Those are the Breaks
by Andrew Male
At the end of the '60s, David Axelrod was one of the most respected producers and composers in America. Twenty years later he was virtually homeless. Today, revered as the godfather of hip-hop, he looks back on a wild, wild life.
North Hollywood, 2001. Legendary '60s producer David Axelrod is sitting in his office - a sixteen feet square rented room on the ground floor of a caramel-brown apartment building on the wrong side of town. This fortress-like dwelling is situated along an eerily quiet strip of flat land that serves as a safe ‘buffer-zone’ between two warring Mexican gangs. "Occasionally you'll hear the sound of gunfire," he says. “I've got no problem with that. Unless you're trying to cut in on their drug trade, they leave you alone."
David Axelrod has a dry sense of humour. Three-shot-of-gin-in-your-Martini dry. A stocky, gruff-spoken lion of a man with a shock of white hair and devilish sparkle to the eye, at 67 years of age Axelrod is still what tenor sax man Ernie Watts refers to as “constant energy", speaking of a bop-driven bark of exclamation marks and emphasis. However, for a man who's lived a good three lifetimes' worth of experience, there's not much to show for it. In the centre of his office is the wooden music stand and leather-bound swivel chair salvaged from Capitol in 1971. On one side of the room are hundreds of water-damaged LPs, evidence of a recent apartment block flood. Blinking in one corner is a giant, malfunctioning phone/fax, the main means of communication between Axelrod and Tony Gimble, his business manager.
In club and hip-hop circles throughout the 1990's Axelrod's albums were suddenly the ones to sample. From ‘solo’ efforts such as 1968's Song of Innocence to production work with Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley, their symphonic mix of R&B, jazz, strings and soul, held together by deep bass riffs and fatback drums, became a touchstone for such artists as The Beatnuts, DJ Shadow, Mos Def, Dr. Dre and Lauryn Hill. Business manager Tony Gimble is there to help Axelrod sort out royalty payments and increase his profile in the billion-dollar hip-hop industry. On top of a table piled high with notes and music scores, Axelrod finds a note from Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, saying that he's tracked down an extra copy of Axelrod's 1972 album The Auction and thinks that David should have it.
Of all the artists who have sampled Axelrod in the past decade, DJ Shadow is perhaps the most important. During work on his 1996 album Endtroducing.…, Shadow introduced Mo' Wax boss James Lavelle to Axelrod's work. Lavelle tracked him down to North Hollywood and enlisted his help on the re-scoring of UNKLE's 1999 track "Rabbit in Your Headlights". Now, Mo' Wax are getting ready to release the first solo Axelrod album in six years, the first in over 20 to have proper distribution. The story of its inception goes back even further, to 1968 when Axelrod was riding high.
"This guy called Lenny Poncher called me in 1999 and said he'd found this acetate from 1968 and did I want it?" Axelrod settles into his beat-up Capitol chair with the air of a man who has a good story to tell. “Lenny was my manager. He was also the guy at Reprise who owned the name Electric Prunes. His son, Steve, had the idea of the Prunes doing Faust. Steve wrote some lyrics and I recorded the rhythm tracks. Then the Prunes' producer, David Hassinger, leaves Warners and Lenny buys the album off WEA for his son. He did a rough mix and had it made into an acetate. Then he changed his mind. Steve, his son, had taken too much acid in the '60s and something happened. His brain went. He died a couple of years ago. So, 1999, Lenny sends me acetate.“
The day the acetate arrived, it just happened that hip-hop photographer B+ was over, photographing Axelrod for Mo' Wax.
“Well," says David, "I put the acetate on and he went daffy! The rhythm section on this album is Carole Kaye, the electric bass player, Howard Roberts on guitar, Earl Palmer on drums, Joe Sample on Hammond. I said, 'Damn, they sound pretty good.' I sent the cassette to James [Lavelle]. He freaked out."
"It was sheer luck that those acetates turned up," says Lavelle. "We wanted to do an album with David but we wanted it to be so good. I didn't want this to be Jazzmatazz."
