Photo: David Axelrod, c. 1969. All photos from Capitol Records archives, all taken at Capitol Studios, Hollywood.
By EOTHEN “EGON” ALAPATT, February 8, 2017.
Writing about the great music producer, composer and arranger David Axelrod without first acknowledging the love and respect I had for the man seems silly. I tried and gave up. Doing a third-person summary without interjecting my first-person opinions seems clinical, and I too greatly admire Axelrod – his friends called him Axe, and he always asked me to do so, so that’s what I’ll call him here – to take an approach I could barely take when I first started researching him in the late 1990s. I’m just too much of a fan, and have been since I first heard his music, to do him that discourtesy.
Axe died sometime in the early morning of February 5th, 2017, at nearly 86 years old. Terri, his wife of 38 years, didn’t want to disclose the cause of his death, saying that the only thing that really mattered is that he was gone. (She later changed her mind and decided to disclose it was lung cancer.) What do you say to a person so dedicated to another, in that first moment of loss, when that other is a force so beyond the normal that you never thought that loss possible? “He just seemed indestructible,” she said, and I knew what she meant. Axe signed off every call with an “I’ll be here.” And, like everything he said, contradictory or not, 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 jones he kicked only to pick up as bad of a cocaine habit as anyone involved in the 1960s and 1970s music industry could (his description about meeting Sly Stone in front of a Tony Montana-style urn full of blow is still one of the strangest images my mind can conjure); the death by overdose of his son Scott in the late 1960s; his career stall in the late 1970s when he decided he could only write what he wrote and produce what he produced, even in the face of disco and the great musical beyond; the traumatic brain injury Terri suffered in a car accident, and that he helped her recover from, in the mid 1980s; near homelessness in the 1990s.
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 both sides. He loved rock climbing and sustained injuries in falls that would probably have killed another person, but he was determined not just to exist, but push the limits, against all odds. Over the last few years, as 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.
He once told me, in reference to his greatest friend and collaborator, saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley,” that the “…last interview Cannon ever gave was in Berkeley, and he talked about our relationship. The whole interview is about he and I. And at the end, he 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 underlying threat, or his response to it – that came from so many trials, both self-imposed and thrust upon him – colored Axe’s greatest contributions to music. It was no surprise to me to discover he produced classic, tense bop records like Harold Land’s The Fox (1959), which impressed Adderley enough that, upon his signing to Capitol Records, he requested Axelrod’s services directly. Axe understood the real deal blues musicians that populated the tough South Central L.A. dives that he frequented as a kid; when he suggested to Capitol execs that he promote the black artists on the label in the neighborhoods in which he grew up, they told him to do it himself. So he did, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Soon Capitol was the only major label with a promotions department focused around the label’s black artists. By 1966, two years into his tenure at the label under Capitol’s president Alan W. Livingston, an Axelrod believer if there ever was one, Axe 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 artists saw their records released, some saw them shelved, but with every trip into the studio Axe was on his way to crafting the landmark sound that would become synonymous with his productions. “House of Mirrors,” recorded for film and TV star David McCallum, is the first extant example, circa 1966: it’s a booming, drum and bass fueled instrumental, swallowed at times by swollen strings, and featuring unique studio tricks. (The vocal performance is by H.B. Barnum, la-di-dahing into a megaphone.) The fact that it was recorded onto a 4-track blows me away, but Axe had a tremendous respect for his engineers, always crediting them as much as he credited himself, and calling out those, like Phil Spector, who he thought didn’t acknowledge the hard work of dozens in their productions.
Then came the Axelrod composition “The Edge,” released by McCallum later the same year, which Axe recalled was inspired by a trip through the shanty-towns of Puerto Rico and the suffering he saw there. “The Edge” built upon “House of Mirrors” and brought out, in less than three minutes, more drama than McCallum’s four Capitol albums combined. It set the stage for everything to come. “I’m going to tell you something. Listen to that song close, especially to the chords. Everything I do, you’ll hear in that tune,” Axe told me in 1999. “I’ve done so much afterwards, but there is also something there—in the undercurrent—that is similar to that tune.”
