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David Axelrod, Musical Visionary And Historical Propellant, Remembered

David Axelrod.
GAB Archive
David Axelrod.

Though I first spoke to him when I was a college student collecting records, DJing and trying to piece together the relation of '60s and '70s music to hip-hop, my relationship with David Axelrod bloomed fully after I had moved to Los Angeles to work in the independent side of the record industry. Thus, writing about this great music producer, composer and arranger without acknowledging first the love and respect I had for the man seems silly. I tried and gave up.

David Axelrod, Axe to his friends, died sometime in the early morning of Feb. 5, 2017, after a battle with lung cancer. He was nearly 86 years old. Terri, his wife of 38 years, at first didn't want to disclose the cause of his death, saying that the only thing that really mattered is that he was gone. What do you say, in that first moment of loss, to a person so dedicated to another? When that other is a force so beyond the normal that you had never considered he would someday be gone?

"He just seemed indestructible," Terri said. I knew what she meant; Axe signed off every call with "I'll be here." And, like everything he said, even when contradicting himself, he meant it.

He'd survived so much. The death of his father, which turned his world upside down when he was 13; a heroin addiction he kicked only to subsequently acquire a cocaine habit as extreme as anyone around or adjacent to the '60s and '70s music industry (his description about meeting Sly Stone in front of a Tony Montana-style urn full of blow still sticks in my mind like oatmeal to the ribs); the death by overdose of his son Scott in the late '60s; his career stall in the mid-to-late '70s, when disco was ascendant and Axe, a jazz man who equally loved R&B, rock and funk, decided he could only write what he wrote and produce what he produced (read: not disco), resulting in a career dive he never fully recovered from; the traumatic brain injury Terri suffered in a car accident in the mid-'80s, and that he helped her return from; his near homelessness in the '90s.

Listen to that song close, especially to the chords. Everything I do, you'll hear in that tune.

This is to say nothing of the fights ... not just the boxing — and he was a great boxer in his prime — but the street brawls. Once, after being stabbed in the stomach, he put his arms around friend and his frequent arranging partner H.B. Barnum and continued swinging at the thugs on his sides. He loved rock climbing and sustained many injuries in falls that would probably have killed another person, determined not only to keep existing, but to push the limits of that existence. Over the last few years, when we would chat on the phone he would talk enthusiastically about forthcoming projects, but constantly remind me that he'd lived enough for two lifetimes, and that the pain could be great.

Axe once told me, in reference to saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, his greatest friend and collaborator, that, at the tail end of a relationship-spanning interview in Berkeley, Adderley said: "If you listen to David's music — if you listen, 'cause that's different than hearing — there's a layer of violence, no matter how pretty it is."

That violence, along with his response to it, colored Axe's greatest contributions to music. It was no surprise to learn he'd helped craft classic, tense bop records like Harold Land's The Fox. That work impressed Cannonball Adderley enough that, upon signing to Capitol Records, he requested Axelrod's services directly. Axe understood the real-deal blues musicians that populated the tough South Central Los Angeles dives he'd frequented as a kid; when he suggested to Capitol execs the promotion of black artists on the label within the neighborhoods in which he'd grown up, they told him to do it himself. So he did, succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. Not long after, Capitol was the only major label with a promotions department focused around its black artists. By 1966, two years into his tenure at Capitol, under the wing of Capitol president Alan W. Livingston (an Axelrod believer if there ever was one) he achieved career-making success with albums by Lou Rawls (Live!) and Adderley (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!), while producing dozens of other artists. A definitive list has yet to be compiled.

Some of those records were released, some shelved. But with every trip into the studio Axe was developing his landmark sound. "House of Mirrors," recorded for film and TV star David McCallum, may be the first extant example. From 1966, it's a booming, drum- and bass-fueled instrumental, swallowed at times by swollen strings, featuring unique studio tricks (the vocal performance is by H.B. Barnum, la-di-dahing into a megaphone). Axe had a tremendous respect for his engineers, always crediting them equally, while calling out those, like Phil Spector, who he thought didn't acknowledge the hard work of dozens in their productions.

Then came "The Edge," composed by Axelrod and released by McCallum later the same year, inspired by a trip through the shanty-towns of Puerto Rico and the suffering he saw there. "The Edge" set the stage for everything to come. "I'm going to tell you something," Axe told me in 1999. "Listen to that song close, especially to the chords. Everything I do, you'll hear in that tune."