At first Axelrod was reluctant. Then, he figured, how many guys in life get a chance to go back and re-do it? Rewriting the score was a problem but once he had assembled the musicians - Lou Rawls, trumpet player Oscar Brashear, reed player Gene Cipriano and H.B. Barnum conducting - it was just like any other record take. However, the end result, David Axelrod, is more than just another record take. From the combination of stabbing strings, mournful choir and Ras Kas' hard-edged gospel-rapping on album opener "The Little Children" to Lou Rawls' beautifully rough and broken vocals on the album's awesome closing track, "Loved Boy" (a tribute to the son Axelrod lost to drugs in 1971), David Axelrod is a journey back through his past, where song titles - "Jimmy T", "For Land's Sake" - refer to friends and musicians who make up one of the great untold stories in 20th century music. Just don't call the man an artist. All he's ever been is a guy doing a job.
"We did this album in four sessions," he stresses. "We remixed in two days and we were done. I hate artists, who talk about the muse. Got a job to do? Do it. Production isn't an art. Fuck that!"
David Axelrod was born in South Central, Los Angeles in 1933. His father, Morris, a garment cutter, was a member of the IWW [International Workers of the World], who led local unions in ongoing battles with the LAPD to break California's ‘open-shop’. "He was a real socialist," remembers Axelrod. "My older brother Sonny's listening to Count Basie on the Victrola, winning jitterbug concerts, and my father had me reading Jack London's Under the Iron Heel. The LAPD beat the hell out of him with blackjacks during the General Strike."
Axelrod's father died from emphysema in 1945 when Axelrod was 12. His elder brother Sonny was killed at Iwo Jima. With all the men of the neighbourhood still in the services, the teenage David Axelrod decided he could do whatever he damn well liked and started running with "a bunch of real bums" on Central Avenue.
"We were hanging out at the Turban Rooms checking Roy Milton or sipping bourbon in Sardi's [on Vine Street]. But I changed. These guys did things for a name in town. We carried tyre irons and whacked the hell out of people. I'd get $125. That's in 1950 when cigarettes were 20 cents a pack. People ask whether my conscience has ever bothered me. Hell no, I could have done 10 a day. Then something happened. Trouble. I made the front of the LA Times. I had to get out of Los Angeles. The group scattered and I went east."
Staying with relatives in New Jersey, Axelrod met up with James Samuels, a black gas station owner who worked for Axelrod's uncle. Samuels took Axelrod to New Jersey's Black Elk club and The Three Deuces and The Savoy on New York's 52nd Street to check out Art Tatum, Lionel Hampton and Ben Webster. Axelrod fell in love with jazz. He returned to LA in 1953, fell in with Beat artist Wally Berman and picked up a heroin habit. But his life was about to change.
"I was in the Turban Rooms one night," he remembers, "watching the Gerald Wiggins Trio. Slim, the bartender, says, 'Time for you to straighten out your tab, kid.' Now, if I pay this and my man shows up I ain't gonna score. All of a sudden, this voice says, 'Don't worry about his tab.' It was Gerald Wiggins! He said he’d take care of it. I figured he was a faggot and that maybe I'll roll him and take his money. We go up to his apartment, I’m seriously gonna bounce him, he opens the door and there’s his wife! Gerald became my mentor."
With one guardian angel on his side, Axelrod found another. A year into his habit, an old boxing buddy, Jimmy Talbot, decided Axe should quit. "Jimmy was 30lb heavier than me. George Raft and Al Jolsen were his backers. I wasn’t about to fuck with him. He locked me in his back room, cleaned up the vomit and diarrhea and fed me codeine, ice cream and Scotch. Ten days later I was out. I asked what made him do it. He said, ‘You were reading so much I thought there must be something to you.'"
Aged 21, David Axelrod started hanging out with Wiggins 18 hours a day. "Gerald would have Art Tatum come over. We’d go over to [jazz bassist] Red Calender's house. [Legendary bebop pianist] Carl Perkins is there, Oscar Peterson’s drinking gallons of Old Crow. [Marlon] Brando and Rosalind Russell would throw these huge Beverly Hills parties - free booze and no one listening. Gerald [would] play "The Star Spangled Banner" and nobody would look up, it'd just be William Powell holding his glass out, totally bombed." It was through Wiggins that Axelrod met up with the legendary Capitol and Motown producer/arranger H.B. Barnum, a man he still refers to as "my brother".
