Composer, producer, songwriter
The long and varied career of David Axelrod has spanned six decades and covered musical trends from cool jazz during the 1950s to hip-hop at the millennium. In between, Axelrod produced several successful artists, including a series of hits for Lou Rawls in the mid 1960s, as well as several of his own albums as a composer, arranger, and songwriter. Largely relegated to the status of a trivia note during the 1980s, Axelrod’s reputation was resurrected by hip-hop deejays and artists during the 1990s, who found in his jazz-fusion experiments excellent backing samples for their contemporary works. Now elevated to iconic status, Axelrod has pushed for the re-release of his lesser-known works while serving as a musical inspiration for a new generation of musicians.
Born on April 17, 1936, in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, California, Axelrod’s future musical direction was influenced by the multicultural environment of the mostly African American neighborhood. At the time Axelrod’s parents moved into the area, it was changing from a working-class white district south of downtown Los Angeles into an area of predominantly African American stores, businesses, and homes. Even today, Crenshaw remains one of the most notable African American communities in Los Angeles, with a cultural scene that includes museums devoted to black history and an active political life strengthened by some of the city’s most ardent African American activists. During Axelrod’s youth, the Crenshaw district included the main thoroughfare of African American cultural life in Los Angeles: Central Avenue—a street filled with music clubs, barbershops, beauty parlors, and other institutions of the African American community. The fact that Axelrod was white did not prevent him from absorbing many of these influences.
Axelrod was also influenced by the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of his family life. His father worked as a union organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a sometimes radical organization under constant attack by businesses and the government for its militant stance on workers’ rights. Eventually, Axelrod’s father toiled as a garment worker, a low-paying occupation often accompanied by sweatshop working conditions. At home, however, Axelrod remembered that weekend jitterbug parties were the highlight of the week, with his parents clearing their living room to make room for dancing. As a teenager at Los Angeles’ Dorsey High School, Axelrod did not stay off the streets for long. Frequenting some of the clubs along Central Avenue, the young man soon earned a reputation as a brawler. “The thing was, at that time, the cops were so crooked,” he recalled of his early clubbing days to Los Angeles Magazine. “I think if you were in diapers and you could pay cash, nobody bothered you, long as you could pay for the drinks.” Before long, Axelrod was left with a long scar on his stomach from a street fight and a damaged eye from a boxing match.
With unspecified troubles, possibly both legal and extralegal, Axelrod left Los Angeles in the early 1950s and spent a year exploring the jazz clubs in New York City. Upon returning to his native city, the burgeoning hipster dabbled in heroin as part of Los Angeles’ beatnik scene. After meeting jazz pianist Gerald Wiggins, however, Axelrod was inspired to study music composition. Before long, Axelrod’s love of music and familiarity with the Los Angeles jazz community led him to work as both a talent scout and record producer. Riding the crest of the city’s reputation as the center of the 1950s “cool jazz” movement—at its best, a mixture of precise musicianship with complex arrangements demanding a listener’s total attention—Axelrod established a reputation as a producer with excellent live recording skills.
Although Axelrod’s most significant productions involved saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, his work with R&B singer Lou Rawls on Capitol Records in the mid 1960s was his most commercial success. Indeed, with Rawls’ string of hits on the R&B and pop charts, Axelrod was one of the most sought-after producers at Capitol. With its signature headquarters—a building shaped like a stack of records on Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles—and acts such as the Beach Boys and the Beatles on its roster, Capitol Records was the center of the pop music industry during the 1960s. In addition to his work with Rawls, Axelrod also produced such avant-garde efforts as the Mass in F Minor by the Electric Prunes in 1967. A psychedelic rock album with religious themes, the Mass foreshadowed Axelrod’s
Born on April 17, 1936, in Los Angeles, CA.
Jazz musician in Los Angeles, CA, late 1950s; produced albums for Lou Rawls, mid 1960s; released debut album as composer, 1968; works sampled by hip-hop artists, 1990s; compilation albums released, 1999-2000.
Addresses: Record company —Fantasy Records, Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710, website: http://www.fantasyjazz.com.
own musical direction. That same year, one of Axel-rod’s productions, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance for the Cannonball Adderley Quintet.
