In the Ring: The David Axelrod Interview, Part 2
“Oh, the canvas is hard, the referee’s counting to ten.
Gotta get on my feet, and start in punching again.”
–Frank Polk, “In the Ring,” produced by David Axelrod
The glory days of the super-producer are far from over; it’s just that the landscape has drastically shifted into a postmodern apocalypse, metaphorically similar to the cover painting of Earth Rot. Is Timbaland the closest we have to a Norman Whitfield? Is Kanye West the new breed of arranger? Sure, some old-school producers like Arif Mardin are still able to make an impact—with a little help from Norah Jones. But where are the new, eccentric jazz producers who will leave their mark on several labels through decades of work? Where is the next Creed Taylor, Joel Dorn, Bob Shad, or Bob Thiele (the list goes on)? Is jazz no longer popular and creative because of the absence of these types of producers—or vice versa?
And, finally, will there ever be another David Axelrod? A producer who could do it all—compose, write lyrics, arrange, conduct, produce, A&R—and no matter the genre. Music has transformed so much since the 1970s that the idea of making music means something utterly different. For example, do sheet-music copyists still exist today like in the heyday of Axelrod’s career? Some things, however, never change. Producer/songwriters have always shaped pop and R&B acts—long before Maurice Starr’s New Kids on the Block. The Electric Prunes were little more than a name when you consider that Axelrod wrote the music and even stocked his version of the band with ringers. Just like Norman Whitfield’s Temptations were different from Smokey Robinson’s Temptations.
In the mid-’60s, Axelrod produced singer Tina Mason, a young, pretty girl who came straight from a stint at Disneyland. Young, pretty Disney girl (or boy) plus talented producer is still a widely cherished recipe. We should note that though there are some soulful gems to her name, Tina Mason didn’t achieve the same level of success as the Disney descendants that followed in her footsteps. And, basically, she was just another act that Axe would produce while at Capitol Records. They threw him every type of artist, and he would tackle them with the level of enthusiasm that his hefty salary demanded. Axe’s business was tight and his superiors never complained that his producing skills were to blame when an act didn’t make it beyond a few 45 RPM singles.
In every genre, Axe had either hit records or cult classics. Axe produced the innovative folk group the Three D’s, worked with easy-listening heavyweight David Rose, and had pop success with 1965’s Beach Blanket Bingo by Donna Loren (who herself had once appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club). Axelrod already had experience producing film stars from his time at Plaza Records, where he joined Mae West and Tuesday Weld in the studio, and of course would go on to produce another famous actor, David McCallum. Yet, Axelrod was just as comfortable producing a psych-rock group like Hardwater, whose guitarist, incidentally, was Peter Wyant—the same guitarist on Songs of Innocence, and whose group would have recorded vocals for the album had Axe decided to go that route. We erroneously reported in part one of our story that his group was called Pressure; but Axe recalled later that Pressure was an unrelated, non-Capitol project.
2006 marks Axelrod’s fiftieth year as a producer. After so many years, old sessions naturally blur together—and Axe did a lot of Capitol sessions. So many that it’s hard for us to move past Axelrod’s Capitol Records years. In fact, when we dance with him again in the fall of 2005, he jokes that we will never finish this article—we can’t even get out of the ’60s! It’s true; if you keep researching his output at Capitol, you keep coming up with more questions. Besides a few record experts and some northern-soul scenesters, most people haven’t even heard Axe’s obscure Capitol R&B sides—though cult classics they are: Frank Polk’s R&B/doo-wop, a young Billy Preston’s Sly Stone–assisted soul, and H.B. Barnum’s own vocal cuts (and we should mention again Barnum’s own importance in arranging much of Axelrod’s Capitol soul work).