"All the musicians hung out at Gerald's," explains Barnum,. "Art Tatum, Al Haig, they’d drink whiskey, play cards and tell stories. Dave was on the inside, hearing these people play. He didn't have to put it on paper, it was all in his head."
Axelrod: "One morning I'm at Wig's. He's shaving and I’m fooling around at the piano. Next thing I know Gerald bust out of the bathroom, and told me to replay what I'd played. He grabbed a sheet of manuscript paper and said, 'I'm gonna teach you how to write music.'"
By 1956 Axelrod had secured his first industry job, mailing out records for the South West distributing Company and handling promotions for Tampa Records. Impressed by his music knowledge, Jack Devaney - the West Coast rep for Cash Box magazine - secured Axelrod a production job at Motif Records. Owned by multi-millionaire Milton W. Vetter, Motif was effectively a tax lodge: "three records a year just to keep it legal."
With the help of Devaney, Axelrod moved to Specialty offshoot Original Jazz Classics and then Hi Fi Records. After overseeing a bunch of Arthur Lyman records, Axelrod hooked up with Harold Land. One of the last hard-bop fugitives in a land of cool, Land played tough jazz for Central Avenue hipsters steeped in blues and R&B. For people like Axelrod, Land flew the West Coast ‘hard school’ flag. "I took a big gamble with The Fox," says Axelrod, "I borrowed money to make it, took the finished product to Hi Fi Records and they bought it off me for $1,200. It was the hardest sound coming out of LA. The next thing to do was sign Ornette [Coleman]. I met him at Monterey Jazz in 1957. He says, ‘Call me.’ His phone gets cut off and he ends up with Specialty. I certainly wouldn't have put him with Shelley Manne [the West Coast ‘cool jazz’ drummer played on Coleman's 1959 Tomorrow is the Question]. I'd got to the point were I thought, if he's white, he can’t play."
H.B. Barnum: "David had so much energy. I didn't know how serious he was until we were driving to Arizona and he told me all the ideas in his head. William Blake, poetry, big ideas. It was frightening."
In 1962 Axelrod was drinking with Jimmy Talbot in a bar on Sunset Boulevard when Cannonball Adderley walked in with someone Axelrod had known since he was a kid - jazz singer Ernie Andrews. "Ernie iintrooooduces me," says Axelrod, "and Cannon straightaway goes ‘The Fox! I knew our paths would cross.’ Six months later I get to Capitol, they sign Cannonball, ask him who he want’s to work with and he says, ‘Get me David’."
Installed at Capitol from 1964, Axelrod started to perfect a sound that, 30 years later, would make him one of the most sampled artist in hip-hop - open live room production, R&B rhythms led by bass and drums with horn and string stabs and a special fondness for New Orleans swamp-beat drums. He also began to gather a peerless team of players and arrangers around him: H.B. Barnum, drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist Howard Roberts, reed player Gene Cipriano, pianist Don Randi, and bassist Carole Kaye.
Kaye: "I first met David in 1962 doing something for World Pacific. He was a name, he was cool, a handsome man. You know in the first five minutes whether someone’s good and David didn’t have to build respect - we respected him immediately."
One of Axelrod’s first big breaks at Capitol was to secure the dubious talents of Man From U.N.C.L.E. star David McCallum. Axelrod had read in the trades that in 1965 McCallum had broken Clark Gable’s record for receiving more fan mail in a week than any other star. He figured, if the girls just buy the album for the picture on the back, we’ve got a hit.
Gene Cipriano: "The first album I did with David and H.B. was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. [McCallum’s 1966 album Music: Another Side of Me]. David [Axelrod] was already trying out big ideas on that album."
Both of the McCallum albums went gold and Axelrod was suddenly "the Oscar De La Hoya of Capitol, making $700,000 a year" and free to develop his sound with Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley. "Lou was given to me as an assignment," explains Axelrod, "but he was the easiest artist because he’d trust you."
Cipriano: "The albums David cut with Lou were the best. They were parties. Seven after midnight and we’d still be going. They really put David on the map. Everybody wanted to work with him."
H.B. Barnum: "When he worked with me on the Lou Rawls albums it was like we were acting in sync and someone had written us a script. I was suspicious. I thought he had notes about me written down some place. Pretty soon we never talked, we just did it."