Bass player Carol Kaye met Axe in the early 1960s through H.B. Barnum, when she was still a guitarist. He had a cast on his arm. (Axe often had a cast on his arm in studio sessions, as the photos for Songs of Experience show.) Her first thought: “Dude, this guy is wild.”
“He was a gruff guy, but I liked him. ‘Cause any time you meet a gruff guy that has got a good sense of humor, you know he’s a good person….He was beautiful,” Kaye told me. “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)!”
She continues: “You see, Dave is jazz, though. He knows what jazz is, and he hired us because (we were all jazz players). You know, Earl (Palmer) was a jazz player, so was Don (Randi) – we were all jazz players. He had the brilliancy to put us all together and create this brew. And he was absolutely right – he directed it all.”
Axe’s manager Lenny Poncher (also manager for Donovan, Traffic and, of all people, Englebert Humperdinck), searching for a solution to the pending dissolution of psychedelic rock group Electric Prunes in the midst of recording their third album, brought Axe in to compose an album’s worth of songs that David Hassinger, who owned the rights to the Electric Prunes recordings, would produce. Given carte blanche, Axe composed a lofty series of songs based around the Catholic mass, that he arranged well past the ability of the band’s members to perform. So Axe marched in his regular sessioners, including Palmer and Kaye, made use of remaining band member’s talents (most notably vocalist James Lowe), and created one of 1967’s great psychedelic moments. One song made it into Easy Rider, engendering the album, Mass in F Minor, to hippies. Time Magazine reviewed it favorably. Livingston, not one to be late to the psychedelic rock party (he’d demurred on signing the Beatles to Capitol until a year after their UK debut), demanded a similar album for Capitol.
Of this point, Axe was always clear: Livingston demanded the album. Axe didn’t ask to do it. He didn’t call in the credibility his track record as a producer and composer afforded him to do 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 Electric Prunes gig even though he knew it would piss off the Capitol brass.
He 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 for many, Axe’s masterpiece.
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 and 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 often remembered things differently on different days. 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.” But then later, he told Brian DiGenti and me, when we interviewed him in person in an intense set of sessions published in DiGenti’s journal Waxpoetics, that Song of Innocence was, simply, “Wagner with a backbeat.”
(Right to left) David Axelrod, Earl Palmer, c. 1968. Letta Mbulu sessions. (Right to left) David Axelrod, Don Randi, contractor Ben Barrett, c. 1969. Songs of Experience sessions.
I’ve looked into it a few times, and Song of Innocence did indeed come out before Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. Bitches Brew is one helluva record, unlike anything that had come before it. (Axe, for his part, insists that Davis heard Song of Innocence and, through Adderley, conveyed to him that he dug it.) Bitches Brew is just different than Song of Innocence. It’s more clearly a jazz record – though an “out” jazz record, especially for the time. Song of Innocence is this weird hybrid that no one, clearly not even Axe himself, can explicitly describe. I find myself pulled in by the melodies, simplistic at first blush, but colored by odd chord progressions and turn arounds, 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, that’s the only word to use.
I also think that it’s worth noting that there are really count-on-one-hand examples of anything that might even be compared to Song of Innocence. The closest I can come is Arthur Verocai’s self-titled and only artist album, issued on the Brasilian Continental label in 1972, or 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, in any thinking music fan’s canon of the best from this era, perhaps in their lives – and perhaps in line with Song of Innocence’s greatness – are career one-offs. Axe achieved recorded majesty of this type numerous times – by my counting, at least five full albums’ worth.
