An Inimitable Musical Genius: RIP David Axelrod (1931-2017)

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In the late 1960’s, I was as much of a musical sponge as I am today, eagerly soaking up the new sounds coming my way, though with some exceptions. I mainly listened to jazz and classical music—the two genres that I found most interesting and intellectually stimulating—but I was never into hard rock, top 40 tunes, or country-western music. Then there were artists like David Axelrod, whose music defied traditional genre definitions. I recall listening repeatedly to his 1968 album Songs of Innocence, which was part rock, R&B, jazz, part psychedelic, and part classical with a big orchestral canvas. It was a true hybrid, and critics considered it the first jazz fusion record.

I had first heard of Axelrod through his production work at Capitol Records with alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. After Adderley left Riverside Records and went to Capitol, his sales and fame skyrocketed due in part to Axelrod’s knack for producing. The acme was 1966’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” a soulful ditty penned by Austrian pianist Joe Zawinul. Axelrod also produced award-winning albums by David McCallum, Lou Rawls, and Stan Kenton.

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Axelrod, also a talented composer and arranger, released his own Songs of Innocence in 1968, followed by a sequel, Songs of Experience in 1969. Both titles were inspired by and paid homage to the visionary English poet-painter William Blake. The music was unusual to say the least, with a huge sound propelled by a large studio orchestra and beautifully recorded at Capitol’s famous Studio A. The records also featured Earl Palmer on drums and Carol Kaye on Fender bass. It was a complex music but totally accessible. Axelrod’s career suffered during the disco era and through the 1980’s, but by the early 1990’s his fame rose again when top hip-hop artists rediscovered his music and sampled it. Axelrod–not to be confused with the much-better-known political analyst–felt conflicted about people sampling his music and sampling in general; he hated gigs being taken away from musicians, but he did like the cash flow it provided him in later years.

Image Not AvailableIn 2001, DJ and concert producer Brian “B+” Cross and H.B. Barnum helped to produce the eponymously-titled David Axelrod for the U.K. Mo’ Wax label. B+ also organized a concert for Axelrod in L.A. Like Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, the 2001 album featured an expansive musical palette, with an orchestra, choir, plus stalwart Carol Kaye playing bass, and top L.A. reedmen like Lanny Morgan and Ernie Watts. By this time, Axelrod’s music was being sampled by the top names in hip-hop, such as Dr. Dre, DJ Shadow, Pete Rock, Lauryn Hill, Lil Wayne, KRS-One, Common, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, and Macy Gray.

David Axelrod grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where he visited clubs and record stores and soaked in soul music, jazz, and big band music of the 1950’s. He was tough, opinionated, and sometimes got himself into trouble. He was mad at Paul McCartney’s publishing company for using 89 samples of his music, and said he’d like to push a grapefruit into his face. It didn’t help him win any McCartney fans. David Axelrod was one of a kind, born and raised in L.A., recorded in L.A., and used top L.A. talent. I was lucky to interview him in 2007 as part of the guest DJ project, and had hoped that a big concert celebrating his work would happen, but it was not to be. He will be missed.

Here is David Axelrod conducting his work at Royal Festival Hall in England in 2008: