02/21/17 Articles

Larry Coryell lit up a musical genre

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Town Hall, New York City, 1974

Larry Coryell, Town Hall, New York City, 1974. Photo © photography Raymond Ross Archives.

 

I’m sitting at a table in a club in downtown Chicago with Larry Coryell in between sets. Wearing a sport coat over a white T-shirt and slacks, the man is holding court but is distracted—mainly by his wife, Tracey Coryell, a striking woman who looks to be roughly half of Coryell’s sixty-five years. He interrupts a comment on his hatred of the Internet to turn and tell her, “Baby, you look so beautiful tonight.”

During the next set, he keeps a clear line of sight from the stage to her and pauses a couple times during his solos on jazz standards like “Someday My Prince Will Come” to make eyes at her. When his drummer and bassist leave the stage for Coryell to go it alone on acoustic guitar, he dedicates a spirited performance of Ravel’s Boléro to Tracey, and she blows him a kiss from the back of the room.

 

Originally published as “Power Lines” in Wax Poetics Issue 31, 2008

 

But while his dedication to his wife is made clear, probably few among the crowd of thirty or forty people in this place on a cold May night in 2008 know, or care, that the man onstage is considered one of progenitors of jazz-rock fusion, perhaps even the first on the scene. In 1966, Coryell cofounded the pioneering jazz-rock band the Free Spirits and made his recording debut on drummer Chico Hamilton’s The Dealer. The liner notes state that the twenty-three-year-old Coryell was “an anomaly in that he doubles between jazz and rock and roll. He finds nothing unusual in this. Like many well-known jazz artists, Coryell tends to defy the labels people put on music.”

In 1967, Coryell started a short stint with vibraphonist Gary Burton, recording four albums, the first, Duster, considered by some critics to be the first fusion record. Coryell’s 1972 group the Eleventh House, with drummer Alphonse Mouzon, is still considered one of the stronger fusion groups of the 1970s. His own solo records show that he never felt restrained by any musical boundaries. By piling wild, psychedelic guitar on top of jazz, pop, and funk, and often singing, Coryell was forcefully making fusion earlier than anybody else. But this distinction is merely academic, particularly to the man himself.

 

You’re described in the liner notes on the back of Gary Burton’s 1967 album Duster as being in “the vanguard of a young and long-haired generation of musicians, which is breathing new energy—the energy of rock and roll—into the folk music called jazz.” Was this an early attempt at jazz-rock fusion?

No, it was a jazz group. I was excited that I was gonna do a jazz session. As Wayne Shorter has said, “Jazz means no category.” And about that time, before we were in the studio making that record, a lot of jazz musicians—Don Shirley, Jimmy Giuffre—were doing stuff that was not bebop but was certainly not rock and roll. A lot of it was influenced by folk music. We were focused on the music and bringing new ideas into the jazz pantheon, but, to me, it wasn’t a conscious effort at jazz-rock fusion. Especially because I’m looking across the room at Roy Haynes playing drums, and he played with Charlie Parker, as well as Stan Getz. It was really the last version, up to that point, of the Stan Getz quartet, minus Stan.

I was not a developed musician at that time; I didn’t think I was that great. But I thought I had something original to say, an original voice.

On “One, Two, 1-2-3-4,” you and Steve Swallow are soloing in tandem; he’s matching you on bass.

That’s the way a large segment of underground jazz musicians in New York were playing at that time. This was recorded in early ’67. When I got to New York at the end of ’65, I was completely shocked. It was nothing like I expected. People were playing stuff I’d never heard before, in ways I’d never heard before. My idea of jazz was based on recordings I had heard on the radio growing up in the Northwest, seeing what national acts would come through Seattle.

When I was driving to New York from Washington, I just wanted to play bebop like Tal Farlow. And as I was driving across the country, I heard all this stuff on pop radio that actually had some good music in it. The meaning of the music was more important than the music itself in the case of the hit that was happening at the time in the fall of ’65—“Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.

Is that why you decided to sing on your early albums?

I sang because I wanted to, because the Beatles sang, and Bob Dylan sang. And I mean, my God, man, if I couldn’t sing as good as Bob Dylan, I had a problem.

You sing on your debut, 1969’s Lady Coryell, but you also played bass on most of the record.

We were working with the technology of the recording medium. Why should I go get a bass player and have them sit around and wait for me to decide what I wanted? At that time, I remember reading and hearing stories about Bob Dylan and his sessions at Columbia Records: he’d set up the session late and then spend the first three hours writing. It wasn’t a waste of studio time, because the records sold millions. I thought I should have a similar attitude and try to get the most spontaneous stuff I could come up with in the studio rather than going in with everything prepared.

On your next album, Coryell, also released in 1969, you had three different bass players on the session.

In New York at that time, there was a lot of studio work in recording studios, and sometimes your time was limited, and you would call people. One time, I had Ron Carter and Chuck Rainey in the studio at the same time, because both of them were called by accident, and I felt stupid saying, “Ron, you can go home. Come back the next day.” But that’s what happened. It was whoever was available at the time. The producer, Danny Weiss, mainly wanted Bernard Purdie.

A running theme on that record seems to be lust, with songs like “Sex” and “Beautiful Woman.”

Well, it really wasn’t lust. “Sex” was written as a way to make fun of all the other rock-and-roll songs that were prevalent at that time. All these songs were about sex, but they wouldn’t come right out and say it, so it was tongue in cheek. And “Beautiful Woman” was a love song.

What was behind the decision to appear on the cover naked in a garden with your family?

That was based on the John and Yoko thing. Actually, those two children were my analyst’s. Julie [Coryell] and I were both in [psycho]analysis at that time, and we were all very friendly. We lived in a beautiful place outside of the city, and one of my first wife’s family friends was also a photographer, and he took that picture, and we thought it was wonderful.

So were you thinking of this as jazz at this point? “The Jam with Albert” from Coryell is really rocking.

No, I wasn’t thinking of it as bebop, not at all. We wanted to cross over and get some of the market that Cream and Jimi Hendrix had. “The Jam with Albert” was something that we were doing in the studio with Purdie warming up before the producers arrived. Albert [Stinson] had been playing bebop. He was playing electric bass for the first time. There was such pressure to change instruments for jazz musicians in order to adjust to the changing market. At that time, rock and roll was where the excitement was, and you had jazz musician after jazz musician doing anything they could to adjust, because there were some good gigs to be had.

What was the critical reaction to your singing, or maybe just the audience reaction?

Jazz critics didn’t like it. People are subjective about singing, and finally I got so much flak about singing—it was always, “Your guitar playing is much better than your singing”—so I just stopped. I couldn’t take it.

You played on Herbie Mann’s 1969 album, Memphis Underground—what was up with Herbie never wearing a shirt?

I have no idea. I really wasn’t paying attention to that. I was just glad to be in the studio and to be working with a great bandleader like Herbie.

This record had a profound effect on writer Hunter Thompson. In a letter to a friend, he writes: “I’ve worn out two copies of Memphis Underground & burned 2 cords of pinion wood this winter…get naked & gobble mescaline by a huge fire & the whole house vibrating with sound. Try it sometime; it’s fun.” And then a little later, he’s writing to an editor at Rolling Stone about the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and the Stones, saying those might be the best things released at that time “with the possible exception of Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground, which may be the best album ever cut by anybody.”

[laughs] I did not know that. It’s great that we were actually recognized out there, because we did feel that we were capturing the same originality and making the kind of music that could reach a gigantic mass of people in the same manner as the Stones and the Beatles.

Did it?

Well, it sold a lot, apparently. I got scale for that record, and I don’t even remember counting my money. Maybe that’s why Herbie treated me so well during the course of our relationship. Later on, especially right up to when he died, he always paid me very well: first-class tickets, good hotel rooms; maybe it was in appreciation for that.

What was the interplay like between you and fellow guitarist Sonny Sharrock?

Sonny and I really respected each other. We had a healthy, competitive thing going, and he was, again, one of those people trying to find a different voice other than the straightahead emulating of a bebop or swing guitarist.

Why does bassist Miroslav Vitous play on just one track?

He was in Herbie’s band. We were on tour anyway, and the tour ended in Memphis, so that’s where we recorded. Atlantic Studios was there, and Miroslav was there, so I guess Herbie’s thinking was “Let me at least get Miroslav on one track,” because we were doing it with that Memphis rhythm section. That was the whole point, to take a non-jazz rhythm section and play what we played.

Miroslav also plays on your 1970 album Spaces. In fact, everyone on that album played with Miles Davis at some point, including John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, and Chick Corea.

They were coming from a session with Miles when they showed up at the first Spaces session. The first day, the musicians didn’t do anything I asked them to; they played nothing that was on the sheet music. They were so influenced by Miles, they played completely avant-garde.

Was any of this released?