I’ve often heard fans describe Axe’s earliest solo works as soundtrack-esque. To me such a description couldn’t be farther from reality, akin to the earliest attempts to throw his music into the easy-listening genre (a tip anyone searching for Axe’s records in the 1990s learned early on). Axe did work on a couple soundtracks (and possibly many ghost jobs – Kelly’s Heroes, credited to Lalo Schifrin, is actually his work). But Axe’s scope was much greater than a soundtrack. A composer working on a soundtrack follows, normally, the drama of the film, taking cues from a director and his editor. I hear a soundtrack and see someone else’s picture even if, in the case of Les Baxter’s Helles Belles – an OST that utilized many of Axe’s same LA session crew – I’ve never seen the film and love the music. With Axe’s work I find myself, as DJ Shadow wrote in a moving eulogy, drawn into his world, and Axe’s world changed all of the time. Axe himself wrote off the idea of creating soundtracks because his ideas were bigger than the format would allow: why put energy into a series of two minute cues, when the right idea might take him thirty minutes or more to unfold?
“When I played on Dave’s own album sessions, I said, ‘You’re playing human emotions.’ I love that; I’m a moody piano player,” Don Randi once told me. “Axelrod, he loves concept albums. He approaches the album as a whole album project, not a song-by-song project. He knows it’s going to start and end – some place.”
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, released in 1971. When my musical partner Madlib and I heard the People album’s appropriation of Axe’s most famous breakbeat, we lost our heads. I called Axe and he was non-plussed: “I was always big in Japan.”
Axe was able to follow Song of Innocence with another Blake-based concept album, Songs of Experience, even after Livingston had left Capitol and Gilmore, Axe’s right hand man, had been chopped. But Capitol’s new president, Stanley Gortikov, got a request while in Miami, from none other than notorious soul mogul, record distributor, and James Brown-partner Henry Stone. “He (Stone) had this huge record store in Miami so that’s where they met him. And he points to an album on the wall and goes to Gortikov: ‘This guy’s a genius. Why does he only have one album?’ ” Axe recalls. “And the album was Song of Innocence.”
“(Songs 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, of a heroin overdose, a jones Axe had already beaten. Axe carried a tremendous 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 “fucked him up.” (One of Axe’s last great compositions was written for Scott: “Loved Boy” off his Mo’ Wax album David Axelrod.)
To me “A Divine Image” captures the feel of Songs of Experience in single song form, 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 1990s hip hop “beat” record NYC stores like Rock N’ Soul used to stock. I remember the name of the track: Axelrod. This was before Kool G. Rap’s “Take Em To War.” “I heard (the sample) on Kool G. Rap’s “Verse,” which was at the end of one of the Epic promo sampler 12”s that they’d give out,” producer Just Blaze recalls. “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” and ending a bit after his last album released under his own name at Capitol, 1970’s Earth Rot, which incorporated choral vocals – that set him up for his final stage as an architect of jazz fusion and ensured that his productions would help future architects of hip hop. This period contains his second album for Electric Prunes (by this time consisting of only one member of the group, Richard Whetstone, the drummer, who sang vocals; the album was performed by the same sessioners who helped Axe create his Capitol Trilogy); an unreleased Electric Prunes project based around Faust, later given by Lenny Poncher to Axe and which, with contemporaneous overdubs, was issued as David Axelrod in 2001; a concept album written by his son Michael called Pride; a one-off for RCA where Axe 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, that sounds like Earth Rot outtakes.
This was the last era of Poncher guiding his career, and Poncher was his best manager. “I’ve always done my best work when my managers left me the fuck alone,” Axe said. Poncher used a boxing analogy – Axe was a hard hitter in the semi-pro circuit, and he 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. And 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-1980s and was one of the first to spread word of his music at the now famous Roosevelt Hotel record conventions in New York City (and also the producer of that aforementioned Kool G. Rap track). “There are even fewer who can express these ideas through music – David could do it all.”
Axe took chances on unproven musicians in his productions. In his classic-era, guitarist Pete Wyant epitomizes this approach. Wyant, a Coloradan hippie who Capitol contracted Axe to produce as part of the Hardwater (1968) project, found himself under Axe’s wing, playing guitar on numerous sessions, importantly as the fuzz-guitar soloist Song of Experience and possibly on Release of an Oath.