Carole Kaye: "The dates with Earl [Palmer], H.B. and Lou couldn't help but be good. David is the kind of guy that all blacks get along with because he grew up with blacks. He's just out in the open. 'We're going to cut the fuck out of this.' Simple as that."
Axelrod’s first album with Rawls, 1964's For You My Love, failed to sell. With the Beatles as their biggest selling artists, Capitol was a predominantly white label in '65. Dealing in show tunes, crooners, country and Wayne Newton, the label was in no way geared to promote R&B to a black audience, particularly in Los Angeles. Following the Watts rebellions in August, white label reps were refusing to gear near South Central. "We were making good records but couldn't get them sold," remembers Axelrod. "So I thought, Why not start a black music division. Black promotions people. The very next record was Lou Rawls Live. We recorded it in the studio, put a free bar along the wall ... Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Club Capitol! That album got promoted, sold a million and a half."
The first few albums Axelrod recorded with Cannonball Adderley were hard work. Then, during a break in the recording of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, Cannon took David to one side, ushered him into the bathroom, took out a glass vial, held his thumb in his palm, made a fist around it, poured some white powder into the crack and said, "Do what I do."
"I thought it was heroin," says Axelrod. "I said, I don't need that crap. He started laughing and blew the powder everywhere. He said, 'This is coke!' I loved it! We never abused it. I never did anything but sniff it. Between 1965 and 1981 I spent a great deal of money on it but it never got in the way of anything. It kept me awake! I can rail off the names of musicians in their seventies who've been snorting coke for 50 years!"
Tweaked on coke, the duo went back to Cannon’s place. The saxophonist started bringing out all his R&B records - Bobby Bland, Ernie K. Doe... "You need to pick up on the real stuff," said Axelrod. "Amos Millburn, Lowell Fulson, Roy Milton." That’s what made them tight.
Don Randi: "The word was out that Dave was the man. Cannon said, 'Here's someone who knows what he's doing.' He had his own special team and the integrity to say 'Do your thing' or 'Same shit as last time.' He knew where you could take it. The piano solo that's sampled on Lauryn Hill album? ["Tony Poem" from 1978’s Strange Ladies, sampled on Hill’s "Every Ghetto, Every City"] That's all improvised by me. He'd do that by leaving you alone, letting you put in something of yourself."
And so, by 1966, David Axelrod was flying high. Money, booze, cocaine, ladies, success.
"Through the centuries, in his search for a better life, man has been forced by powers beyond his control to accept the yoke of a conqueror." - linernotes to The Electric Prunes, Release of an Oath.
"The Electric Prunes? Fuck 'em. They dissed me. They ought to know better, they're in their sixties." - David Axelrod.
At the start of 1968 The Electric Prunes were on top of it all, having just completed a storming European tour on the back of their second and greatest album, Underground. Their manager Lenny Poncher had an idea - a rock mass collaboration with another of his charges, David Axelrod. Entitled Mass in F Minor, bassist Mark Tulin thought it sounded like a pretty cool concept - "Jack Kerouac meets Timothy Leary interpreting Peter, Paul and Mary. David was jazz-hip cool, outside my scope of experience. I got caught up in his vision and forgot ours, which had never been going to church."
Singer James Lowe: "Because I'd taken so much useless Latin in school it was good to finally use it. My mother was happy we were doing a mass. David [Axelrod] seemed to be operating at a level I had trouble relating to."
The only member of the band who could read music, Tulin interpreted Axelrod's compositions for the rest. "Of course," says Tulin, "if it were up to us we'd have done Mass in E. It's a better key for rock."
Tulin and Lowe would go over to Axelrod's 17-room house in Encino, sit around the piano and practice the score. "He'd show me this cool chord structure he'd created between guitar, piano, French horn and cellos," recalls Tulin. "Then he'd play some Carl Orff or try out some unusual harmonic line."
Lowe: "I thought he was some kind of genius but things seemed to go south when [producer] Dave Hassinger brought in session people. David Axelrod was so far above what we, as a garage band, were able to deliver."
Tulin: "It's David Axelrod's Mass in F Minor just as it's Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. No Electric Prunes in either. Doing the Mass was the beginning of the end. We never recovered from being told you are not good enough to play on your own record."
Lowe: "Dave Hassinger did his best to make us feel inadequate. After it was completed he mentioned getting The Boston Pops to do it live with us."