Yeah, “Tyrone” [appears on 1975’s Planet End]. “Tyrone” is hilarious. You got Chick Corea on electric piano playing something like “mares eat oats, and does eat oats” behind a Larry Young blues. That was the first song we tried to play when they arrived at the session, and I wanted it real straight, close to the board, and they did the opposite. Danny Weiss said, “Well, we’re not putting this on the record.” [laughs]

Your 1971 album Fairyland was a live album. What do you remember about this date?

I was homeless and married, I had [my son] Murali, and we had no place to live. Our lease was up, and we were on the road. And we just said, “Well, we’ll wing it in Europe.”

Fairyland was produced by Bob Thiele. How did you meet him?

I met Bob by accident when I was in the Free Spirits. Gabor Szabo was recording for Bob at Impulse. Gabor arranged for us to play on one of his records, and we were late, so we missed the date, but Bob Thiele met us at the studio and was interested. He probably figured if Gabor wanted us on his record, we must be interesting. We met based on a disastrous situation; everybody was upset. Why we were late? I’m sure it was because we were loaded.

So this led to your next album from ’71, Barefoot Boy. Judging from your solo on “Gypsy Queen,” it sounds like Sonny Sharrock rubbed off on you.

Sonny and I were both influenced by latter-day Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, [also] Albert Ayler. We were told not to be emulators of bebop during that time. People whose opinions we respected would say, “Don’t do that. Do your own thing.”

1972’s Offering continued an affiliation with some of the same players from Barefoot Boy. [Keyboardist] Mike Mandel’s solo on “Beggar’s Chant” is insane. Do you have any memory of him playing that?

No. [laughs] “Beggar’s Chant” was a very out-there melody by a musician who was running in our circle named Doug Davis.

Your next album was Introducing the Eleventh House with Larry Coryell from 1972. What was up with that name?

The way astrology is structured, there are twelve houses in the zodiac, and the eleventh house is the area in your life that involves your dealings with friends, hopes, and aspirations. We were trying to become a band like the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return to Forever or Soft Machine or Derek and the Dominos.

One track that jumps out is “Yin,” particularly the solos.

We did it in one take, because we’d been playing it for a long time. That composition was written by a German synthesizer player named Wolfgang Dauner. I had done a record date for him a few years previous, and he introduced that tune to me on his record date.

On 1973’s The Real Great Escape, you’re back with the band from Offering. Do you remember when this was recorded?

It was after Offering, before The Eleventh House. The bass player and some other musicians wanted us to do the same kind of record, but I had been listening so much to Marvin Gaye and Carol King, I wanted to go in a different direction. It was very controversial, and there was a lot of arguing about it.

Does “The Real Great Escape” have any relation to the Barefoot Boy track “The Great Escape”?

The only relation it had was [that] Bob Thiele and I did not have the same song in mind when he asked me what the title of a tune was [for Barefoot Boy]. This was a phone conversation, and I told him it was “The Great Escape,” and it wasn’t; it was something else. So, on Bob’s record, that tune—which had another title, I don’t remember what—became “The Great Escape,” because I mistakenly told him that. So when we did the other session, I called that “The Real Great Escape,” because that’s what “The Great Escape” is supposed to be about.

You played with Jimi Hendrix.

We jammed together at a club called the Theme in New York, and I don’t remember anything about it. But plenty of people told me what they thought about it—that he cut me. So what can I say? I don’t remember, and he’s dead, and I’m not. It’s funny; he died in ’70, and nobody has ever reached the level of rock-and-roll playing that he did.

You also played with Eric Clapton.

We sat in with him at Crystal Palace in the ’70s, with Freddie King. He asked me to play the lead line on “Layla.” That was his popular song at the time. I was just passing through London, and my wife insisted that we go.

Did you guys do dual solos?

I don’t remember. Everybody was stoned like crazy on cocaine.

Tell me about meeting Miles Davis.

It was during one of the many times in his life when he was between tours and between phases in his career. He was struggling with drugs too, and when I walked into that house where I was told I could meet Miles and hang out with him, the first thing he did was hand me an almost empty glass of warm Heineken. And I started drinking it, and he said, “Ah, once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” Then he punched me as hard as he could in the stomach when I wasn’t looking.

What year was this?

I think it was ’78. He refused to play trumpet, because his mouth hurt too much, because he was snorting too much coke or something. I’m thirty-five years old at that time; I’m still scared of my heroes. I just wanted to be with the great Miles Davis. He arranged a session for me and was trying to get me a deal with Columbia, and he verbally gave me the track. But the Miles Davis family has usurped it, rightfully so, because there’s no documentation.

But he gave you a tape of it.

Somebody got it and sent me a CD. It’s never been assembled, it’s all snippets of takes, and I don’t think the Miles Davis family estate will ever release it. Miles wasn’t playing trumpet on it. It’s very out, not commercial, nothing like when he was playing Cyndi Lauper or Michael Jackson stuff.

Do you think there’s any way it’ll ever come out, or is it just too weird?

It’s not about weird. They have control, and they can’t profit. I listened to it once—it sounded exactly the way it did back when we recorded it. After we recorded it, about a week later, Miles had one version edited together, and he played it over and over for everybody. He called people to say, “Listen to this.”

So he really liked it.

Well, yeah, it was his production of me, and it was a very nice thing that he did. But, you know, I was so sick with my addiction and my alcoholism at that time, I didn’t process it properly. He even asked me to join the band, and I was too afraid to do it. Also, I was touring a lot with [guitarist] Philip Catherine in Europe, and we were making pretty good money.

Miles was a human being, and he had his flaws, but he was Miles. And with him off the scene, at least for musicians my age, we sensed that something was missing. From the overall network in jazz, something was gone.

There’s a cult about Miles, just like there’s a cult about Wynton Marsalis. There was also, to a lesser degree, a cult about Freddie Hubbard. There’s one about Arturo Sandoval. Really good trumpet players can generate a cult around them, because it’s very hard to play trumpet well, and there’s something mystical about the horn.

My music goes on whether I’m being praised or not. The music has a life of its own; that’s why I consider it a privilege to be an artist. I’ve made a lot of music, and I’ve also, more importantly, been able to hear the best musicians of my lifetime. .

02/14/17 Videos

Soul Clap in Paris, plus video premiere of new single “Synthesizer Girlfriend”

We rendezvous with the Boston duo at the Hotel Amour in Pigalle, and present the slick new video for dance-floor friendly “Synthesizer Girlfriend”

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Soul Clap

Photo by Bill Kennedy

 

With clear P-Funk and Zapp influences, Soul Clap’s new single “Synthesizer Girlfriend,” featuring Ntem & HazMat Talkbox, has the kind of rhythmic energy that sneaks into your system, circulating the Funk throughout your body like sonic oxygen. In short, it’s a tough song not to boogie to. We are excited to present the premiere of the “Synthesizer Girlfriend” video below:

 

The single is from Soul Clap’s most recent, self-titled album Soul Clap, which was released on Crew Love Records back in October last year. The duo’s impressive second album was four years in the works, and boasts a pretty fine “laundry list” of collaborators including Nona Hendryx, Billy Bass Nelson, Morgan Wiley, Greg Paulus, Ricky Tan, Dayonne Rollins, Freeky Neek, Ebony Houston, Sa’D Ali, and Chuck Fishman.

“We really brought in the full team,” explains Charles (aka Cnyce), “I think that’s what separates or sets it apart from our last one. I think all good albums—dare I say great albums—are team efforts. We wanted to tap into that.”

We were lucky enough to get to catch up with the guys in Paris on the day of Soul Clap’s release, before their show that night at Nuit Fauves, hearing about the album and reminiscing about personal music memories in the most pimped out room at the Hotel Amour (picture over 150 motorised disco balls covering an entire ceiling).

Enjoy!

Tell me about the recording sessions for Soul Clap. What was the atmosphere like?

Eli (aka Elyte): The original recording session was down there [at George Clinton’s studio] in Tallahassee, Florida.  We went down there not expecting anything, at the very least we would get to see the vaults of all the tapes of a lot of the P-Funk stuff, and just maybe we could meet George Clinton. So we just went in there and got loose and started jamming the two of us, and getting to know the musicians down there. Then all of a sudden George showed up and said “bust the studio,” and we just carried on working on music. We got the hang out with him there and played him a bunch of stuff.

Charles: Obviously leading up to that P-Funk had been a big influence for us. We played him a piece of music we had already worked on using Ableton that was little samples of Funkadelic songs, lots and lots of samples. His ears really perked up then because he could hear the original ideas re-contextualized. I think that showed him that we weren’t just a couple of chumps, [both laugh] that we knew the music.

Do you feel like you learned a lot working with him? If so was there anything in particular? 

C: We learned a tremendous amount working with George Clinton. Just the inspiration and confidence of having a titan like him say, “Hey, that’s cool what you guys are doing.” And I noticed being around him that he really responds well to people who are confident in themselves and have their own thing going on. I think that’s a beautiful thing to put forward.