In 1967, Axe's manager Lenny Poncher (also the manager for Donovan, Traffic and, of all people, Engelbert Humperdinck) was searching for a solution to the pending dissolution of psychedelic rock group The Electric Prunes, in the midst of recording their third album at the time. Poncher brought Axe in to compose an album's worth of songs that David Hassinger would produce. Given carte blanche, Axe composed a lofty series of songs based around the Catholic mass, arranged well past the ability of the band's members to perform. To accommodate, Axe brought in his regular players, creating one of 1967's great psychedelic moments. Livingston, not one to be late to the psychedelic rock party, demanded a similar album for Capitol. This demand — on this point Axe was always clear: Livingston demanded the album — would be a turning point.

Axe didn't ask to do it. He didn't call in the credibility his track record as a producer and composer afforded him in order to undertake a vanity project funded by Capitol. He wasn't trying to become a Van Dyke Parks. He was told to do a job – produce records. He was paid well to do his job. But he also knew that he'd wanted to be a writer, which is probably the reason he took the Prunes gig even though he knew it would piss off the Capitol brass. Axe would deliver the great, psychedelic album that Livingston wanted in 1968's Song of Innocence, based around the poetry of William Blake. It is, for me and many, Axe's masterpiece.

Some of the stuff Dave did was so far out that the only way you could look at it was that it was either going to be a very popular thing or nobody was ever going to know about it. There was no middle of the road.

Axe told me, when I first questioned him about the album: "They called it fusion — I don't think it was. I was thinking more of Gunther Schuller, John Lewis ... the Third Stream mixture of classical music and jazz. I took what I loved and used R&B rhythms to tie it together. That's what it really is." But Axe was an unreliable narrator. Later, he told me that Quincy Jones loved the album for its fusion elements and that: "When Innocence came out, Elliot Teagle reviewed it and called it a 'jazz fusion.' He coined the term. Which is why many interviews and write-ups call me the father of fusion ... and that album was! It was the first fusion album." Then, later, he told Brian DiGenti and I during an interview for Wax Poetics that Song of Innocence was simply "Wagner with a backbeat."

Song of Innocence is a work that no one, clearly not even Axe himself, could explain reliably. I find myself pulled in by the melodies, simplistic at first blush, but colored by odd chord progressions and turnarounds, grounded by Palmer and Kaye's funk, torn between the juxtaposition of musical elements — a jazz vibraphone solo here, a fuzz guitar tear here, a nod to the baroque in Don Randi's clavichord comps — and put at ease, always, by Axe's arrangements, which utilize brass and strings in a way that no 1960s arranger did.

I go back to that description that Adderley used: violence. That's what I hear. And, like the best music, the music I love the most, when I hear that violence executed perfectly it's unsettling, but too compelling to turn away from. I use the word sublime infrequently to describe music, but in Axe's best work, it's the only one available. There are so few records to compare Song of Innocence to that the exercise requires just one hand's worth of fingers; Arthur Verocai's self-titled and only artist album, issued on the Brasilian Continental label in 1972; the collaborations between Serge Gainsbourg and Jean Claude Vannier, which found their epitome in 1971's Histoire de Melody Nelson. But even these albums, superb as they are, are career one-offs.

Depending on which day you asked him, Axe would tell you that Song of Innocence was killed off by Capitol's head of A&R Voyle Gilmore, or that it was successful because it sold in college bookstores where students would get stoned and buy multiple copies. The album did make its way around the world, in numerous issues in different countries. In Japan, Kimio Mizutani's psychedelic rock band People needle-dropped "Holy Thursday" in the start and end of their mind-blowing album Ceremony — Buddha Meet Rock from 1971. When my musical partner Madlib and I heard the People album's appropriation of Axe's most famous breakbeat, we lost our minds. I called Axe and he was non-plussed. "I was always big in Japan."

"[Song of Experience was] supposed to have a different feel than Song of Innocence. You see, music is a great outlet and, regardless of what the titles say and as close as I wanted it to be to Blake, what was going on in my life took precedence," Axe told me. What was going on was the death of his son Scott, from a heroin overdose, a jones Axe had already beaten. Axe carried a tremendous amount of guilt with him over Scott's death. He hadn't been there for him like he could have been, he said. He worked too much. He wasn't getting along with his wife, Scott's mother, and it was easier to be out of the house. The end result was that he "f***** him up."

