For a 50-year vet of the music industry, Jim Ed Norman had one heck of a first day.
In 1973, at age 24, he found himself on the conductor’s rostrum at London’s Olympic Studios. In front of him were the country’s best classical musicians. Behind him, in the control room, were members of what was soon to be one of the biggest bands of all time: The Eagles.
They were about to record a song called “Desperado.”
“It was the very first thing I’d ever done,” Norman recalls to The Tennessean. “I had a large group of musicians, and I was introduced to each one of those players as they arrived. One of them played cello on (The Beatles’) “Yesterday,” and others played in the Queen’s Chamber Orchestra. And it wasn’t long before I was a nervous wreck.”
As those musicians took their seats, Norman noticed they didn’t have headphones. He brought this up to producer Glyn Johns, who responded, “Well, you’re going to conduct, aren’t you, mate?”
“I guess I am,” Norman remembers saying. “Just that day, my life as an arranger, composer and conductor happened all in one fell swoop (laughs).”
In other respects, however, Norman was beyond well-prepared. He’d spent weeks listening to a demo of “Desperado” and writing a lush arrangement that he felt would best serve the lyric and melody. As he began to conduct the musicians, he peeked back at Henley and Johns, and found their “mouths agape.”
Norman went on to do arrangements for several more Eagles albums, including “Hotel California,” as well as recordings by Linda Ronstadt and Bob Seger — but that was just the beginning.
By the end of the ’70s, he was an in-demand producer, working with Anne Murray on a string of successes. He found his way to Music City, where he joined Warner Bros. Nashville and became president of the label in 1989, guiding the careers of Randy Travis, Faith Hill, Dwight Yoakam and others.
Norman still producing today, and won his first Grammy in 2021 for his work on the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ “Celebrating Fisk!” album.
Right now, he’s in the midst of another new experience. He’s on tour for the first time in his life — with the band that kickstarted his musical journey.
The Eagles’ “Hotel California” tour comes to Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena this Thursday and Friday. On this trek, the band is playing their 1976 album “Hotel California” in its entirety, and are doing so with an orchestra and choir. Norman was recruited to update his classic arrangements and conduct the musicians on stage.
He had a similar role for a handful of massive Eagles concerts in the 1970s, but the rest of Norman’s career was spent largely behind the scenes.
“I never really had a fascination for being on stage,” he says. “When people say, oh, gosh, what’s it like to be up there? I go, ‘Well, it’s what goes with what I love doing.'”
Still, it wasn’t hard for him to commit to this near-60-date trek: “I started off in this business as a creative person, and I want to have that experience again.”
Let’s go back to that start: How did a kid from Fort Myers end up conducting symphony musicians in London?
In the late ’60s Norman left his native Florida to attend North Texas University, where he made friends with future Eagles founder Don Henley. He joined Henley’s band, Shiloh, and when they made their first and only album with producer Kenny Rogers, Norman wrote an arrangement for a string quartet for one of its songs.
It wasn’t long before Shiloh had broken up, and Henley, obviously, found a new group of guys to play with. But he didn’t forget about his friend from school. When The Eagles started work on their second album, “Desperado,” he asked Norman to make an orchestral arrangement for its title track.
“Being afforded the opportunity to work on a song is good as ‘Desperado,’ that taught me early on the idea that you are doing whatever you can to support that song,” Norman says. “To be a productive part of bringing that song to life. It isn’t to show how many notes you can write.”
He carried those principles into subsequent Eagles albums, including “One of Thes Nights” and “Hotel California.” On the latter release, the song “Wasted Time” inspired him to arrange an orchestral reprise, which was recorded in the remaining minutes of a session. That reprise opens up side two of “Hotel California.”
“It’s been a great opportunity for me to remind people who are beginning to make their way,” Norman says. “…To be able to say, ‘Make sure you’re doing not only what you’re asked to do and need to do, but always (do) a little bit more. And here’s why. You might just end up with a piece of music used on a seminal record.”
Norman gets to conduct his orchestra through that piece every night on the “Hotel California” tour. But another song has been the highlight of the tour for him.
The moment that I revel in is ‘Desperado,’ because it is full circle,” he says.
“That is where I started, and here I am now.”