E: Also the way he works in the studio was almost like how a producer works on a computer. You see how the recording process used to be, having to pull all these musicians together to play the parts that were in his head and guiding it to become a piece of music. It’s much easier now where you can do all those parts separately, but that’s still how he thinks. He teaches each person what he’s hearing and then records, so that was really a learning process seeing how he works.

I interviewed Shock G three years ago, and he described it like there was before working with George, and after working with George, that his life was better after. I’m just curious if that’s a common experience?

C: I think Shock G said it right. I can totally understand that. It’s like there was an unknown, but now there’s an experience and a known, and we’re carrying it forward. So that’s a beautiful thing, and why the album is so magical. You get a sense that we’ve accomplished what we set out to try to create musically. That’s why this is a self-titled album. In many ways a new beginning I think.

E: All those years finally paid off.

Do you find you go through phases where you get a little obsessed with certain types of music or certain artists?

E: Definitely. I would say right now, hip-hop is finally exciting again. It’s been super exciting for me, starting with Kendrick’s album [To Pimp a Butterfly]. Plus that whole explosion of exciting jazz and funk coming from L.A.. Kaytranada, he’s working with this guy Mick Jenkins, then Chance the Rapper is doing all this exciting stuff too. It feels like hip-hop is in an exciting musical place again. The first time since I was a kid, which is so cool.

C: I’ve been listening to a wide variety of things, but I guess artists that jump out are Little Dragon, Death Grips, and we saw Herbie Hancock in concert a few weeks ago.

E: We’ve been listening to all the Herbie Hancock we can.

Do you ever notice a difference in the different cities you play, in that the crowd has a different feel? Or does it tend to be a similar vibe at most of your parties? 

E: I think our parties bring an eclectic crowd to them because we play a range of music, but we’re based in dance music and house music. There’s a big difference from the U.S. to Europe, and the the U.K. to Europe is another thing. We’ve been touring for six or seven years, so you really get to know a country. We always try to bring a general funkiness to the equation, which I don’t think necessarily always happens at a lot of these dance clubs. So that brings us a universal family of freaks.

C: I like that. [both laugh]

Being that we’re here in Paris, do you have any favourite French records, producers, or artists?

C: We’re Serge Gainsbourg fans.

E: Daft Punk, obviously. Homework is one of the best albums ever. Charlotte Gainsbourg too had some really awesome stuff. I recently found out Tony Allen played on a couple of her albums, which is amazing. I think he lives here now, so he’s done a lot of work with French musicians including Charlotte Gainsbourg. Also gotta shout out Air, so good, and I.Q., one of our favorite house producers.

C: Breakbot too.

E: Phil Weeks. Another great house producer from here.

C: Just going back to Daft Punk, all the amazing French stuff, that really left an impact on us as disco house ravers in the nineties.

Did you ever listen to an African disco guy from the seventies called Jo Bisso? He did a lot of stuff here in Paris. The record label was Disques Espérance. A friend gave me a record of his and I’m trying to find out more about him. It’s very cool, definitely worth checking out. 

C: Sounds really familiar.

E: You know what deserves a shout out is this compilation series called Source Lab, which was actually one of the first house CDs I ever bought. I had been into acid jazz and kind of stumbled upon it, and it was just really dope French house, trip-hop, and acid jazz. The house music jumped out at me.

C: How did we forget? Dimitri from Paris!

E: Oh the best!

C: Duh.

E: Definitely the king of the edits.

Do you remember what the first records that you bought were?

E: My dad’s really into jazz so I started going with him to a place called Stereo Jack’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I’m from. I started buying stuff that I was into, that was when I got really into John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. But soon after that I found hip-hop and started buying hip-hop records, then house and jungle.

C: First record that I owned? Jeez that’s a tough question. It was probably digging in a used record shop, but I can’t really remember. I do remember it was drum & bass and jungle that pulled me in the electronic direction. I was listening to LTJ Bukem and Goldie in my headphones in high school and going to the record store. A guy named Francis Englehardt, who many people probably know from Dope Jams in New York, I remember he gave me a bunch of Ganga Kru records, so like DJ Hype and DJ Zinc. Those were some of the first records I clearly remember. Plus walking into Satellite Records. That’s sort of before I even realised I was into house music.

E: I actually really clearly remember going to a record fair, when I realised I wanted to buy records, and bought a record by a group called Krush—I thought it was DJ Krush—but it was actually some electro stuff…

C: Was it breakdance music?

E: Yeah. [grinning] And I didn’t really get it at the time, but I still have the record. I will always keep that one. [laughs]

It’s funny when you talk about DJ Hype and all the drum & bass—it takes me back—you know how when you are a teenager and music just makes you feel really cool? I went through a break-beat / drum & bass phase.

C: Yes! Still does today. There were a couple of kids in high school that were older than me that were definitely junglists, I just remember them outside smoking cigarettes with big caffeine pants on. I was like, “What’s going on? These guys are cool as hell!”

That inspired you?

C: Yeah. In America we had jungle sky, liquid sky, and DJ Soul Slinger. That was really cool music, to this day still, This Is Jungle Sky, Volume 2.

That’s cool. I find it can be hit and miss when you go back and return to music, sometimes it really was as good as you thought it was, and sometimes it’s not. So it’s nice when you can say: “This really was quality.”

C: Yeah. That stuff was the most futuristic, forward-thinking music.

Anything else you want to say about your new record?

C: Should probably mention crewlove.us—our collaborative crew website. We have a subscription based service where people can go and get all of the music, there are lots of perks there for members.

E: Crew love is true love.

 

Make sure to check out Soul Clap the album here, and the Remix EP Part 1 here!

02/07/17 Features

Seriously Deep

The David Axelrod Interview: Part 1

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Experience in E

 

The day after David Axelrod’s 2004 London concert, I met with him in his hotel lobby to discuss the show. I naively asked him if this was his first live concert. “I started doing concerts in 1970,” David told me, while wearing his trademark dark sunglasses and a cigarette in his lips. “The first concert I ever did was the Monterey Jazz Festival. Cannonball [Adderley] made me do that. Because my son had died.” At the tail end of his tenure at Capitol Records, Cannon had tapped Axelrod, along with Lalo Schifrin, William Fischer, and Joe Zawinul, to write a song each for a new record. But when his son died, Axe was too devastated to continue. Cannon, his closest friend, cancelled an upcoming tour of sixteen universities—which would have made him a large amount of money—and showed up at Axe’s home the next day to console him. But Cannon also pushed Axe to continue writing. “You have to do it,” he said. “You’re going to do this.” Axe shot back: “I can’t do it, I can’t even think.”

“Yeah, you will,” Cannon said. “You will think, because you’ll be doing it. You know: the show goes on. It really does.” Axe told his friend that he would give it a shot and see what came out. “What came out,” Axe said, “was ‘Tensity.’ ” Conducting that track in the studio was much different, he then told me, as busy Londoners and tourists passed through the lobby we sat in. It was much different than, say, in front of a crowd on that fateful day at Monterey. Axe was ready for rehearsal at 9:30 a.m., but no one else showed up. He soon found out that one of the busses got a flat tire and rehearsal was called off. Axe said he was thrown straight into the water, and when that happens, “You either swim or you drown. And that’s what happened. When I got up there I didn’t know what the fuck was going on for a while. I had been to so many concerts, I should have known. But my brain was like jelly up there. Everywhere I looked, when I went to cue, were strings! The brass and reeds are right in front of you. I couldn’t seem to remember that.”

But Axe conquered his nerves and made it through his twelve-minute track, finally commanding the orchestra to epic heights. “When it ended,” Axe recalled, “I walked over to Cannon and threw my arms around him. He said, ‘Turn around, fool, and look what the people think of your music.’ When I turned around, there were twelve thousand people going daffy. It was like last night, but add ten thousand people. I said, ‘Oh shit.’ At that time, 1970, I had a beard, my hair was down to here, and I was wearing a dashiki, a pair of Levis, and cowboy boots. And all I could do was—” Axe threw his fist in the air. “Power to the people.”

In London, thirty-four years later, nerves got to Axe again. A London tabloid ran a positive review of David’s show, but with a snide comment at the end that he “needed to work on his conducting skills.” Axe had announced to the crowd that he was ill, and he was—suffering from bouts of dizzy spells—but he was also visibly nervous. While lighting another cigarette, Axe tried to explain the nerve factor to me, and he touched on something that foreshadowed my interview with him more than a year later.

In 1977, at City University New York, Axe had a conducting gig and a graduate-student music seminar. The students kept asking him, “Why do you do this? Why do you do that?” Axe was patient. “I tried to explain as best as possible,” he recalled, “but I don’t have the faintest idea why I do it. If anybody ever really answers that, they’re lying. Or they’re only thinking technically. And I hate to do that. That’s why I get more nervous than most people do. When I write a page, that page is done; I never go back through it. I don’t want to see it. If I lose that edge—nervousness gives you an edge. That’s why I’m always scared when I walk into a recording studio. Always. The day that that doesn’t happen, then why do we even do it? Getting on stage is even worse. The day I lose that—when I can just wander out and say, ‘Okay, let’s go’—why do it?”

