David Axelrod, Music Producer Who Bridged Genres, Dies at 85
By JON CARAMANICA FEB. 16, 2017
David Axelrod in an undated photograph. GAB Archive/Redferns
David Axelrod, a producer, arranger and composer who in the 1960s and ’70s was one of the pre-eminent figures bridging and expanding the worlds of jazz and R&B — and whose career was given new life beginning in the ’90s thanks to hip-hop producers who sampled his ornate compositions — died on Feb. 5 in Burbank, Calif. He was 85.
The cause was lung cancer, his wife, Terri, said.
Mr. Axelrod’s signature sound mixed the flexibility of jazz and the lusciousness of soul with the influence of composers like Wagner and Stravinsky and a penchant for psychedelic flights of fancy. His compositions were expansive and majestic, but also a little testy and tense, as if messy eruption were imminent but being held at bay by beauty.
David Axelrod was born on April 17, 1931, in the area that became known as South Central Los Angeles, to Morris George Axelrod and the former Pearl Plaskoff. He began frequenting the jazz and R&B clubs on Central Avenue, Los Angeles’s vibrant musical hub, at a young age.
“I was raised by blacks,” he told Big Daddy magazine in 2001, discussing his upbringing in a city with fast-changing racial dynamics. “For a while I thought I was black.”
He added, “The fact that we had no money meant that we kept moving east during the white flight.”
His father, an organizer for the radical Industrial Workers of the World union, died at the cusp of David’s teenage years. He told interviewers stories of teenage street brawls and heroin use. Into his later years he was typically seen in dark sunglasses, the better to mask an eye injury he received when he was a teenage boxer.
After short times in New Jersey and New York and also in the Marines, Mr. Axelrod returned to Los Angeles and became enmeshed in the city’s night life and music industry. He spent a couple of years alongside the pianist Gerald Wiggins, who taught him to read music, and before long he took on record promotion jobs and, eventually, production work.
His first prominent calling card was the saxophonist Harold Land’s 1960 album “The Fox,” an outstanding example of hard bop from a city not known for it. Not long after that, Mr. Axelrod joined the staff of Capitol Records as an executive focused on developing talent, helping to create what he said was the first black music division at a major label.
He shepherded Lou Rawls out of a mainstream pop-jazz sound and into forward-leaning soul, and worked with the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who was familiar with Mr. Axelrod from “The Fox.” He produced Adderley’s biggest hit, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” in 1966, and continued to work with him for a decade. “I could do anything I wanted to do,” he recalled in 2001. “I was rich — making the equivalent of $700,000 a year!”
He also produced instrumental albums conducted by David McCallum, the Scottish actor (“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) who in the late 1960s took a pop music detour.
Following his success producing for others, Mr. Axelrod put out albums of his own. The first two, his most essential — “Song of Innocence” (1968) and “Songs of Experience” (1969), both inspired by William Blake — helped set the table for the jazz fusion of the 1970s.
Narrative and concept were crucial to Axelrod’s productions. His third album, “Earth Rot,” tackled environmental concerns, and a hit he recorded with Mr. McCallum, “The Edge,” was, Mr. Axelrod said, written in response to the extreme poverty he witnessed on a trip to Puerto Rico. For the psych-rock band the Electric Prunes, he produced an album influenced by Gregorian chant.
Though Mr. Axelrod was an aesthete, he was also a producer for hire, and before and after his time at Capitol, which he left in the early 1970s, he worked with a wide range of labels, including Decca, Motif, World Pacific and Hi-Fi.
In the mid-1970s, pop tastes begin to shift toward disco, a sound Mr. Axelrod had little use for, and he fell out of favor, leading to a lean stretch that included financial struggles and near-homelessness. His wife was involved in a serious car accident in his 1980s, and he devoted himself to managing her care for some time.
She survives him, as do three sons, Michael, Dana and Brian; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A fourth son, Scott, died in the 1960s.
In the 1990s, crate-digging hip-hop producers began unearthing Mr. Axelrod’s productions and sampling them widely, enamored with their thickness and complexity. Axelrod sounds appear on Lauryn Hill’s breakthrough album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”; DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing …..”; and Dr. Dre’s “2001,” as well as songs by De La Soul, Lil Wayne, Mos Def, Madlib, Kool G Rap and more.
During this time, one of Mr. Axelrod’s old managers mailed him an acetate of some unreleased recordings from his prime. With some additional arrangements, they went on to form the basis of a new album, released in 2001 on the British label Mo’Wax, which had sought him out as a progenitor of the lush, trippy sound it was known for.
Around the same time, his early music was being anthologized, and in 2004 he conducted a concert of his work at the Royal Festival Hall in London.