“No one has given my playing abilities more support and confidence than Dave Axelrod did in the late 60’s. When he produced Hardwater on Capitol, I was a young hippie who thought he could play well on a local level, but had little confidence about competing with all the big name pickers of the time,” the late Wyant remembered on his website. “He contracted me to play the solos on Song of Innocence with my idol, Howard Roberts, playing behind me. That in itself was enough to clear my doubts, but the encouragement that he gave me has kept me going all these years. The Lou Rawls dates, other odds and ends I did for him were among the most treasured memories of my musical career….I’ll never forget, I’ll always owe a lot to David Axelrod.”
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 he was so busy at Decca that he lived in a bungalow on site; little of the music he recorded has ever made its way to the ears of the enlightened. The Auction, which Axe considered his greatest album, was one of the few to see release, if barely. Axe made enemies, or thought he made enemies, or found himself caught in label politics, or suffered from poor management in the years after Poncher’s departure. 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. The label doesn’t matter: Capitol, Decca, Polydor, Fantasy. That’s not to say that the albums he produced are all obscure. The first David Axelrod production I remember finding randomly was Funk Inc.’s mid-1970s Prestige release Priced To Sell, which seemed to be as ubiquitous in 1990s record stores as Axe’s great album for underrated L.A. pianist Hampton Hawes, Northern Windows.
The bad years in the 1980s, after the release of Marchin,’ were probably the result of a series of 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,’ the last album they did together. “I don’t think so,” was Axe’s response. The drummer grabbed him and kissed him on the head. The truth is, though fans in high places would vindicate his oeuvre in the 1990s and 2000s, his music seemed anachronistic at the time when it was originally released. That’s part of what makes “Terri’s Tune,” recorded in 1977, in the worst part of jazz fusion’s arc, sound akin to Axe’s majestic experiments in the genre in the early 1970s. 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 in-fighting or by cosmic misfortune.
(Axe: “Earth Rot is a funny, and sad, story. Capitol had made this deal to have records on all the bookstore racks at one hundred major universities. The records were going to go on sale on the first Earth Day, which we have every year now. And then the Kent State Massacre happened. These things just seem to happen to me. The Monday Earth Rot was going to be released was the Monday no one showed up for class, for two weeks, as a protest! There was no first Earth Day.)
But 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. He was not afraid to go for it.”
His talents might have been useful, but he was no longer a hit maker, so his services – combined with a notorious explosiveness – had little use in an exploding, fickle, 1980s record industry. He wasn’t like the Mizell Brothers, producers who also shared time at Fantasy for a spell and who, while younger, marched to a similar, idiosyncratic beat. “He was out there doing his own type of thing. Early – as the music was changing over, in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Larry Mizell now says. “(Back then) I knew who he was, but I didn’t know the extent of his imprint. Over the years, I’ve been really like, ‘wow.’ I’ve started finding all of the details about him in those years. He was a real pioneer and had a great influence on everything he produced. “
The Mizell Brothers entered the 1980s with a number one hit that they’d created from scratch: A Taste of Honey’s disco-smash “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” They could afford to buy properties in Altadena, remove themselves from Hollywood, and retire. Axe, older than the brothers and in his 40s, thought such an idea was ludicrous. Axe had to work – that’s what he did, produce records. And he didn’t produce disco records. His well placed friends, like Frank Zappa and Quincy Jones, weren’t calling with offers and I’m going to bet that he was too proud to ask for favors, lest he one day find himself like James Brown, whose personal effects, when they went into the wind after his death, contained hand written beg-letters from his worst period, letters that made the Godfather of Funk seem less powerful than he was at but one moment in a long career.
Axe helped Terri convalesce, and lived with her in what he calls a “tar shack” behind a friend’s house, before 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 began, 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 Axe’s flair for drama to some of its greatest heights in hip hop, with his productions 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, with his groundbreaking 1996 album Endtroducing… . I listen to the entirety of the album as an homage: “Midnight in a Perfect World,” and its sample of “The Human Abstract,” is not as necessary as it might seem in instructing the listener that she’s listening to a David Axelrod disciple. Shadow and Axe would go on to become close friends, collaborating musically and in business: Shadow’s wife Lisa Hagen was Axe’s last manager.