 

Lou Rawls, David Axelrod, and H. B. Barnum in Capitol Studios, Los Angeles. All Photos courtesy of Capitol Records Archives.

Lou Rawls, David Axelrod, and H. B. Barnum in Capitol Studios, Los Angeles. All Photos courtesy of Capitol Records Archives.

 

In the summer of 2005, we go to David Axelrod’s unassuming residence in North Hollywood. In the hallway, we say hello to his wife, Terri—of the famed “Terri’s Tune” from 1977’s Strange Ladies. When we meet Axe in his downstairs apartment, which he uses as his workspace, the piles of records lining the floor are a familiar and welcoming sight. We notice Sun Ra’s Lanquidity. “He’s not really out like people think,” Axe says. “He’s just a smart arranger.” Since the London concert, Axelrod has given up smoking and drinking, but today he still dons his sunglasses indoors.

Born in 1933, Axelrod grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where he hit the R&B clubs, beat a heroin habit, boxed, and just plain learned how to fight back. Interviewing Axelrod is a lot like stepping into the ring with him for twelve rounds, because his memories are his own, and the conversation is on his terms. Though Axe has stories for days and remembers all his relationships—the good ones, the ones that soured—he may not answer your question of why or how he made the music he made. But he knows he’d make the music again and wouldn’t let anyone get in the way. He’s had to put up with a lot of shit in his life from record execs, so he knows how to spar with the best of them. Axe has seen the inside of countless studios and produced literally countless records (no one has been able to complete his discography). And he’s found himself and his records mired in a consistent string of bad luck, from Earth Rot, which Capitol let die on the vine, to his 1990s albums, Requiem and Big Country, neither of which saw a timely release.

But it’s not a bitterness that you find in Axelrod, it’s a seriously deep wisdom that comes only from having lived it all. We look at each other, wondering just where to start. But it’s obvious. The most famous and most recorded rock-and-roll drummer of all time, New Orleans native Earl Palmer, supplied Axe with a classic funk shuffle (which Axe calls a “swamp beat”) that helped—we thought—define his sound when he was at Capitol Records. We decide we must talk to Axe about drums.

The bell dings.

 

§ § §

 

 

McCallum A bit_more_of_me 

 

Axe, do you remember who played drums on David McCallum’s “The Edge”?

Earl. No, Johnny Guerin. What a great drummer. When it was jazz oriented, I always used Johnny, never Earl, ’cause Earl can’t play on jazz.

I think it’s interesting that Johnny Guerin is playing drums on “The Edge.” We all assumed it was Earl Palmer.

Well, you know, I wouldn’t swear to that in a court of law, because I can’t remember. It just seemed to me that—it just sounds to me like Johnny.

He has that crispness.

Yes, and he’s faster than Earl.

He has a heavy funk backbeat.

Sure he does. Johnny could do anything. I would have used him a lot more, but we had a falling out. It had nothing to do with music. We got into an argument at a friend’s house, and I stopped using him for a while.

“The Edge” is the first song of yours that has a straight funk backbeat behind it.

What? That’s the first thing I ever used funk backbeat [on]? Are you crazy? Did you ever listen to any Jimmy Witherspoon albums? That I produced. Like, in the ’50s. What are you, crazy?

I should rephrase what I’m saying.

Yeah, please.

When I say “funk backbeat,” I’m referring to the funk that came about after James Brown “gave the drummer some” on “Cold Sweat.”

See, I don’t recall ever copying anything from James Brown.

No, “The Edge” came out in ’66, and it was more of a straight funk backbeat like Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman.” James’s band didn’t popularize the syncopated backbeat until ’67.

Jesse Price—an old drummer—was a drummer on several of Jimmy Witherspoon’s albums. He played great backbeat.

When you produced, was the backbeat always on your mind?

It wasn’t on my mind. It was simply there. Because that’s how people played it.

Did you notice a turning point, when the backbeat became much more syncopated?

I always wanted to see what would happen if you actually accented the strong beats instead of the weak beats. One and three are the strong beats in a bar of 4/4. Two and four are the backbeat. In classical music, you’ll hear one and three accented. So I was thinking about it [when producing] Jimmy Witherspoon. I was talking to Ben Webster—I loved Ben Webster; he’s immortal, he’s one of the immortals. And I went, “Ben, what do you think would happen if we accented one and three?” And he said, “What would happen? I’d think you were an idiot.” [laughs] Gosh, he was so huge. He’d put his arm around your shoulder and your knees would buckle. God, he was so great.

We’re obsessed with drums: it’s what drives all of this music—

Obsessed with drums?

It’s hard to explain—

I played drums. In the ’50s.

In a band?

No, but I played with Gerald Wiggins in clubs. I played a lot for Gerald, and I played for Dodo Marmarosa. He was a very legendary dude, ’cause he’s so mysterious. Hardly anyone knows who he is, but he could really play. He called Wig and said, “I need a drummer.” And Gerald said, “I got a kid who can play for ya, but he’s by far not the best drummer you ever heard. But he’ll keep time.” ’Cause I did. Whatever Gerald counted, that’s where the drums stayed. The problem with guys like Earl, Earl always has a tendency to raise the tempo from where it’s counted off at. I’d always stare at him and [motion with my hand] “Bring it back down.”

Lou Rawls’s “Lifetime Monologue” contains your most famous open drum break. Was it your idea to record Lou talking over drums for two minutes?

It’s just the way we figured it out. I don’t remember these things. Don’t you understand?

Maybe not the specifics, but was it your idea?

Everything that goes down on a Lou Rawls album was my idea to do, because my job was Lou. [Capitol Records A&R] Voyle Gilmore signed Lou. When I walked in to meet with Voyle, he had three Jimmy Witherspoon albums on his desk. He asked if I was familiar with Lou Rawls, and I said, “Yeah.” I had heard him with Onzy Matthews and his big band. [Rawls] was always being cut with big bands. It was stupid. They were really big-band arrangements. Who were they appealing to? What audience? [Gilmore] wanted to know could I make the records similar to Witherspoon. But maybe a little more commercial. I went, “You mean Motown?” And Voyle grinned and said, “Yeah.” If you listen close, the Lou Rawls records sound very similar to Motown. Let’s face it.

So if you had full responsibility, on that “Lifetime Monologue,” would you tell Earl, “Play that swamp beat you do for a minute and a half”?

I wouldn’t have to. He had a drum part.

So you wrote it out?

No, ’cause H. [B. Barnum] wrote it out.

To return to the evolution of the backbeat, did you notice any changes between 1966 and 1967?

To tell you the truth, no. It’s just backbeat, why would I notice it? Why would I pay attention to backbeat to begin with? There is so much going on a record date.

Because you played the drums! Because it obviously meant a lot to you to begin with.

So what? As long as the timing’s right.

Songs of Innocence would have been a different album if it weren’t for Earl’s funky drums.

Of course it would have. That was the whole idea! It’s Wagner with backbeat.

So the backbeat does matter?

 

Earl Palmer and David Axelrod

Earl Palmer and David Axelrod.

 

§ § §

 

We are already feeling winded, our kidneys absorbing the brunt of Axe’s body blows. He had us against the ropes for a minute, but we were able to get in the last shot. As we try to play the role of music critics and music historians and map the changing sounds of Black American music, Axe makes a point to tell us “the most important thing we’ll talk about all day.” He explains, “I started the first goddamn Black division at a major label. See, what happened was I wanted to quit, because I know I’m making good records with Lou [Rawls], and they’re not selling a fucking thing. We had no Black promotion people at all.” Axelrod explained his ideas to the executives, and the head of promotion thought about the idea: “He loved rhythm and blues. He was great for this reason: He said, ‘I don’t think the majors can ever get involved with rhythm and blues. However, try it.’ In two years, every fucking major had a Black division, and that was my idea,” Axe reminds us. “The first Black division at a major label. I started it! I want to get in the goddamn R&B Hall of Fame. R&B says I’m jazz; jazz says I’m rhythm and blues. I can’t get into anything.”

Axelrod started his music career nearly fifty years ago, after jazz pianist Gerald Wiggins taught Axelrod scales and how to read music. Axe landed a job at Motif Records, where he produced a slew of jazz records—at the same time freelancing at other labels, producing blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon for World Pacific. Axe soon moved on to Hi-Fi Records, where he got paid large and worked with exotica vibraphonist Arthur Lyman, with whom he achieved his first gold record.

