Shortly after producer/arranger David Axelrod died of lung cancer on February 5, 2017 at the age of 85, photos of him in his ‘60s/’70s prime—working inside the massive Capitol Records studios in Hollywood during a recording session with Lou Rawls, the gravelly-voiced soul man for whom he produced from 1964 to 1970—began appearing on various websites. In the photos, he was surrounded by seated musicians, as he stood in the middle of the room with Rawls and arranger H.B. Barnum behind him. Arms folded and head bowed slightly, he looked to be in deep concentration as he contemplated his next musical move.
A South Central native who would’ve been—he always looked as though he’d walked on the wild side and lived to compose about it—Axelrod was a born broke white boy in 1931. He grew up in a black community surrounded by the sounds of jazz and early R&B. A pint-sized scamper who, in the ‘50s, survived sharp knife street battles, a stint in the Army, a short boxing career and a battle with heroin, David began working in music as a freelance session drummer and arranger at the end of the decade.
According to Mojo magazine writer Phil Alexander, “A turning point came when he fell under the benign influence of jazz keyboard player Gerald Wiggins, from whom he received an entrée into the world of jazz and found himself encouraged in his own nascent musical endeavors.” Axelrod had planned on robbing the musician and instead became his protégé.
After slaving through low-paid gigs in the music industry as a drummer and arranger, Axelrod got his first break as a rookie producer. “His first credit of note being The Fox, an album he made with hard bop tenor sax player, Harold Land, which he self-financed to the tune of $1,200 and sold to Hi-Fi Records,” Alexander wrote. “The album was released in 1959 to critical acclaim. The Fox became Axelrod’s calling card, its production impressive enough to alert alto sax player Cannonball Adderley.” Coming over to Capitol Records in 1963, Studio B became Axe’s domain.
“David was like the musician whisperer,” Wax Poetics publisher/editor-in-chief Brian DiGenti, who was friends with Axelrod and featured him in the magazine’s first issue in 2002, explains. “In all these Capitol Records photos, David is always whispering in the ear of the musicians and singers.” Although I have no idea what Studio B session was in progress when that pic was shot, that single portrait of Axelrod communicated so much about the man as an artist whose creations, be them production/arranging gigs or his own intense albums (Song of Innocence, Seriously Deep), were often passionate, dramatic and wild. Obviously, he put a lot of thought into everything he did.
Working with the best musicians in the West, his sessions often featured drummer Earl Palmer and bassist Carol Kaye. When former Stones Throw Records general manager Eothen “Egon” Alapatt penned Axe’s obit recently, he remembered Kaye saying, “He (Axelrod) was a gruff guy, but I liked him. ‘Cause anytime you meet a gruff guy that has got a good sense of humor, you know he’s a good person….He was beautiful. He had a way of letting you do your own thing. Really, he hired us to invent. Axe would set the whole thing by hiring us. He liked us and we liked him, and he knew what type of job we could do, as far as inventing lines and things. And, a lot of times you were trying to scratch your head as you had no idea what was going to go on top of (what you created for him).”
While David Axelrod’s best work—ranging from jazz sides with Adderley to the sizzling soul of Lou Rawls to the blaring rock of the Electric Prunes to moody pop fusion of David McCallum to the wondrous William Blake inspired albums—was comparable to the innovative production chops of Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones and Brian Wilson, the well-dressed man wasn’t exactly a household name. “David’s most important work was as a producer for other artists and producers are usually invisible to most people,” explains DiGenti. “His solo records went unnoticed at the time of their release, and several of them didn’t even get a proper release, as he had a string of bad luck where the record label killed off his records.”
“David was like the musician whisperer,” – Wax Poetics publisher/editor-in-chief Brian DiGenti.
Having grown-up listening to the big band sounds of Count Basie and Benny Goodman, he too developed into a brilliant bandleader. “Axe told me he liked to conduct and he was an amazing arranger,” DeGiti says, “but when he was producing a record, he generally let his partner H. B. Barnum arrange. For his solo records, he would get Don Randi to conduct. When we asked him why, he said that it was hard enough to produce. Don Randi said something profound about David: that he really knew where he wanted the record to go even if nobody else could understand it at the time. Once it was done, it became clear.”