To me "A Divine Image" captures the feel of Song of Experience in single song, from the persistent buzzing of Don Randi's never-ending chord clusters (Randi told me he used tape to hold the keys in place for so long), to the demon's mouth heave and tear of the opening strings versus brass, to the moment when the song becomes distinctly David Axelrod — when Palmer, Kaye and guitarist Howard Roberts attack the rhythmic motif that will drive Axe's initial idea to completion. I recall the moment I heard those first four bars looped, on a '90s hip-hop instrumental. I remember the name of the track: "Axelrod." Producer Just Blaze first heard the sample on a later song, "Kool G. Rap's 'Verse,'" he remembers. "My mind was blown. The beat was just crazy. And that crazy, sinister loop. I listened to it over and over and over."

It was this era of Axe's productions, starting with 1966's "The Edge" — later famously sampled for Dr. Dre for "The Next Episode" — that set him up for his final stage as an architect of jazz fusion and that ensured his productions would inspire the future architects of hip-hop. This period contains: his second album for The Electric Prunes; an unreleased Electric Prunes project based around Faust; a concept album written by his son Michael called Pride; a one-off for RCA where he tackles Handel's Messiah; a handful of 45s, from "The Lost Lament" on Decca, to obscurities like the promo-only disc credited to Arnold Shawmobile, released on the tiny Las Vegas label Contempo.

This was the last era of Poncher guiding his career. Poncher was his best manager. "I've always done my best work when my managers left me the f*** alone," Axe said. Poncher used a boxing analogy — Axe kept a photo of himself in his boxing-prime on his bookshelf at home – to make his point: "I'll get the fights and you do the fighting." Axe loved that. The work, unfettered in this era, shows.

"There are very few people who see the Grand Picture Of The Universe and understand the nothingness that it all comes from," says the producer T-Ray, who first discovered Axe's music in the mid-'80s, spreading word of his music at the now-famous Roosevelt Hotel record conventions in New York (and who produced that aforementioned Kool G. Rap beat) "There are even fewer who can express these ideas through music — David could do it all."

Axe viewed himself as a producer, not an artist, and producers, especially in that era, might work on hours of music that would never be released. Axe recalled that he was so busy at Decca he lived in a bungalow on site; little of the music he recorded at the time has ever made its way into anyone's ears. The Auction, which Axe considered his greatest album, was one of the few to see release.

Axe made enemies, or thought he made enemies, or found himself caught in label politics, or suffered from poor management post-Poncher. Axe had stories for days about why an album never took off. Years of searching in used-record bins across the world has led me to believe that all of Axe's artist albums (save 1977's Strange Ladies) are obscure.

Axe's bad years, following the release of Marchin' in the '80s, were the result of many things. To hear Axe tell it, it was a matter of principal, foremost. Disco was the thing and Axe would never do disco. Earl Palmer even tried to chide him into it on Marchin.' "I don't think so." The drummer grabbed him and kissed him on the head. The truth is, though fans in high places would vindicate his oeuvre in the '90s and '00s, his music seemed anachronistic when it was originally released. That's part of what makes "Terri's Tune," recorded in 1977, amidst the worst curve of jazz fusion's arc, sound akin to Axe's majestic experiments in the genre in the early '70s. This didn't help sales. Axe always claimed his records sold well – that is, when they weren't being purposefully run into the ground by record label infighting or by cosmic misfortune. The obscurity of nearly all of Axe's records defies that assumption. "We never knew where it was going to end up today. We might have said to ourselves, 'Are people going to get this?' But we would not say anything to Dave, because Dave was a visionary," Don Randi said. "But some of the stuff Dave did was so far out that the only way you could look at it was that it was either going to be a very popular thing or nobody was ever going to know about it. There was no middle of the road."

His talents might have been useful, but he was no longer a hitmaker, so his services (combined with a notorious explosiveness) had little use in the rapidly expanding and fickle record industry of the '80s.

Axe had helped Terri convalesce, and was living with her in what he calls a "tar shack" behind a friend's house, when H.B. Barnum moved them both to a modest apartment in North Hollywood in the 1990s. It was in this unlikely locale that his resurgence would begin, and Axe the man would be replaced by Axe the legend. It started with hip-hop producers sampling his work. No one can pinpoint exactly when it happened, or who was the first person to discover a David Axelrod record and listen to it as a template to follow in a genre on the verge of explosive change. But whoever record-digger patient zero was, the Axe affliction spread, and quickly.