What actually happened was much more worse. It was decided that the band themselves should perform Mass in F Minor live. "We were given half-a-day’s rehearsal," says Tulin. "I was told to play bass, organ and conduct the band - all at the same time. An unequivocal disaster. The audience had no idea what was happening. I ended up just telling the cellos to 'Jam in E'."
Don Randi: "They hired me to conduct. It was a brilliant piece of music, but unfortunately the band sucked. We went to Culver City and there I am in a cape and a bowler hat, conducting the choir who wanted to choke me to death. All of a sudden some kid hollers, 'Do the hit' and throws a beer bottle and then another...the curtain started to close and I ran. They eventually called the police."
Despite it’s disastrous live premiere, Mass in F Minor, recorded for Reprise, was a massive success, with the track Kyrie Eleison included on the Easy Rider soundtrack. Following an interview with Axelrod in Time magazine, Capitol decided it was their turn to let the man express himself. The result was 1968's Song of Innocence. "If I went to somebody today," says Axelrod, "and told them I wanted to do an album of tone poems to William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, they'd throw me out. First question - how much? In the '60s those questions weren't asked. I'd got involved with Blake in my early twenties, reading the poems over and over. I composed the album in a week."
Song of Innocence, its follow-up Songs of Experience and The Electric Prunes’ The Release of an Oath won David Axelrod international acclaim. Paul McCartney revered him as a major producer, George Harrison wanted him to sign to Apple ("George Martin warned me off. He said, 'The place is a fucking madhouse!'"). Allen Ginsberg wanted him to set Howl! to music and the producer's Blakean tone poems found fans in Sly Stone and Frank Zappa.
Sly's offices were across the street from Capitol. At the end of a working day, Axelrod would wander over. "He had this huge office," says Axelrod. "The coffee table was this big bowl full of cocaine, about eight inches deep and eight inches around, and it was free. Dig in the spoon and shove the cocaine up your nose. Good times. I’m getting all these write-ups, I’ve been in time magazine. What could go wrong?"
Zappa knew. Self-taught musicians and voracious devourers of knowledge, Zappa and Axelrod would discuss everything from the mountain-climbing prowess of Aleister Crowley to the inestimable importance of press officers. "He said, 'You've got to get PR.' I figured I didn't need it. Things were going well. He said, 'You’re making a great mistake.' Quincy [Jones] said the same thing."
Worried that Axelrod was getting carried away as an 'artist' - and would be less inclined to work as a producer - Capitol decided the best thing to do was kill him off by not promoting the solo albums. "Today I realise that [Zappa] was right and I was wrong," says Axelrod. "What can I tell you? But you can never undo things. I never dwell on it."
Capitol Records' Heyday ended in 1969 with the departure of label boss Al Livingston. "I wished I could have followed him," says Axelrod, "but I had a contract."
We're sitting drinking Screwdrivers in a dog-eared Chinese restaurant near the corner of Hollywood and Vine. "Back in the '60s this was a bar called Sir Georges," says Axelrod. "You used to be able to smoke here. I'd have Martini drinking contests here with Lee Gillette. Greatest producer who ever lived. Sarah Vaughan! Man, you couldn't drink or do drugs 'round Sarah."
Didn't she approve?
"No, you idiot! She'd take all your coke and drink you under the table."
In the '70s, Axelrod recorded some of his best work. He and Cannonball were on a roll, cutting such landmark albums as 1972 Experience in E and the live Black Messiah. He was also working on arrangements for Motwon, Warners, Fantasy and Prestige. However, he also became the victim of idiot bosses and poor distribution. As a result, such albums as 1972's The Auction, 1975's Seriously Deep and, memorably, 1970's Earth Rot, are now impossibly rare.
Tenor sax man Ernie Watts first ran into Axelrod in the '70s when he was playing with Cannonball and Nat Adderley. They hit it off immediately. "At that time David worked like Duke Ellington," says Watts. "He wrote his music specially for the people playing with him. It was great to watch him and Cannonball work together. They loved each other."
Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley died in 1975. Axelrod continued to work as a solo artist but his collaborations were at an end. He'd lost his best friend. "One time at the end of the '60s," remembers Axelrod, "Cannon and I were with, I won't say who, but there were a lot of chicks and everything was, (adopts cynical tone) 'Groooovy, faaaaantasstic'. Everyone was getting 'turned on'. All of a sudden Cannon goes, 'David, David!...Musicians are better than people.' Such a hip line. Damn, I loved that man."
With Adderley gone, Axelrod kept right on working and playing. "I was just doing what musicians have been doing since time began," barks Axelrod. "Mozart was a drunk! Beethoven was a drunk! Schumann was whacked out on a laudanum and ether kick, reaching for some higher chord. Yeah, it was pretty wild. A lot of chicks. My attitude was, I'd been accused of it, I may as well do it."
Axelrod drains his triple Screwdriver and opens his fortune cookie.
"What's it say, I can't read without my glasses."
Be careful not to overspeed.
Carole Kaye: "By the end of the '70s the industry was filled with sharks waiting to take you and drag you down. There are some tough tales out there, but if you can live long enough and pull through then you've had a good time."
Axelrod carried on working and writing into the '80s but the industry had changed. Just out to make money, nobody could read a music score and everyone was taking cocaine. "I never wanted to quit cocaine," he says, "but it quit me! I had a bad experience in 1981 where my pulse shot up to 266. We called my doctor and he said, 'Give him 60mg of Valium and a glass of cognac.' It worked and I haven't touched the stuff since."
These days he gets by with the help of vitamin supplements and two codeine tablets a day. He knows why he had to stop doing cocaine but not why the work stopped.
"A door slammed on me," he says. "I did an album in 1981 that was so good. Never came out. Two guys own it who've never known what to do with it. Then in 1987 I made another album and that's a bad legal situation. It’s easy to blame managers but in the end you're responsible. I believed people. They promised you things. Nothing happens. That's what went down. And I went down with it."
By the mid-'80s the money started to dry up. Axelrod never got a percentage of any production work at Capitol. He has no complaints. "If I didn't save it, my fault. I loved spending money. Sure, I should have been smarter but I never thought about anything but making the best music you can. Do I wish I could have been more ruthless? Always. But I've never fucked over anybody in this industry. Ever."
In 1986 Axelrod's wife Terri was involved in a car crash that meant David effectively becoming a full-time nurse. By 1988, with Terri handicapped, a demolition notice was issued on their apartment building. With no money and too much pride they ended up living on a building site in a plywood and tarpaper room with one hotplate, a toilet and a cold-water sink. "We lived there from the Fourth of July weekend 1988 until H.B. [Barnum] came out to help us in September 1989." They moved to the apartment they live in today. When Ornette Coleman heard of their plight he offered to house them in one of the many New York SoHo lofts he'd bought for a cent back in early '60s. They turned him down. "I was born in L.A.," says Axelrod, "I can't leave."
In 1996 a royalty cheque arrived for David Axelrod. A big cheque, for a song he didn't recognise. He called MPL and sternly told them that he didn't want anyone else's money. They said, "It should also say 'Holy Thursday'. That's yours isn't it?" David Axelrod had been introduced to sampling.
During the '90s he continued to work but the albums he produced were victims of poor distribution [1993's Requiem] or record company cold feet [1996's The Big Country]. Then, out of the blue, the big cheques started arriving. Next, a guy from Source magazine rang their apartment, asking for an interview. Axelrod called back and told the switchboard, "It's David Axelrod." The operator screamed, "Oh my God, it's the king!" What is this? he thought. Following contact with James Lavelle and more royalty cheques, he got philosophical.
"I wasn't into sampling until I started getting cheques," he laughs, "but now I really am. Look at the way [Dr] Dre took 'The Edge' [sampled on Dr Dre's 2001 and taken from McCallum’s 1966 album Music: A Bit More of Me]. He put my intro behind the verse. Why didn’t I do that."
Axelrod talks about artists like Dre, Shadow, Ras Kas and Lavelle with warmth and affection. It works both ways. "He's like some long-lost-grandfather," says James Lavelle. "I'm happy to give him the opportunity to record another album. You think about all the friends he has, your Quincy Jones and the like. Well, I'm the only person who gave him this shot. It’s not charity. The bottom line is that it's a great record. It will blow people away."