Shadow said in an email to the Pitchfork website: “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 1960s: real music folk, making pop music, navigating an industry designed to ravage its acolytes, hoping to create imprints like their heroes did.
(Right to left) Pete Wyant (guitarist on Song of Innocence), David Axelrod. Songs of Experience sessions. (Right to left) David Axelrod, H.B. Barnum, c. 1966.
“I discovered his music through hip hop – all of my favorite producers were sampling him,” says 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,” hip hop producer Pete Rock states. “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.”
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.”
Axe stood for longer than many thought he should have. I set myself on a mission to find him in 1998 or so. It seemed impossible, like he’d dropped off the face of the planet. I first found Brian DiGenti, who’d founded a website he called the David Axelrod Information Society. (I believe I was DiGenti’s first real contributor.) I then found his son Michael, who was nice, and answered many of my questions, but he told me that he didn’t speak to his father. I didn’t get it then, nor do I, as a father of three, having asked Axe how that rift came about, get it now. I got in touch with all of his session musicians and, one by one, they told me about working with him: Earl Palmer (he, too, beefing with Axe at the moment), Carol Kaye, Tom Scott, Don Randi. The latter told me he would get me in touch, and he did: I received a call from the man himself in late 1998.
In formal interviews he was tough, dead panned, prone to argue. In informal conversations, and we had many, he was more candid, thoughtful, introspective. He wouldn’t hesitate to say “well, I don’t know,” and think of a response. There were often long pauses in our conversations, especially when he was a smoker. I once brought him to a dentist appointment because his loyal friend, the photographer B+, wasn’t available. We had the most marvelous conversations: you could ask him about his pal Lalo Schifrin and get back more about how insane it was to pick up a Ferrari with the Argentine composer and find out that Schifrin could barely drive as he barreled down Sunset Blvd than why they didn’t collaborate more. He offered to pay me for gas and I instead asked for his Sun Ra LP collection. “You can have them all except Languidity because I promised that to B+,” he said. I had him autograph one of the albums to me, just so I could prove I wasn’t lying about the records’ provenance. “Sun Ra was one helluva arranger” is all he said as he handed the records over to me.
When Axe found out that I was into wine, he regaled me with stories of his Hollywood glory days, and his favorite Bordeaux, Chateau Lafite. He was friends with the composer David Rose – he even produced a few albums for him, starting with The Bible, for Capitol, when Rose was around 60. He told me of visits to Rose’s wine cellar – Rose liked Lafite more than Axe, and collected vintages dating back to the mid-1800s. They would open whatever Axe liked. “But what do we do if the wine’s turned to vinegar?” Axe told me he asked him. “We have very expensive salad dressing” Rose replied.
(Right to left) David McCallum, David Axelrod, c. 1966. (Right to left) David Rose, David Axelrod, c. 1966.
I can’t make this stuff up. Axe was that unique, that unhinged, that classy, that rough that everything he said was always all right as long as you knew how to hear it. Even those that never met him felt a close bond to him, as if his voice jumped through his records and told you that you would get him, get along, as you were one of the few who understood him.
Since I’m writing this around the 11-year anniversary of the producer J. Dilla’s death, I’m reminded of the last Christmas we hung out, in 2005. I’d heard a Dilla beat tape that, like that Ceremony – Buddha Meet Rock album, needle dropped Songs 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 acknowledge his influence on his music. I found a copy of the second Electric Prunes album and brought it to Axe to sign. I told him that Dilla was ill. I explained to Axe that Dilla was a great hip hop producer, perhaps the greatest, and that he was under-appreciated, yet undeterred. That although during his illness the phone hadn’t been ringing, he hadn’t stopped making music, 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.
Thanks to: Terri Axelrod, Brian DiGenti B+, Dana Axelrod, George Mahood, Joseph Patel, DJ Shadow, Peter Relic, Eli Wolf, Jeff Jank, Madlib.
Below: (Right to left) Don Randi, David Axelrod, c. 1968. Songs of Experience sessions. David Axelrod, c. 1968. Songs of Experience sessions. All photos from Capitol Records archives, all taken at Capitol Studios, Hollywood.