With a string of commercial and artistic successes behind him, Axelrod also found an opportunity to realize his own musical vision and recorded Songs of Innocence, released in 1968 on Capitol Records. Like the album Mass in F Minor, Songs of Innocence offered an eclectic, and often psychedelic array of songs, in this case based on the poetry of William Blake. Blake’s work also inspired Axelrod’s second album, Songs of Experience, released in 1969. Like many musicians from the jazz world, Axelrod’s albums followed the trend toward jazz fusion, expanding the boundaries of the genre to include elements of funk, R&B, rock, and even classical music. In Axelrod’s case, the emphasis on jazz-funk fusion predominated, although he made occasional ventures into easy listening territory, such as his version of the Carly Simon hit “You’re So Vain” on his 1974 album Heavy Axe. Upon the album’s reissue as part of The Axelrod Chronicles in 2000, Rolling Stone online commented, “It would be eminently suitable for background soundtrack music for 1970s films and made-for-TV movies,” adding that its tracks “sound more like quickly assembled, made-to-order filler music for video productions, the horns sometimes sounding like those of school marching bands, with touches of early-’70s-style electric keyboards and wah-wahing funk-rock guitars.”
Axelrod continued to serve as a producer for Cannon-ball Adderley and other jazz artists during the 1970s while composing his own original works. His 1980 release, Marchin’, however, would mark the end of his most active phase as a recording artist. As music trends shifted away from experimental fusion artists like Axelrod, the decade was dominated by highly stylized, mainstream R&B-pop productions by Michael Jackson and Madonna as well as the enduring popularity of heavy metal artists. There seemed to be little room for an iconoclastic figure like Axelrod, and even less interest in his laid-back, jazz-funk music. By 1988, the producer and composer was living with his fourth wife in a dismal apartment in Tarzana, California. He continued to study music composition and expand his musical vision with two releases, 1993’s Requiem: The Holocaust and 1995’s The Big Country, but his works were largely ignored. Especially troubling to Axelrod was the reception for the Requiem album, inspired by the Nazi death camps of the Holocaust. In later years, Axelrod would lobby strenuously for its re-release, arguing that its brief release in 1993 prevented it from becoming his most enduring work.
After the disappointing reception of Requiem: The Holocaust, it seemed that Axelrod’s presence in the music industry was all but over. In 1996, however, Josh Davis—a California turntable artist performing under the name DJ Shadow—sampled some of Axelrod’s work on his debut album, Endtroducing …. Like Axelrod’s best work during the late 1960s, Endtroducing … expanded the boundaries of its genre with its eclectic influences; in this case, DJ Shadow had taken hip-hop and fashioned it into “trip-hop,” a label that referred to its ethereal and sometimes psychedelic feel. Soon, Axelrod’s music was fashionable again. Working again with DJ Shadow and his U.N.K.L.E. collaboration with other hip-hop deejays, Axelrod was asked to remix a track on the 1998 Psyence Fiction album. That same year, another Axelrod sample appeared on Lauryn Hill’s acclaimed The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, further enhancing Axelrod’s trendy status. In 1999, rapper Dr. Dre sampled Axelrod for his work Chronic 2001.
In light of his unexpected popularity, Axelrod released two compilation albums of his earlier works. 1968 to 1970: An Axelrod Anthology was reissued in 1999 and The Axelrod Chronicles followed the next year; riding the wave of interest in Axelrod, some of his earlier albums were also reissued. Once again an active producer in demand for hip-hop remixes, Axelrod enjoyed his renewed success. “Maybe I haven’t left big footsteps, but I’ve left something,” he told Los Angeles Magazine.“People all over the world seem to be listening to my music. So, what the hell?”
Songs of Innocence, Capitol, 1968.
Songs of Experience, Capitol, 1969.
Earth Rot, Capitol, 1970.
Rock Messiah, RCA, 1972.
The Auction, Decca, 1974.
Heavy Axe, Fantasy, 1974.
Seriously Deep, Polydor, 1975.
Strange Ladies, MCA, 1978.
Marchin’, MCA, 1980.
Requiem The Holocaust, Liberty, 1993.
The Big Country, Liberty, 1995.
1968 to 1970: An Axelrod Anthology, Stateside, 1999.
The Axelrod Chronicles, Fantasy, 2000.
Carr, Ian, et al., editors, Jazz: The Rough Guide, The Rough Guides, 1995.
Gioia, Ted, The History of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Los Angeles Magazine, March 2001, p. 136.
Q, March 1999.
All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/bios/cabio.htm (June 27, 2001).
Fantasy Records, http://www.fantasyjazz.com/catalog/axelrod_d_cat.html (June 26, 2001).
Recording Academy, http://www.grammy.com (June 27, 2001).
RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/recordins/review.asp?aid=R+++484623&cf=1357746 (June 26, 2001).
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