Axelrod has one final thing to show me. We go back downstairs to his study. He points at a dozen or so giant hardback volumes: "The Groves Dictionary of Music. Cost me $4250. It comes out every 20 years and goes to universities and people who can afford it. Life's been good to me in the last couple of years and I always wanted the Grove so I got it. I just sit down and read the scores..."
Some time soon, Axelrod plans to move out of his apartment into a bigger one but he'll never move from LA. "The place is falling apart," he says, "but I love it. I grew up here. When we were kids we'd go to the beach and bodysurf. The idea was to catch that wave and just ride it. When you're riding that wave, you don't see any reason why it should stop."
It’s a Steal; The Five Top Axelrod Samples
Angus Batey with thanks to Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapett
1. "The Edge" (from David McCallum, Music: A Bit More of Me, Capitol, 1966) 'sampled' by Dr Dre on "The Next Episode" from 2001.
The most famous Axelrod sample actually isn't because Dre hired session musicians to replay his steals. "Listen to that song close, especially to the chords," Axe told interviewer Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapett. "Everything I do, you'll hear in that tune."
2. "The Human Abstract" (from David Axelrod, Songs of Experience, Capitol, 1969) sampled by DJ Shadow on "Midnight In A Perfect World" on Endtroducing.....
Asked about Axelrod in the mid-'90s, Shadow visibly blanched. He'd hoped to keep the producer's work as his own beat-head secret. Shadow even managed to hip Axe to an album he'd forgotten he'd made - Ray Brown’s Just Ray Brown with, says Shadow, the best version of "Good Day Sunshine" ever.
3. "Tony Poem" (from David Axelrod, Strange Ladies, MCA, 1977) sampled by Lauryn Hill on "Every Ghetto, Every City" from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
By '77 Axelrod's solo albums had lost some of the direction that characterised ...Innocence and ...Experience, but "Tony Poem" proves he could still hit the funky heights. Hill’s track weaves the sample into a '70's Stevie Wonder-esque track like the most natural combination in the world.
4. "The Steam Drill" (from Cannonball Adderley, Black Messiah, Capitol, 1971) sampled by A Tribe Called Quest on "The Infamous Date Rape" from The Low End Theory.
Shunned by jazz purists, this Adderley live album struck a chord with the jazzaholic Tribe. Said Adderley: "If you listen to David's music - if you listen, 'cos that's different than hearing - there's a layer of violence no matter how pretty it is."
5. "The Fox" (from Don Randi, Plays Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet, Capitol, 1969) sampled on "Respiration" from Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star.
An album of cinema standards given a taut '60s Axelrod production, this has yielded one or two choice breaks. The spacious but intimate recording of shimmering vibes, piano and bass is the perfect foil to Black Star’s introspective lyrics and fluid flow.
David Axelrod Discography
Song of Innocence (Capitol 1968)
Songs of Experience (Capitol 1969)
Earth Rot (Capitol 1970)
Rock Interpretations of Handel’s Messiah (RCA 1971)
The Auction (Decca 1972)
Heavy Axe (Fantasy 1974)
Seriously Deep (Polydor 1975)
Strange Ladies (MCA 1977)
Marchin' (MCA 1980)
Requiem: The Holocaust (Liberty 1993)
Big Country (Unreleased 1995)
David Axelrod (Mo' Wax 2001)
Harold Land - The Fox (Hi Fi Jazz 1959)
Cannonball Adderley - Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (Capitol 1966)
David McCallum - Music: A Bit More of Me (Capitol 1966)
Electric Prunes - Mass in F Minor (Reprise 1968)
Letta Mbulu - Letta Mbulu Sings (Capitol 1968)
Don Randi - Don Randi Plays Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet (Capitol 1968)
Elecrtic Prunes - The Kol Nidre (Reprise 1968)
Lou Rawls - You're Good for Me (Capitol 1968)
Willie Tee - I'm Only a Man (Capitol 1969)
Howard Roberts - Spinning Wheel (Capitol 1969)
Pride - Pride (Warner Brothers 1970)
Cannonball Adderley Quintet and Orchestra - Tensity (Capitol 1970)
Funk Inc. - Superfunk (Prestige 1972)
Hampton Hawes - Northern Windows (Prestige 1974)
Gene Ammons - Brasswind (Prestige 1974)
UNKLE - "Rabbit in your Headlights" remix (Mo’Wax 1999)