's lawsuit says, the band members had always split album, concert and merchandise revenue equally. But, according to the suit, Henley and Frey demanded that a new corporate structure be designed for the reunion effort and threatened to fire him unless he agreed.
Under that 1994 agreement, the lawsuit contends, profit would flow into a series of new companies in which Henley and Frey each held about 30% stakes -- double that of band members Felder, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh -- as well as all voting stock.
The lawsuit says Henley and Frey engaged in self-dealing to divert money from the Eagles corporation to these new companies. In other instances, the lawsuit maintains, Henley and Frey paid "excessive compensation" to Azoff, in part by cutting sweetheart deals to divert profit to Azoff's record label, Giant Records, and his merchandise sales firm.
The 1994 album "Hell Freezes Over" has sold an estimated 7.7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Since '94, the Eagles have generated more than $240 million in ticket sales.
Attorney Petrocelli said Henley and Frey were entitled to bigger shares because they founded the band and wrote most of the Eagles' songs. Since Felder's departure, he said, the Eagles "have been playing to sold-out crowds, and there hasn't been a single person asking for a refund because Don Felder was not there."
The lawsuit also alleges that Henley improperly used his stake in the Eagles corporation as leverage in his own legal disputes. The lawsuit says Henley and Azoff steered the "Hell Freezes Over" album to Geffen Records as part of an agreement to settle Henley's legal battle with the label over his solo contract.
After the settlement, Henley was released from the contract and then signed a three-album deal for an estimated $30 million with Warner Bros. Records, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Allegations of Bullying
Felder's lawsuit says that in 2000, after a successful concert to ring in the new year, Henley and Frey again bullied him into signing a new deal that would further diminish his role. Under the agreement, Henley and Frey would receive triple the proceeds that Felder got from the band's new boxed set. That collection has sold about 267,000 copies.
Over time, the lawsuit says, Henley and Frey grew increasingly upset with resistance from Felder and his business attorney, Barry Tyerman. Felder said he tried to "appease" Henley and Frey by dismissing Tyerman early last year. But he said Henley and Frey still notified him that he had been fired from the 30-year-old band.
What "I've learned from Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Irving Azoff is not to trust anyone," Felder said.
According to the lawsuit, Henley and Frey told Felder that his termination also required him to sell back his shares in the Eagles corporation for a nominal sum. The suit says that Henley and Frey eventually informed Felder that they also would buy back his shares in the Eagles' affiliated companies and that they enclosed three checks totaling a mere $3,000.
But for all of Felder's grumbling about being squeezed out, Petrocelli said, his clients acted in the best interests of the Eagles.
They "felt, creatively -- chemistry-wise and performance-wise -- that he should no longer be part of the band," he said. "They removed him, and they had every legal right to do so. This has been happening with rock 'n' roll bands since Day One."