Hi-Fi owner Richard Vaughn promised to create the Hi-Fi Jazz label if Axe could persuade Lyman’s wife to allow her husband to make Taboo Vol. 2. Axe succeeded—produced the album himself—and Hi-Fi Jazz was born. Then he took a chance by recording saxophonist Harold Land with his own money. But it paid off. The Fox proved that the West Coast could produce jazz with an edge, turning the jazz-versus-locality debate on its head. Ultimately, The Fox helped Axe forge a working relationship and a deep friendship with Cannonball Adderley, who, upon meeting Axe for the first time, said, “Ah ha! The Fox. I knew our paths would cross some day.” It was destiny.

A couple years after their first meeting, both men signed to Capitol Records, and Cannon asked to work exclusively with Axelrod. Capitol gave Axelrod a lot of freedom, because he had helped make the label a lot of money with Lou Rawls. He also convinced Capitol to sign actor David McCallum, telling his bosses that “he’d think of something” to do with the actor. Axe and arranger/composer H. B. Barnum let McCallum sketch a few themes for some songs, but made the albums largely on their own, covering current hits, as well as recording their own compositions like Axelrod’s “The Edge.”

 

§ § §

 

H. B. Barnum and David Axelrod

H. B. Barnum and David Axelrod.

 

 

Axe, did you arrange all the McCallum records?

No, H. did, but I produced them. It’s hard enough to produce, especially when I have to produce and arrange.

Is there a reason why?

Yes! Because it’s hard enough to produce. Let the arranger arrange it.

Did you and H. B. collaborate?

Oh yeah, I would always change arrangements, because H. throws in the kitchen sink. If H. has twenty-seven players, they’ll all be playing constantly.

H.B. wrote busy charts—that’s noticeable on a lot of your Capitol productions. But often on certain sections of these busy tracks, the instruments would just drop out, leaving space for just a couple instruments to stretch out. Was that your doing?

Yes.

Always let it breathe?

Always. And I still do. If you listen, you’ll hear it.

Interesting that other late-’60s producers and arrangers were into filling up every bit of open space in a song, and your productions are famous for focusing on that open space.

That’s Gil Evans’s influence. He blew my mind, just blew my mind. The year was 1964. The album was called Out of the Cool. It was the first album he did after he worked with Miles. This album changed everyone.

I was always so into jazz. It wasn’t until I got to Capitol that I had to listen to rock and roll. My listening life was seventy-five percent jazz and twenty-five percent rhythm and blues until I got to Capitol. In the ’50s, when all the guys in the record industry were talking about Presley, I would bluff my way through it. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, the guy’s incredible—incredible!” And I’d never heard him. He wasn’t important in my life.

So your production and arranging style wasn’t a response to that of, say, Phil Spector?

I never paid a lot of attention to him anyway. I wasn’t aware of him. What did I care what Phil Spector was doing? I didn’t listen to his records. And I never went for that “Wall of Sound” thing. Spector just booked the studio. It was Jack Nitzsche who did the arrangements. He was a weird dude, but I liked him a lot.

So you’re saying that the arranger should have gotten credit for developing the Wall of Sound?

I always thought the engineer at Gold Star [Studios] should have gotten about half the credit for that. He had a studio that would hold fourteen people, and in walks Spector with twenty people. You have to give credit to the engineer to make it possible to hear anything. And still have room to record the singers. He probably called Spector a fucking idiot.

We can’t print that, can we?

Why not? Is he paying your salary? Fuck him. When I was working at Hi-Fi Records, this chick’s mother who knew Rich Vaughn convinced Rich to send me to hear the chick’s band. So I went over to the house—a nice house on the Westside; they had a pool. And I heard the band, and they were nothing. And Phil Spector was in the band. Singing. I went back and told Rich, “They’re no good.”

So, when you produced with H. B.—

I didn’t produce with H. B., I produced. The producer should be the same thing as a director of movies. That’s how I’ve always looked at it. And that’s what it would have said [on the back of records] if it would have been anybody but Norman Granz—who was the first person to ever use the term “produced by.” Norman was very Euro-centric. He really was. And his idols, like [German director] Max Reinhardt, would always say “A Max Reinhardt Production” [on his film credits]. Not “Directed by Max Reinhardt,” no, “A Max Reinhardt Production”! So Norman Granz put on the back of his albums: “Produced by Norman Granz.”

Because the way I look at it, my job is to find a song—well, that’s a story. To get an arranger to write, and turn the song to a screenplay. The musicians, the singers, whatever, are your actors. The engineer is your cinematographer. You’re responsible for it all.

Producers at that time had to be musicians. The first thing Voyle Gilmore did, he was head of A&R, at the interview with me, was he handed me a score and he said, “Read me the chords of each bar.” And this is a transposed score of a large orchestra. And I looked down at it and I read him the chords. Otherwise, he would not have had me hired. Today they don’t know what middle C is. The head of A&R doesn’t know what middle C is.

[Capitol Records promotions man] Al Cory set me up with an appointment at Geffen, with the head of A&R, and we got on this subject, and he didn’t think it was important for producers to know music. And I went, “That’s the stupidest remark I’ve ever heard.” And I look at this guy and I said, “If you went over to that piano over there against the wall, and I had my .38 and I put it in your ear, and I told you play me middle C or your brains is going to be on the wall, your brains would end up on the wall.” He got up, walked over, opened the door, and slammed it shut. Then Cory, sitting behind his desk—we met in Cory’s office—[he says,] “That’s terrific, Axe. Remind me to set you up with other appointments. Next will be David, I’ll set you up with David…Geffen.” [laughs] He reaches to his little refrigerator and pulls out [a bottle of liquor]. He needed a drink so bad!

If the producer is like a director, would you rewrite the screenplay as you saw fit?

Sure. I’ve changed arrangements on Benny Carter, and, boy, that was hard. I’d known Benny since I was nineteen. Benny Carter, for God’s sake.

So does that mean “The Edge” might have been different had you not stepped in to arrange it differently?

Well, I don’t know. It’s quite possible when H. did it—I mean, I can’t remember this fucking session. Are you joking? I can’t remember yesterday. I can’t remember this morning!

If you wrote the tune, would you give it to him to chart?

Well, sure, why wouldn’t I? See, I’d write the song, and I would be so busy, because McCallum wasn’t the only guy that I was producing. You’re working on two, three albums at the same time.

The hardest part of doing those [McCallum] albums was listening to records that were on the chart, and looking at the chart, listening to the records, and going, “Which ones will still be up there when this album comes out?” That’s hard to do.

You’re talking about song selection?

Sure. We had all these 45s—had the librarian pick them up for me, because everyday he went and got records for all the producers. He’d come with stacks of 45s that were on the chart. And I’d go, “Let’s see, this is, like, eighty-three with a bullet, and will it still be climbing when McCallum comes out, or will it be dead and gone ’cause nobody would know it?”

To time it right.

And we did pretty damn good.

 

Lou Rawls and Axelrod

Lou Rawls and Axelrod.

 


 
Same thing with Lou Rawls?

Always. The hardest thing with Lou was: ninety percent of my time was taken up looking for material. The sessions are easy. Lou is one of the easiest artists to work with that I’ve ever known. Never argued over anything. I used to give him the songs: “Call me and give me the keys.” A week later, he’d call me up: “Okay, here’s the keys.”

He’d sing them and choose what key to record them in?

Well, he’d go with his accompanist, and his accompanist would find the key. Then H. would write [the charts], or I would write them. I hired Benny Golson to do an album. That was a great error. I love Benny; Benny’s a very sweet man. He was a tremendous alto player. The point was: he was out here for a few years trying to make it writing for TV shows, and I hired him as an arranger. We were doing a serious rhythm and blues album, and I sat with him and told him what I wanted. You can’t give him words. Orchestration is technical. That’s all it is. It’s technical. But arranging is an art form, it’s imagination. You can’t inhibit them. [So when I] come in there [to] do the album, this motherfucker sounds like Duke Ellington. I couldn’t believe it. I listened [to it] the first time, and said, “Benny, come over here. What the fuck—what is this? What are you doing? Where is the rhythm and blues? It’s a rhythm and blues album, Benny. If I wanted Duke Ellington, then I’d have called Duke Ellington. So then we got into an argument and all that shit. We never used it. So then I said, fuck it, and then I wrote the arrangement.

Which album was that?

[The Way It Was, the Way It Is]. That’s the one that has the track “Your Good Thing (Is About to End).” Isn’t that a great title for the last time that I ever recorded [Lou]? I never worked with him again until 2000 when we did “Loved Boy.”

 

§ § §

 

We ask Axe about Lou’s final recordings at Capitol; specifically, how Axe’s production and arranging on such tracks as “Gentle on My Mind” and “Season of the Witch” had evolved from his earlier work—how he brought in a lot of the nuances that were best heard in his solo work, such as the increasingly funkier bass lines and breakdowns. When we ask specifically about Lou covering Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” Axe answers, “I don’t specifically remember doing it, but I know we did it.” He then tells us a sidesplitting story about an argument he had with his then neighbor, Exorcist author William Blatty. The story is best left between the three of us, but it is important to note that that is the memory Axe associates with the song—and we are unable to provoke further answers to explain the evolution of his musical sound.