So we have questions for days. But, as we noted, when you work with so many artists, on so many sessions, it’s inevitable you’ll forget some of them. When we ask about the sought-after soul-jazz record The Funky Organ-ization of Henry Cain!—with Earl Palmer on drums and Howard Robert on guitar—Axe replies, “I’m going to tell you something: I don’t even remember him.” The psych-rock group the Common People—on whose album credits Axelrod is thanked and is generally thought to have arranged the strings: “I don’t know who it is. Look, I was always putting something out. To begin with, my wife and I weren’t getting along at all, so I’d rather be at Capitol than home. I was always recording.” How about gritty soul singer Calvin Grayson? “Who’s Grayson? I have no idea who that is.” But, Axe, you gotta know Ernie Andrews… “Voyle wanted me to produce Ernie Andrews. It was almost as if, if someone was Black, I produced them. But that was because I had produced a lot of rhythm and blues when I got there.”
We hand him a copy of H. B. Barnum’s soulful vocal cut, “Happiness,” on 45.
David Axelrod: H. B. Barnum! Oh, I love it!
Wax Poetics: Ben Raleigh wrote “Happiness.” You two collaborated on Lou Rawls’s Grammy-winner, “Dead End Street.”
Ben Raleigh was one of the nicest and most talented guys I know—who wrote hit records in four decades.
Did Capitol put you two together?
No. He called me out of nowhere. I knew who he was though—this great lyricist. And I told him, “Wow, this is pretty weird. When I was in high school, [we would sing your] song.” He started laughing, because I’m singing it to him.
Was “Dead End Street” the first time you two worked together?
Yeah, but this was long before that. This was the first Lou Rawls single [1966’s “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing]. Hit. Smash hit, boy! A guy named David Linden wrote the music, and he had been drafted, and he was getting ready to go to basic training. He never got back from Vietnam. The guy had the number-one fucking rhythm and blues record, and then it crossed over and was in the top ten, and he never saw a dime. That’s so sad. It really is. He was so fucking young.
Ben died in the early ’90s, but he had a hit in the ’80s. That’s pretty fucking heavy: ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and the ’80s. Think of it.
You and Ben also wrote “Searchin’ for My Soul.” [we hand him the 45]
Oh, this was a good song.
Was H. B. Barnum the only one who recorded that song?
Yeah, I never gave it to anyone else. I should’ve given into to Lou—after H., not before, but after. Because I really thought H. could make it. H. is one of those guys that if you see him, he’ll knock you out. He used to play big rooms with a band. And he was an incredible entertainer. He had so much energy. He tapped; he did it all. You could never capture that on record, and that’s happened with so many people.
He’s not the greatest singer, but—
But he can really put a song across. When he did this at the Hilton downtown, he got a standing ovation. Now, I brought my boss, Voyle Gilmore, with his wife, and she leaped to her feet—and whatever she wanted, she got. And he also dug it, and he said, “Go ahead and make a record with him.” So I made an album [Pop and Ice Cream Sodas]. Didn’t do a fucking thing. And Marty Paich wrote the arrangements. Boy, he could write. Marty became very big-time.
So Capitol was never really behind Barnum’s singing career?
Well, what does behind mean? They did what they could.
So these were promoted as well as Lou Rawls would have been promoted?
As well as Lou Rawls would have been promoted before 1966. Once he became “Lou Rawls from Capitol,” naturally, he’s going to get promoted differently than “Lou Rawls.” I should have let Lou do [“Searchin’ for My Soul” as well]. And it would have been a hit.
What about “The Ali Shuffle” by the Brothers and Sisters?
H. and I wrote [it] on the phone at four o’clock in the morning. Then we went in and recorded it at ten in the morning. There was this late-night talk show and [Muhammad] Ali was on, and this is the first time he mentioned it—he said, “I’m gonna do the Ali Shuffle.” And I went, “Oh, holy shit, that’s a song.” So I started writing a lyric out, and it was four o’clock in the morning, and I called Barnum. I said, “Get ready. We’re going to do a song called ‘The Ali Shuffle.’ ” He said, “Yeah, I saw that show.” “I got some of the lyric already, so we’re gonna write the lyric and we’re gonna do the song.” He said, “Cool.” [we play “The Ali Shuffle” on Axe’s turntable] What the hell. It gave work to the musicians. I’ve always liked to write lyrics, you know? I’ve been writing poetry all my life. All my life.