Axe worked steadily through the ‘60s, content with being in the background, but more than ready to step to the front to do his solo thang on the masterwork trio Song of Innocence (1968), Songs of Experience (1969) and Earth Rot (1970). These were huge, complex beautiful records that were cited by Billboard critic (and Axelrod supporter) Eliot Tiegel as the birth of fusion, as Axe mixed rock, jazz, and classical. Axelrod once joked that the discs sold well in college bookstore, because all the stoned kids loved them.
Yet, as the ‘70s progressed and disco became the dominant sound, Axelrod refused to change his sound and eventually got left behind. By the early 1980s, Axe began drifting in an ocean of obscurity, as his records went out of print and his telephone stopped ring with job offers. Axe’s last album before slipping away from the scene was Marchin’. Although he recorded three more albums in the ‘80s, none of them were released.
After years of making the big bucks, driving fancy rides, residing in a swank home and living the high life in more ways than one when cocaine became his drug of choice, by the mid-80s the money was gone. and black storm clouds were hovering overhead. In 1986, his wife Terri had a terrible car accident that caused trauma to her brain. As Axe nursed his wife back to health, the industry was changing drastically with rap music becoming a dominant sound. By the end of the decade, Capitol Records was the home of MC Hammer and David Axelrod was just another fading name on the back of old records.
However, as with many yesteryear geniuses, including James Brown and Sly Stone, hip-hop culture gave Axe’s music a second life as vinyl maniacs began searching for his out-of-print recordings and sampling his music. Early ‘90s New York City crews De La Soul (“I Am I Be”), the Beatnuts (“Hit Me with That”) and Showbiz and A.G. (“Check It Out”) were the first to dive deep into Axe’s dusty grooves. “The first time I noticed his sound was hearing the ‘Holy Thursday’ sample on the Buckwild remix of ‘C’mon Wit Da Git Down’ by the Artifacts,” explains DiGenti. “After talking to other diggers on message boards during the early days of the Internet, the whole thing seemed like such an amazing mystery, that I became obsessed and had to find out more and had to find as many records as I could. Nobody seemed to know anything about him at that time. But we were all relatively young record diggers. I was talking to the wrong people. Once Eothen Alapatt started reaching out to [session musicians], the Wrecking Crew players like bassist Carol Kaye and pianist Don Randi, we realized that David was very well known and well regarded by his peers in the industry. Then everything opened up.”
Still, it wasn’t until the Left Coast sampling science sensibilities of DJ Shadow—whose brilliant turntablism debut Endtroducing in 1996 featured the haunting track “Midnight in the Perfect World” and sampled Axelrod’s sorrowful “The Human Abstract,” a track from Songs Of Experience (1969)—that I first noticed Axelrod’s music; as a fan of chilling jazz piano, the sample was hypnotic. In addition, the celebrated DJ began spreading the gospel of Axel, dropping his name and rhythmic resume in interviews as well as working with him on various projects including the first UNKLE album Psyence Fiction in which he did a remix of “Rabbit in the Headlights.”
A few years later, Dr. Dre sampled David McCallum’s electrifying Axe-produced track “The Edge” on his 1999 hit “The Next Episode.” That track, along with Diamond D’s remix of Ras Kass’ “Soul on Ice”—which flipped the song “The Mental Traveler”—were his favorites. On Axelrod’s self-titled (Mo’ Wax) solo album in 2001, he recorded a track called “The Dr. & the Diamond,” an homage to his new hip-hop friends. The album also contained the cool cinematic song “The Shadow Knows” as a shout out to his other buddy. Axelrod wasn’t shy about saying how happy he was to have some of that sampling loot, but he also genuinely loved what the new kids were dong with his old sounds that truthfully never really aged.
Even in David Axelrod’s dark days, which included the overdose death of his son Scott in the late ‘60s and living in a tar shack in Los Angeles during the ‘80s with his ailing wife, he continued making music: dark music, violent music, beautiful music, that still bumps hard as a bag of bricks on a crowded subway car. “David said that being a producer was like being a film director,” Brian DiGenti says. “And like every great director, David was able to get the most out of all of his actors. As for his legacy, well, Axelrod was a visionary misunderstood in his own day and age, and oftentimes such visionaries only get their due long after their death, so I hold out hope that his true legacy has yet to be truly realized.”