But we must remember that such moments of evolution are forever documented on each of his releases. In the years at Capitol Records, 1964 through 1970, Axelrod and Cannonball Adderley released around twenty records together. With their live albums, they redefined the sound of soul jazz, massively popularizing it in the process. From Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at “The Club” and Country Preacher to Music, You All, Axe and Cannon ingrained their music into the American consciousness—the crowd soul-clapping all the way.

 

§ § §

 

Cannonball Adderley

 

When you did Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!, was it your idea to do it “live”? It was recorded in a studio, right?

Yeah. But that’s a strange line there, because if you read the liner notes, you could take that two ways. It’s either cut at [Chicago DJ and promoter] E. Rodney Jones’s club, or it isn’t. The liner notes were written by the legal department.

Is this something we still can’t talk about?

No, I just said the legal department wrote the liner notes, and who am I to argue with the legal department?

You recorded at Studio B?

Cannon loved the way Lou Rawls Live! came out. You go to a Dean Martin session, you can’t applaud; it’d be rude. What I did was set it up so the band was on risers, Lou was onstage, and I turned it into a club. The art department did the lighting. Just like a club. It was a club. All these seats were set up.

So the Lou Rawls Live! album was the same?

It was the first one—where I got the idea.

And then Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! was so successful that Cannon continued to make these “live” records. Were some of them really live? Or were they all miked in the studio?

No, we did a few in clubs. The first thing I ever recorded with him [Live!, 1964] was at Shelly Manne’s. That was a great club, the Manne-Hole.

So Cannon fell in love with the live sound?

He couldn’t believe. And I said, “Cannon, the thing is it gives me the control.” We’re in a studio, so I have all this control.

Right, you don’t have much control in a real club.

Well, in a club you can’t stop and start again; people have paid to get in! Jazz clubs always charge at the door.

So when you’re doing this “live” in the studio, you could start over?

Yeah! I’d always give a speech, like with Lou, the very first one: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Club Capitol. Have a good time, there’s a lot of liquor, great food, and make as much noise as you want, but keep one thing in mind. This is a record date, so you may hear things two times, three times, four times, and I don’t want to hear any complaints. So have a great time, and go and have some drinks.” I did that same thing with Cannon. That was it.

It really fit Cannon’s style, because the funkier he got, the more popular he became.

[“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”] was the second biggest-selling instrumental in Capitol history. Nelson Riddle’s “Route 66” was the largest instrumental single in Capitol Record’s history.

Joe Zawinul’s use of the electric piano changed Cannon’s music tremendously.

It was a little Wurlitzer. Because Capitol used to have all these electric pianos against the wall. Cannon, though, [had] the first group to use the Rhodes. One day, we were getting ready to do the session. We were rehearsing, and this big guy, I mean a really big man, older, wearing bib overalls and a T-shirt, and he’s working on an electric piano. And I say, “Who is that?” [Cannon says,] “That’s [Harold] Rhodes.” “Rhodes is here?” “Yeah, he comes to us all the time.” “Jesus Christ, Cannon.” He says, “This is nothing, I had him come up to Seattle once to fix the piano.” Because at that time, not many people knew how to fix it. Cannon popularized the Fender Rhodes. It was Cannon’s move.

But you had a lot to do with these records.

Well, no shit! We never recorded anything that I didn’t like with Cannon, because I would have told him that I didn’t like a song.

 

§ § §

 

Song of Innocence

 

Though David Axelrod was well known throughout the music industry and had commanded respect at Capitol Records, gaining a large salary in the process, he stayed relatively behind the scenes. Even when Songs of Innocence was released, and he got the attention of critics and other artists and luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg, widespread fame was still lacking. His friends Frank Zappa and Quincy Jones gave Axe hell for never hiring a public relations rep. Why didn’t he? “It seemed to be going pretty good,” he says. He was able to get press in some major magazines, like Time, and he was always making good money. But Quincy let him know that it wasn’t enough. So what exactly did Quincy tell you? “Oh boy, what didn’t he? Oh, how I fucked up bad. I should have done PR. That went on for an hour and a half at Cannon’s, up in Cannon’s bar. Our wives are downstairs.”

Zappa lectured Axe for hours as well. He thought Axe should have gotten the credit for inventing jazz fusion, not Miles Davis and his Bitches Brew. Actually, 1968’s Songs of Innocence spawned the term “jazz fusion,” coined by a reviewer in Billboard. But Songs of Innocence could have been a very different album. When Axelrod composed his first solo album in his Encino mansion, surrounded by William Blake’s poems and etchings, he was planning to record the album as a vocal suite. And why not? Each song was based off of a different Blake poem, each with its own visceral images. What better way to prove that Blake “happens to be one of the hippest people that has ever walked this earth,” as Axelrod puts it, than to set those words to some of hippest music the world would ever hear? Plus, the precursor to Songs of Innocence, Axelrod’s Mass in F Minor, performed by the Electric Prunes, had found success as a vocal suite. Thus, he wrote the melodies for vocalists (four members from one of his more obscure Capitol productions, Pressure), but arranged an alternate instrumental version as well.

Even Axelrod doesn’t remember why, on June 4, 1968, he decided to scrap the vocals. The only remnants of his early vision for the album are the keyboard lines played by Don Randi and the inclusion of Pressure’s sight-reading guitarist, Pete Wyant, who is responsible for the guitar solos on the album. Neither album nor session notes for Pressure have been located to date, but Axelrod swears the album was released, even remembering promoting them at a Capitol Records convention in Las Vegas.

 

§ § §

 

Tell us about the vocalists you had pegged to record Songs of Innocence.

It was a group called Pressure. I made an album with them, and they could sing.

You made an album with them on Capitol—and it was released?

Yeah. They were good kids.

What kind of music did they record?

It was like a rock-and-roll/folk music.

Where were they from?

Denver, and I liked them a lot. Let’s just say that at that time they were as good as most groups that were out. It was a question of: one would hit and one wouldn’t. And I was thinking, “What should I do?” I used one of them to do the solos—Pete Wyant. It’s not Howard [Roberts]. That’s this kid Pete Wyant doing the guitar solos on Songs of Innocence.

What do you think it would have been like [with vocals]? The melody lines would have been the same; it would have just been in harmony. The parts were there.

These wouldn’t have been Earth Rot–style vocals? It would have been more like your two Electric Prunes records?

Well, yeah, you know what the melody is—melodies from Songs of Innocence. The melodies wouldn’t have changed. As a matter of fact, when I did it as an instrumental, I had Don Randi come in and play, and he was playing the vocal parts! The vocals would be exactly where the melody line is now on every song.

Wow. That would have been something different.

Oh, please don’t say that. Why would you say that? The whole album is “something different” anyway! [laughs]

If you had had the vocals, would you have tamed the strings? Would it have been different?

Nothing would have been different, except you’d be hearing vocals instead of the organ.

Would they have called it a fusion album if you would have done that? I mean, would they have really noticed your background instrumentation if there were vocals to focus on?

I don’t care who they are. Who are they?

Critics like Elliot Teagle.

Now he’s going to dictate what and how I’m going to record?

No, but in Billboard magazine, he acknowledged that you were doing something unique: “jazz fusion.” Songs of Innocence fused the elements of jazz, rock, and R&B. Had there been singing over the instrumentals, would people have recognized the fusion?

That’s true. I don’t know! I really don’t know. Would it have made a difference? We have jazz-fusion vocal albums, do we not?

Only after Songs of Innocence.

True, and only after Bitches Brew. That’s the album people think started jazz fusion, and, believe me, Miles was aware of Songs of Innocence.

I’m sure.

Oh, he was.

Did you talk to him about it?

No, Cannon did.

What did he say?

He just said that he got the album and he liked it. And to let me know. And Cannon did.

 

 

Howard Roberts.

Howard Roberts.

 

David, after you scrapped the idea of using Pressure as your vocalists, why did you keep Pete Wyant as guitarist on the record?

I wanted someone who could play, who could sight-read but didn’t necessarily have those incredible chops that Howard did. Simple.

You wanted a rougher sound?

Yeah. Mainly, Howard is so good. Geeze, Howard was just wonderful. Good God. And the Electric Prunes thing, Release of an Oath, the solo on “Holy Are You” is insane! I mean he’s playing so many notes. He’s not just playing notes to play notes; he’s saying something. The only guitar player I know of who Howard would have had a problem with was Wes Montgomery. Howard had two guitars—his jazz Gibson and his rock-and-roll Fender. Howard was beautiful. I’ve known Howard since 1954.

You produced his Spinning Wheel LP in 1970, but why didn’t you produce any of his earlier Capitol albums?