Who were the Brothers and Sisters?
Oh, that was just Billy Barnum and Darlene Love [and some other friends]. And you know this was so much fun! So much fun! I’m not even sure if it was work!
How about Round Robin? [we hand him the mysterious “The Vulture” b/w “Ton of Joy”]
Oh my God, “The Vulture.” [Written by] Paul Hampton. What a terrific guy. Paul Hampton was one of the most talented guys, and he was so hot at this time. He was writing a lot of songs for different people. He was making it as an actor. Just a very talented guy, and I liked him a lot. He had great reefer always. Really, really phenomenal reefer. You would smoke his reefer, and you were so loaded, it was like what you’re doing. [points to B+ fidgeting on the couch]
You co-wrote Moorpark Intersection’s “Yesterday Holds On.” It’s a soft-psych song.
I don’t even know what this is.
It’s great actually. I can see why psych collectors love it.
You got to be fucking kidding me? Who the fuck is [co-writer/producer] Bob Padilla?
[we play the record]
You know, it’s a good song.
[the guitar breakdown plays]
A little Beatles-ish. But that’s a typical Axelrod break right there. See, you can’t keep your foot still. It is a good song. I write good songs.
Your thing was R&B and jazz, and you said you never really listened to rock and roll until you had to. So how were you able to turn around and write this song, and write the Electric Prunes records and the Pride project?
Well, what does one have to do with the other? It doesn’t make a difference; you just know.
You’re saying that if you can write a hit R&B song, then you should be able to step into a completely different genre, like psychedelic rock, and write a song?
Yeah, if you’re a professional.
Were you listening to psychedelic rock?
Yeah, I was listening to everything. When I got to Capitol, you had to listen to everything. For one thing, the top-ten records would come around the floor. Every week a box would come around with albums in it.
At home, were you listening to Strawberry Alarm Clock, Vanilla Fudge, and the popular psychedelic rock bands of the day?
Yeah. You’re goddamn right. You had to keep track of everything, because you’re going to have to make it some day. I always tried not to, but sometimes you have to. Sometimes Voyle Gilmore would just appoint.
We ran an interview with David Matthews in Issue 12 where he said that he arranged funk for James Brown and made his own psych album for the People label only because Brown asked him to.
You do it! You know what? That’s the name of the game.
But you wrote not one, but three psych albums.
Well, I don’t know what to say.
When we also take into consideration your psych-influenced Capitol solo records, it seems that psychedelic music was more than a job—that it was part of your mission.
I never looked at it as a mission.
I’m saying that you weren’t just copping a popular style. It seems that psychedelic music was something you did naturally.
Yes, there you are. I wrote what I heard in my head. I still do.
But your style of music changed drastically after 1970 when you left Capitol.
Things keep changing. Everything must change. What was going on [at the time] always has an influence on you. And, naturally, the psychedelic shit. I think what I was doing was making music that you could smoke a reefer to—for college students to get high to.
Did you ever do acid?
Oh yes—who the fuck didn’t? The ambience of the ’60s had a lot to do—
I was going to use the term zeitgeist, but it’s so pretentious. I’m sick of that shit. I don’t want to do that. I’m not going to use the term zeitgeist; it’s so… Fucking morons use zeitgeist. Current shit. Current shit will do instead of zeitgeist. As a matter of fact, it’s even hipper. Let’s try to get people to start saying current shit who would say zeitgeist. So next time you guys do an interview of somebody and they say, “Well, the zeitgeist…” and you go, “Do you mean current shit?”
I’ll put it in brackets from now on. While you were still at Capitol, you wrote the soft-psych record, Pride, which came out on Warner Brothers.
This belonged to [my manager] Joe Sutton. [It was] his label, which he had distributed through Warner Brothers. And he asked me to do this album, and I did it. I would do anything he asked me to do; I really was very fond of him.
Didn’t your son have something to do with this?
Yeah, I let [my older son] Michael write the lyrics.
The singer was Nooney Rickett, one of the guitarists from Love?