"It was ill — as this all happened in a short period of time – oh, it's David Axelrod again. And again. And again," opines Just Blaze, who, one can argue, brought the Axe flair for drama to some of its greatest heights in hip-hop in the productions he did for Jay-Z. "If you were a hip-hop producer, you had to go out and hunt for all of his records. It was just this huge windfall. For me it was the sound — all of a sudden, this dark, gritty, stark, sinister music took me over."

Perhaps the person who took Axe's template most literally, and created the most telling tribute, was DJ Shadow, born Josh Davis, on his groundbreaking 1996 album Endtroducing..... I listen to the entirety of that album as an homage, with the now-infamous sample of Axe's "The Human Abstract" within Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World." Shadow and Axe would go on to become close friends, collaborating musically and in business: Davis' wife Lisa Hagen was Axe's last manager.

Shadow said in an email to Pitchfork: "As a producer just beginning to chart my path, I was hugely inspired by the audaciousness of the subject matter, and the sober singularity of his musical vision. He urged L.A.'s finest session players to create a melancholic world which felt like my world, and reflected the dread and disappointment society inevitably inspires in its emotionally vulnerable."

Then there are the producers that came up through hip-hop and have found themselves in the same, intriguing position that Axe found himself in in the '60s — real music folk, making pop music, navigating an industry designed to ravage its acolytes, hoping to create imprints like their heroes did.

"I discovered his music through hip-hop — all of my favorite producers were sampling him," says Grammy-nominated producer Emile Haynie. "Before I knew what a fuzz guitar sounded like, I just knew it was this crunchy sound that I liked, especially when it was mixing with insanely beautiful piano. I know what it is now, but [Axe's production] was the first thing that got me into production, outside of rap music, that lead to the sounds I like now. He's really responsible for me and a lot of guys like me — Mark Ronson, I know for sure — listening for the perfect snare, perfect guitar tone."

"He is one of the most intriguing arrangers and composers that I've ever heard doing psychedelic rock and funk music together. To me his music is singular," foundational hip-hop producer Pete Rock says. "I'm a digger and there are records that are similar but something about his music stands out on his own. That music is really deadly, and only he could really touch it."

As I write this, the 11-year anniversary of the producer J. Dilla's death is around me and I'm reminded of the last Christmas we hung out, in 2005. I'd heard a Dilla tape that — like that People album — needle-dropped Song of Innocence's "The Smile" twice, as if Dilla didn't need to sample Axe like every other great hip-hop producer had done to that point, but just had to acknowledge his influence on his music. I found a copy of the second Electric Prunes album and brought it to Axe to sign, telling him that Dilla was ill. I explained to Axe that Dilla was a great hip-hop producer, perhaps the greatest, that he was underappreciated yet undeterred, that during his illness the phone hadn't been ringing but he hadn't stopped making music. Whether in the hospital or out. I told Axe about how Dilla's mother was caring for him in Los Angeles and that I thought this autograph might be something special for him.

"My son is sick too and there's nothing worse, as a parent, than not being able to do something to help your child," Axe said. "Give your friend and his mother my love."

You see, he meant things like that. And when I brought that Electric Prunes album over to the house where Dilla was staying, and I handed it to him as he lay on the couch, and as he and his mother looked at Axe's dedication to him, and he was silent — I knew then that two of the most incredible musical minds I would ever meet were having a conversation. And, as heartbreaking as it is to think about now, I'm so very glad to have witnessed it then.

In the early 2000s, Axe conveyed to me a conversation he shared with Shadow about the timelessness of his music. "Josh told me I would live on in posterity," Axe said. "And he asked me how I felt about the fact that my music has maintained its power for thirty years and will maintain it in the future. Well, I said 'Posterity don't pay.'"

"I thought about what I had said a couple days later and called him to apologize. I said 'I shouldn't have dismissed you.' I thought about how many musicians I've known have died ... but I'm here and 20-year-olds love my music. That's incredible — to know that you can move different generations through four decades. Everyone is falling down, yet I'm still here."

Eothen Alapatt is the founder of Now-Again Records, a partner with Madlib on the Madlib Invasion Label and creative director of the estate of J Dilla.

Thanks to Terri Axelrod, Brian DiGenti, B+, Dana Axelrod, George Mahood, Joseph Patel, DJ Shadow, Peter Relic, Eli Wolf, Jeff Jank, Madlib.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 10, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story stated that David Axelrod died at the age of 83. He was 85.
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