He was being produced by a man named Dave Cavanaugh. I loved him dearly. A terrific arranger, and then he became a terrific producer.

 

Howard Roberts Spinning Wheel

 

His Cavanaugh records were successful, weren’t they?

Yes. The thing was, I would do a record date [with Howard], and after the date, he and I would go and have drinks [and discuss my producing him]. And then one day he walks into my office: “Okay, it’s all set.” “Okay, it’s all set? How did you do this? You’re with Cavanaugh.” He said, “I went in there and I said, ‘Dave, we’ve been together a long time, but I think it would be good if I had a change. What do think I should do?’ And he said, ‘Axe. You have to go to Axe.’ ” And I said, “Very good, Howard!”

Clever.

I had a mystique.

Yes, Carol Kaye has said this about you.

Carol’s insane. You know Les Baxter? Very famous composer. He did all of those dates for American International Pictures. Well, one day Carol was [at] a date for him, and he said to her, “Carol, you’re out of tune.” And she looked at him and said, “How would you know?” [laughs] He’s the leader, for God’s sake! And I said to her, “If you’d ever said that to me, I would have slapped you so hard!” And she said, “I never would have said that to you.” I mean, that went around the city so fast. When I heard it, I couldn’t stop laughing. “How would you know!” Oh Jesus!

 

Carol Kaye

Carol Kaye.

 

§ § §

Song of Experience

 

Earth Rot

 

The timeline for Axelrod’s albums between 1968 and 1970, when he recorded his last Capitol album, Earth Rot, has always been muddy. With correct session info buried deep in Capitol’s and Warner Brothers’s archives, the general sketch was always assumed to be: Mass in F Minor, Songs of Innocence, Release of an Oath, Songs of Experience, and Earth Rot. The order made sense, and Axelrod’s musical progression seemed clear. Then, Axelrod threw a group of his core fans into a frenzy when he called photographer/historian (and close friend) B+ in 2000 to tell him of an acetate that his old manager, Lenny Poncher, had mailed to him. Axelrod laughs when he tells of B’s reaction to the music when it was first played to him: “ ‘Record me a cassette right now.’ I looked at him and said, ‘You’re out of your fucking mind.’ ” The worn acetate contained early sketches of instrumental beds that would later be fleshed out on Songs of Experience, and a suite of instrumental beds that had never seen the light of day. Axelrod’s Faust project, a forgotten glimmer the composer hadn’t mentioned in over thirty years, had resurfaced. And even the visionary Axelrod couldn’t have imagined what would come next.

 

§ § §

 

So it was Lenny Poncher’s idea to record Faust?

Lenny, he was the first manager I ever had, and the best. He handled Donovan. He had Traffic. He had the Electric Prunes. He had Engelbert Humperdinck, who probably made him more money than all of them! [Lenny’s] son came up with an idea to do an Electric Prunes album, based on the Faust play, and I said, “Okay. I don’t give a fuck what we’re doing. Just give me my money.” Jesus, you guys are holding me up at Faust? What year are we at? 1968? We’re going to have to do how many interviews?

Is that when you did that? 1968?

It never came out. The guy who was the producer at Reprise was fired. Lenny knew the guy that was the head of WEA [Warner/Elektra/Atlantic]. Usually, labels would never sell anything to nobody. But Mike Maitland sold Lenny Poncher the tracks. And we were going to go ahead with the album anyway. Lenny was going to pay for it.

He sold them the tracks that you guys had recorded for…

Yeah. We recorded the tracks for Faust, for Reprise.

Who are the musicians? Carol Kaye, Earl Palmer?

The same people that I used for Electric Prunes. And then we never [finished it] because something happened. Then, in 2000, Lenny found an acetate. And he sent it to me. I called B+ and said, “Listen to this. You’re going to crack up laughing.” He didn’t laugh at all. He said, “You better make a cassette and you better do it quick because that acetate isn’t going to take but a few more plays.” So I made a cassette. The next thing I know is he flies up, plays it for Josh [Davis], who then calls me and wants to make a record. I said, “Are you joking? It’s fucking from 1968? This is 2000. You must be nuts!” Then [Mo’ Wax owner James] Lavelle comes to see Josh, and Josh plays it for him, and [he] says, “Oh, we’ll put it on Mo’ Wax.”

So DJ Shadow was responsible for getting you associated with Mo’ Wax?

Actually, Terri said, “You have to play this for James.” I knew James; he had been coming around for a while.

Why?

Because I’m David Axelrod! Josh had played him my records, and I did [the remix of UNKLE’s] “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” which made him a lot of money. The next thing I knew, James was coming up with a deal to make the record.

Were you surprised?

I thought to myself, “This is going to be hard. I have to make it so it sounds like 2001. The twenty-first century.” And you know what? It does. When we were doing the [mix], James was there. All of a sudden, he looks at me and says, “How the hell did you make this sound so contemporary?” I looked at him and said, “It’s why you paid me.” I mean, how do you answer such a stupid question?

How did the project relate to Poncher’s son?

Lenny Poncher’s son had written the lyrics. And his son was very fucked up. His son was brilliant. He was studying up at Berkeley, and he had taken this acid, and it fucked him up for the rest of his life.

He was writing the lyrics that you were going to record?

That’s why Lenny wanted to do it so bad. Because his son had already written the lyrics.

And you don’t remember why he never put it out.

No. I don’t remember why we didn’t do it. I know we didn’t put it out—we had to put strings on it and whatnot.

But that would explain why he went the extra mile to buy the tapes of the sessions.

Well, sure.

So this is going to be an independent venture that you guys were going to do.

Very good, Eothen. No! What he was going to do.

So you were just along for the ride.

No, I was along for the money.

B+ told me that on that acetate there is a stripped-down version of one of the Songs of Experience tracks.

What?

You have the acetate here? With the labels on it?

Somewhere there. All it says on the labels is my name. Anyway, maybe that’s possible. Songs of Experience came out after we cut these tracks.

Lenny could have easily thrown it out. We’re so lucky he didn’t. What a find.

You know, that record was in the Guinness Book of World Records for the album that took the longest time to make—thirty-two years. And then Brian Wilson comes with Smile, which he started in 1966 and finished in 2004, and he knocked me out.

World record or not, that album is a monstrous achievement. I remember the sessions you did in Capitol like it was yesterday. It was amazing seeing you working with the same players you’d worked with on Songs of Innocence and your other Capitol albums—on a project they would have worked on had it been completed thirty-something years before.

You know, you walk in there, you’re with the horn players and the string players, and it’s like you’d just seen them yesterday.

 

§ § §

 

Ding. 

Round Two of this article, continuing with Fantasy Records and beyond, will appear in the coming days.

01/30/17 New Releases

Mythical remix by disco legend Walter Gibbons finally sees light of day

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Walter Gibbons at Blank Tapes. Courtesy François Kevorkian.

 

In a 1979 issue of Billboard magazine, Montreal was described as “the second most important disco market on the continent outside New York,” while one city resident at the time was quoted as saying “Every night in Montreal is like New Year’s Eve in New York.”

And thank God for Canada. Without that love of disco one of the greatest records of the era may never have seen the light of day.

In his “Disco Mix” column, from another 1979 issue of Billboard, Barry Lederer told us to watch out for two albums: Dancing With Melba and Dancing With Gladys. The former, a set of Melba Moore tracks remixed by Firehouse and Flamingo DJ Richie Rivera was released soon after. The latter—what is widely believed to have been a companion album featuring remixes of Gladys Knight tracks by another DJ, Walter Gibbons—never saw the light of day.

Walter Gibbons was a maverick music lover from Queens in New York who’d built a reputation not only as a formidable DJ but as a progressive, bold remixer, having been responsible for a number of pioneering remixes in the preceding years. He was held in high esteem by his peers, who would congregate to hear him play after hours at Galaxy 21 where he was the resident DJ for a period in the mid-1970s. And no one was a bigger fan of Gladys Knight than Walter.

Whether the project’s disappearance was due to an ongoing lawsuit between Gladys Knight and Buddah Records, or whether Walter simply didn’t complete the work, we’ll never know. DJs, and particularly Walter, were notorious for impulsive decisions, so abandoning a project half way through wasn’t unusual. Buddah was, allegedly, notoriously frugal when it came to handing out money, so it’s also possible that Walter didn’t complete the project for financial reasons. On the other hand, Gladys Knight and her label were locked in a legal battle after she signed to CBS while still under contract to Buddah. The case started in 1978 and she didn’t release on CBS until 1980 so it’s clear there was a period of inactivity for the artist.

What we do know is that Walter had recently returned to New York from a stereotypically impulsive couple of years in Seattle. He was ecstatic when he was invited by Art Kass, president of Buddah Records (or vice President Alan Lott, with Kass’s approval), to be involved in a project remixing one of his idols. I guess we’ll never know which songs were commissioned, or even completed. Two remixes were delivered, “Saved By the Grace of Your Love” and the sublime “It’s a Better Than Good Time.”

