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.
Bon Jovi drew similar parallels between the life of a cowboy and that of a rock star on their 1986 song "Wanted Dead Or Alive."
Guitarist Randy Meisner claims that 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 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.
This was featured in a episode of Seinfeld where Elaine goes out with a guy who won't let her speak when it is playing.
This is a classic rock staple, but it was never released as a single. Holding it back from single release helped goose sales of the album, and also the various compilations it would later appear on.
Linda Ronstadt recorded this song and released her version on her album Don't Cry Now, which was issued a few months after the Eagles version. Before the Eagles formed, members of the group played in Ronstadt's backing band. She was a huge star at the time, and her recording of this song gave it a big boost.
"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."
Other artists to record the song include Kenny Rogers, the Carpenters, Bonnie Raitt and Ringo Starr.
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. 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 Greatest Hits album.
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. It closed out their show in Bossier City, Louisiana on July 29, 2015, the last stop on their History of the Eagles tour. Glenn Frey died about six months later.