Yeah. Seriously a good guy. I honestly don’t know whatever happened to him. He was a very talented guy. It was written in three-part harmonies, and Nooney sang all three parts.
The rest are all session players?
How did you hook up with Nooney?
Nooney came to work with Capitol. They hired a bunch of young kids to do rock and roll. I remember Alan [Livingston], during one of the Thursday meetings booked with me and Voyle, saying, “Well, Voyle, if this is what you want to do, fine, but the largest manufacturer of toys in the world is Mattel; you will not find anybody ten years old on the board of directors at Mattel.” And that’s all Alan said. [Voyle] had hired these three young guys, and these were the guys who were supposed to know rock and roll. They were fired, all three of them. They never came up with nothing. Livingston finally got pissed off.
They were hired as A&Rs?
They were hired to produce records. I was really upset, because I had to do the firing. I don’t know why I was elected to fire everybody. I didn’t mind firing two of them, but Nooney—I thought he could have stayed.
§ § §
Axe’s manager, Joe Sutton, would later become vice president of MCA and hire Axelrod to produce at Decca Records, an MCA subsidiary. He would also play a role in the quashing of Axe’s solo record, The Auction. But not before Songs of Innocence would itself be tripped up. Depending on what day you ask Axelrod the question, however, you’ll find that Songs of Innocence either sold extremely well, or that it was deliberately held back by higher-ups at Capitol. The true story is probably somewhere in between—nearly forty years later, Songs of Innocence has proven to be the easiest of Axelrod’s Capitol trilogy to find in used record stores, but it is certainly no Mercy Mercy Mercy.
Didn’t you say once that Voyle Gilmore killed off Songs of Innocence and then later admitted it?
Yeah, in 1971 he told me.
He just got nervous.
That he’d lose you?
As a producer. I said, “That’s ridiculous. I love to produce records; it wouldn’t have done shit.” He says, “Well, you know, this was then, and you’re talking to me now.” I said, “Well, why couldn’t you have just called?”
So how’d he kill off the record?
By asking the head of promotions: “Don’t do anything with it.”
Nobody at Capitol would try to stop him?
Nobody would bother. Al Livingston might’ve gone: “Hey, is there anything going on here?” But Alan was very busy. Alan liked it; he liked Songs of Innocence. Everybody liked it at Capitol. It was very strange. Voyle liked it!
No one noticed that they stopped promoting it?
Listen, that place was so fucking busy that if a record didn’t make it, it didn’t make it. Who’s going to notice? We were coming out with, what, three hundred records a month? And that was just at Capitol. We had the Beatles, the Beach Boys…
Voyle could sleep at night knowing that he killed off your record?
Sure, why not? Records get killed off all the time. It was a way of playing politics. Old-time producers there—a lot of them didn’t get along with each other, and what they would do is fuck up each other’s records.
Like a game?
It was political mish-mash bullshit. But they did it, and that wasn’t fair.
Did you have the juice to kill off a record?
Did you kill any?
Would you have?
No, I would have gone to the person: “What is your fucking problem?” And I did that a few times. But fucking over the artist? That’s bullshit. That happened to me at Universal—that’s why The Auction was stopped, because of Joe Sutton.
You always said that you never wanted to be an artist, that your labels asked you make solo records, and that you didn’t hire PR people.
I already knew that I wanted to write. I already knew that before I got to Capitol. I was already writing. But I would not let that get in the way of me being a producer. It’s like Steve Allen—even with his big TV shows, whenever they asked him what he did for a living: “I’m a songwriter.” I’m a musician—I produce records.
If Voyle killed off Songs of Innocence, why did he let you do the follow-up album?
He was gone. He was fired. When Livingston started Capitol Industries, he made [Stanley] Gortikov president of Capitol Records, and everyone knew that it was the end of Voyle, because they could not stand each other. And sure enough, two days later, Voyle Gilmore was gone. It really pissed me off.
How did Songs of Experience come about?