Originally an album-only track from The One and Only, “It’s a Better Than Good Time” was released as a single in 1978 by Buddah following glowing reviews in the disco press and popularity with DJs. Around this time Walter had become very religious, famously refusing to play, or work on, any music he felt didn’t contain the right message to reflect his beliefs. Thankfully for us, the positive uplifting theme of love in “It’s a Better Than Good Time” was deemed acceptable to Walter who turned in what many would agree is the greatest piece of work of his career.

Walter deconstructed the original six minute track, stretched it out to just over twelve and, in a moment of pure genius, teased with a full three and a half minutes free of bass guitar before introducing it in the second chorus. The key is not the introduction of the bass itself but the time it takes for that introduction. The unsuspecting listener (and dancer) is suddenly presented with a full sonic range, having been unaware of anything having been missing. And the effect of such a simple sounding trick is remarkable. Walter used the same technique in a few of his remixes, most notably on Love Committee’s “Law and Order,” but the effect was rarely as stunning as it is on this mix. The second half of the song is a music lover’s delight and a DJ’s dream. There’s light and shade, calm and intensity, all arranged to sheer perfection by an artist at the top of his game. Each section seems to be better than the last, with dramatic changes in feel that always seem to make perfect sense. It’s a relentless mix, but a mix that never becomes boring or tiresome.

Bob Blank, who engineered the remix for Walter at Blank Tapes (Studio A), recalls the session well. Surprisingly, what sounds like the result of a series of long, drawn out, through the night sessions was actually completed in one afternoon. Buddha was a new client for Blank Tapes and were a little reticent to provide a lot of time for the mix. It’s testament to Walter’s creative skill that such an accomplished mix could be produced in such a short space of time. While other DJs had a habit of sitting back and letting the engineers do the work, Walter was very hands on and was a master at cutting tape. Several passes were recorded to two-track which Walter then spent two hours editing together to create the final mix.

Walter Gibbons

Walter Gibbons and friends, Studio A, Blank Tapes. Courtesy Bob Blank.

 

Denise Chatman, who worked at Salsoul and was a close friend of Walter, vividly remembers his joy at completing the “Better Than Good Time” mix. They listened to it over and over, with Walter too excited to even eat the dinner Denise had prepared for him. A surprise visit from WBLS radio DJ Frankie Crocker and esteemed club DJ David Rodriguez confirmed Walter’s accomplishment. “You’ve done it this time Mary” said Rodriguez (who called everyone Mary).

Despite the unequivocal brilliance of Walter’s work, Buddah never got round to completing the album, or releasing Walter’s mix in any form. Except in Canada.

Disco collectors know only too well that records like Candido’s “Thousand Finger Man” or Walter Gibbons’ Fist O’ Funk remix only ever appeared on Canadian twelve-inches. A handful of Canadian record companies had rights to release U.S. material for the Canadian market. In the case of Buddah, the company in question was Quality Records, a label that had been in existence for some thirty years, and had recently moved into the disco market. Rumor has it that U.S. Buddah sent the wrong tapes north, that Quality originally planned to release the regular twelve-inch version of “It’s a Better Than Good Time.” Whether or not that is true is now anyone’s guess, but mistake or not, Quality Records gifted the world with what has become one of the most sought after disco records in existence.

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But there was a catch. Walter’s love of long, drawn out mixes didn’t chime with the label’s execs, who decided six minutes was enough and chopped out a large chunk of the track. Not only that though, whoever was responsible for the edit clearly didn’t have Walter’s knack for cutting tape. The cut was crude to say the least, resulting in one of the most brutal edits ever released on a record!

Walter wasn’t happy. Like any artist he hated his work being tampered with. He was a tenacious remixer and had been fortunate to have the likes of Salsoul’s Ken Cayre, as well as the majority of New York’s DJs, behind him when he turned in previous unconventional remixes. He knew what he was doing a lot more than any executive did, and proved it time and again with records that always hit the spot despite often rubbing the original artists the wrong way. Two sources used the word “pissed” to describe Walter’s reaction to the edited version. Spelling his name wrong on the label (“Gibbens”) was probably just adding insult to injury.

For years, the only way to hear Walter’s full mix has been from a handful of acetates that have survived for almost forty years. Walter was a regular customer at Frank Trimarco’s Sunshine Sound: a cutting facility Frank had set up to service the many record companies that shared his Broadway address. In more recent times he’d happened upon a lucrative, if dubious, sideline: cutting custom acetates for the city’s DJs. Creating unique edits had become fashionable, and pressing them on acetate, whether for personal use or to be sold under the counter at Frank’s office or the odd record shop like NY’s Downstairs, had become something of a status symbol. Walter had once owned his own cutting lathe, pressing custom discs on his Melting Pot label, but a fall-out with his then partner led him to Sunshine Sound, where he cut many special edits for his DJ sets.

Walter cut a handful of acetates of Better Than Good Time for himself and a select few DJs. With or without Walter’s blessing, it seems Frank Trimarco also pressed a few copies to sell. There are two separate releases – one with a Sunshine Sounds label, one with a simple hand typed white label. One DJ, who received a signed copy from Walter, received the Sunshine Sound labelled copy, which would lead us to believe that this was Walter’s batch, whereas the white label was Frank’s batch. Sunshine Sound printed lists of what they had for sale, but it seems that this track never made it to a list, with one customer recalling how he only bought a copy after hearing it in the Sunshine Sound office, leading us to assume that Frank Trimarco was selling copies behind Walter’s back (a position he was notorious for). It’s hard to say how many of these acetates left the Sunshine Sound office. By 1979, possibly due to Frank’s unscrupulous ways, Sunshine Sound had started to go off the boil a bit with the higher echelon of NY DJs. Add the fact that Walter’s mix wasn’t advertised for sale and it’s safe to assume that not many copies exist.

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The vast majority of Sunshine Sounds acetates were cut in mono, with a stereo option doubling the price of a cut. It may seem odd that Walter would cut such an estimable piece of work in mono rather than stereo, but, despite a rumor (only a rumor!) of a stereo acetate surfacing in recent times, the few known acetates that have survived have all been mono.

Fast forward to 2013 when a tape search at Sony uncovered something that most disco fans could only dream of. Much like Buddah in Canada, nobody at Sony was any the wiser to what this 12-minute version of “It’s a Better Than Good Time” actually was. The error on the Canadian release can at least be traced to these tapes as Walter’s name is spelled Gibbens on the box. But nobody was aware of the importance of the contents of that box. Thankfully, through various conversations, it was eventually ascertained that this was indeed Walter’s legendary lost masterpiece. I still live in hope that somewhere amongst those tapes resides the rest of the mythical Dancing with Gladys album (though Bob Blank doesn’t know of any other sessions). For now I’m simply overjoyed that we can finally enjoy this impeccable piece of work as Walter intended.

Walter Gibbons’ full twelve minute masterpiece is available as part of The Men in the Glass Booth released on BBE Records.

 

With special thanks to Denise Chatman, Bob Blank, Tom Moulton, Donald Cleveland, Tony Smith, Jay Negron, Robert Ouimet, Joan De Chirico-Ganpat, and Andrea Fiume.

01/27/17 Videos

Real Talk with Jansport J & Fatlip

A roundtable with the Covina producer and Pharcyde legend at Delicious Vinyl HQ

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When we filmed the Jansport J interview In the Court of the Covina King at the Delicious Vinyl HQ in Los Angeles, we were lucky enough to grab some time with Fatlip to chat with him and ‘Sport about music-making, clearing expectations during the creative process, and the early days of Pharcyde …

Enjoy!

Hosted & Edited by Alice Price-Styles

Filmed by Mekael Dawson

Special thanks to Jordan Lockett & Delicious Vinyl

Plus don’t forget that ‘Sport’s new album p h a r a o h is out today via blackwhitegoldville music/Fat Beats Distribution!

Find it on iTunes here

And Bandcamp/Cassette here

The Nite-Liters’ debut album reissued on paint-splash vinyl

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Nite-Liters

The Nite-Liters were formed by the great Harvey Fuqua in the early 1960s in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. As a member of the doo-wop group the Moonglows, Fuqua scored a hit with his monster tune “Sincerely” in 1954. He went on to produce acts at Motown, including Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye. After leaving Motown, he secured a production deal with RCA, where he brought back his old instrumental band the Nite-Liters and produced their 1970 eponymous debut album, which has recently been reissued by Nature Sounds. With partner Vernon Bullock, Fuqua combined two other bands with the Nite-Liters to create the mega-group the New Birth. The Nite-Liters would record and release five albums for RCA, and the New Birth eight.

We’re giving away a copy of this amazing album to one lucky winner. Email us at contest[at]waxpoetics{dot}com with the subject line NITE-LITERS PAINT-SPLASH. Please include your name and address in the email.