Randy Meisner, a founding member and the original bassist of the Eagles whose celestial tenor fueled hits like “Take It to the Limit” and helped catapult the breezy country-rock band from the Los Angeles club circuit to the pinnacle of 1970s rock, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 77.
The cause was complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the band said on its website.
“Randy was an integral part of the Eagles and instrumental in the early success of the band,” the group said.
“God, he had the most beautiful voice,” the singer Vince Gill, who joined the Eagles in 2017, said in a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times. Inheriting Mr. Meisner’s soaring vocal duties on “Take It to the Limit,” from 1975, in live performance is an unenviable task, he added: “Everybody to a man would say, ‘I’d sure rather hear Randy sing it,’ me included.”
In a band of egos, where the internal power plays and boozy blowouts seemed as common as string changes, the soft-spoken Mr. Meisner, an introvert who grew up on a farm in Nebraska, was never one to jostle for the spotlight.
There would not be much room for it on a stage that included, at various times, the band’s alpha dogs, Don Henley and Glenn Frey; the feisty guitarist Don Felder, who joined the band in 1974; and, eventually, the gonzo guitarist Joe Walsh, a hedonist even by 1970s rock standards who replaced Bernie Leadon, an original member, in 1975.
Mr. Meisner often expressed his preference for the band’s early days, when the Eagles were a harmonious outfit offstage as well as on.
“When we first started, we were really close, like brothers,” he was quoted saying in the 1998 book “To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles,” by Marc Eliot. “We’d sit around, smoke a doob together, drink beer and have a good time.”
The peaceful, easy feelings were not to last. From humble beginnings — the band’s first gig was backing Linda Ronstadt at Disneyland in 1971 — the Eagles quickly grew into a colossus, notching five Billboard No. 1 singles, starting with “Best of My Love” in 1974, and six No. 1 albums.
In 2018, with 38 million copies sold, “The Eagles: Their Greatest Hits” (1976) surpassed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to become the best-selling album of all time, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. At that point, “Hotel California” (1976), with sales of 26 million, was third on the list.
Mr. Meisner had at least equal stature among the original Eagles, having found himself at the heart of the booming country-rock scene in Los Angeles in the late 1960s as a member of the band Poco, as well as Rick Nelson & the Stone Canyon Band.
He handled lead vocals on three songs on the Eagles’ first album, from 1972, including the soaring “Take the Devil,” which he wrote with Mr. Leadon. “There it was, the sound,” Glyn Johns, who produced the album, once said of the track. “Extraordinary blend of voices, wonderful harmony sound, just stunning.”
The collaborative spirit began to fade over the next two albums, “Desperado” (1973) and “On the Border” (1974), as Mr. Henley, the drummer, and Mr. Frey, the rhythm guitarist, came to dominate songwriting and vocal duties. “It’s just like on a football team,” Mr. Henley once said. “Some people quarterback and some people block.”
Increasingly sidelined, Mr. Meisner still had his moments — notably his shimmering lead on “Take It to the Limit,” a song from 1975 that he wrote with an assist on lyrics from Mr. Henley and Mr. Frey, which reached No. 4 on the Billboard chart and became a stirring encore in live performances.
By that point, however, the excess of stardom was taking its toll for the band as a whole. “It was a crazy life,” Mr. Meisner said in a 1996 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “There were a lot of drugs and a lot of booze and just a lot of what you did at the time” — a description that could encompass many forms of debauchery for rock titans of the 1970s.
The “Hotel California” album, with songs like “Life in the Fast Lane” (inspired, Mr. Frey once said, by a maniacal 90-miles-an-hour Corvette ride with a drug dealer), was a chronicle of such excess as searing as any addiction memoir.
Its haunting title track, written by Mr. Henley, Mr. Frey and Mr. Felder, was widely interpreted as an allegory for cocaine addiction or the gilded prison cell of fame — although Mr. Frey said in a 2008 interview with the BBC that the band actually had no idea what the song was about.
Mr. Meisner was limited to one song on that album, “Try and Love Again,” which some critics have called a hidden gem.
“I just didn’t feel like I was part of the group,” he told Mr. Eliot. “Success changed everything.”
Randall Herman Meisner was born on March 8, 1946, in Scottsbluff, Neb., one of two children of Herman and Emilie (Haun) Meisner, who ran a farm growing corn, alfalfa and beans. He took up music at a young age.
He got his first acoustic guitar when he was 12 or 13 years old and, shortly after, formed a high school band, according to a 2016 interview with Rock Cellar magazine. “We did pretty good, but we didn’t win anything,” he said.
He was still a teenager when he joined another band and moved to Los Angeles, he told Rock Cellar. “We couldn’t find any work because there were a million bands out here.”
That changed, and spectacularly, with the Eagles. But even so, he was all too ready to leave at the band’s apex of fame.
“I was always kind of shy,” he said in a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone, noting that his bandmates had wanted him to stand center stage to sing “Take It to the Limit” but that he preferred to be “out of the spotlight.”
Then, he recalled, one night in Knoxville he caught the flu. “We did two or three encores, and Glenn wanted another one,” he said, referring to Mr. Frey, who died in 2016.
“I told them I couldn’t do it, and we got into a spat,” Mr. Meisner said. “That was the end.”
He left the band in September 1977 (he was replaced by Timothy B. Schmit, who years earlier had also replaced him in Poco), but he rejoined his ex-bandmates when the Eagles were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
A list of survivors was not immediately available. Mr. Meisner’s wife, Lana Meisner, was killed in an accidental shooting in 2016.
Mr. Meisner continued to release solo albums after leaving the Eagles, and lodged three singles in the Billboard Top 40.
Still, he had regrets. “I wish I could have left in a different way,” he said in a 2000 interview with the Canadian radio host John Beaudin. Of the mudslinging among members, widely documented over the years, he added, “So you say things that you really don’t mean, you spill all the dirt and then years later, like now, it’s like, ‘Why the hell did I say that?’”
“We’re just people,” he said, “and when you get older it’s like, why even think about it anymore? Enough is enough.”
Livia Albeck-Ripka and Orlando Mayorquin contributed reporting.