There was a convention in Miami, and Gortikov and Carl, the head of A&R, were there. After the convention, they stayed around and went to different distributors and places. And when you’re in Miami at that time, you gotta go see a man named Henry Stone [of TK Records fame]. He was so powerful. He owned the biggest one-stop in the whole fuckin’ South. And he had this huge record store in Miami, so that’s where they met him. And he [points to an album on the wall and] goes to Gortikov: “This guy’s a genius. Why does he only have one album?” And the album was Songs of Innocence. About a week later, they’re back, and Carl comes in the office. He goes, “You gotta make another album for us.” I said, “Great.” That’s all he had to say. Songs of Experience came [about] because of Henry Stone.
Did you know Henry Stone? Did you talk to him?
No, I never met him in my fuckin’ life.
He just liked Songs of Innocence?
Yes. I should have called him in the ’70s when I got into massive trouble, and Henry Stone would have signed me in a minute. But I didn’t think of it.
§ § §
Let’s recap: We learned that Gortikov became president and fired Axelrod’s longtime boss, Voyle Gilmore, who had supposedly killed off SOI in fear of losing a great producer. Although Axe was upset that Voyle was gone, it allowed him to release his second album as a solo artist (with a push from Henry Stone no less!). Still more ironic, Gortikov offered Voyle’s A&R position to Axe, but Axe didn’t want the job. David Axelrod just wanted to produce records. However, with Alan Livingston and Voyle Gilmore both out of the picture, Axe would leave Capitol just two years later—but not before he’s offered the A&R job again.
What happened when you left Capitol?
In 1970, my contract was up. Livingston had left, he resigned, and Stan Gortikov became the president of Capitol Industries. He brought a guy named Sal Iannucci to become president of Capitol Records. And Iannucci offered me the vice presidency of A&R—this is after he’d been there a while. And I said, “No, I’m gonna leave.” And Cannon really got pissed, ’cause he had two more years to go there. I signed a deal with Capitol when I left that I would produce certain guys and one of them was Cannonball, ’cause Cannonball flat-out went past Iannuci and went to Gortikov and said, “I gotta work with Axe.”
One of those albums would be Cannon’s The Happy People, which was one of the few bossa nova/jazz records he did. Do you remember it?
Sure, how could I not remember this album? You know why he put this [photo of me] on there? When we went up there to okay the cover, the back was blank; I wasn’t there. But he dug [my] arrangement [of “The Happy People”] so much, and he just thought it was so great, that he’d made this deal—’cause the art department guys were all fuck-ups anyways, and they knew that they were gonna put this picture of me on there—and he [said], “Don’t let David know.” And he surprised me with that. I was very touched by that.
Percussionists Airto and King Errisson were on that record.
King Errisson—there’s a guy I love. We were the first guys to use him here in L.A.
They were also both on Soul of the Bible. [we hand David the record]
This is terrible. Just terrible. [Soul of the Zodiac] was good. This is terrible.
It’s one of Cannon’s rarest records.
It’s horrible; it should be rare. It should be dead.
Why don’t you like it?
Because it’s a terrible record. I told it to Cannon.
I like the music.
Well, the music is great.
What do you have a problem with? The spoken word?
Yes, it was beyond him.
You didn’t have a problem with the astrology record?
No, astrology was fine, and Rick [Holmes] was really into astrology. Then we gotta do a follow-up, because the first one was a smash hit. That thing was, like, the number-one R&B record in the fucking country. I had to be a little careful with [Holmes], because he was a big jazz disc jockey at KBCA, so, you know, that was the big jazz station, and what could you do? So I actually recorded him in mono, because he was stepping on the solos. I told him a hundred times, “Don’t talk during the solos.” It’s like he didn’t hear me.
It seems like Soul of the Bible has more solos and less talking than Soul of the Zodiac.
I [told] Cannon: “This is pathetic. I mean, I gotta tell you, I don’t even know if I want my name on this album. Because the album stinks.” I handed [the record] to Cannon like this [holds his nose with one hand and the album far away from him with the other], and [Cannon’s wife] Olga just broke up laughing. And he did too; Cannon broke up. I just went, “Here.”
§ § §
During his post-Capitol transition, Axelrod recorded one album for RCA. It was a version of Handel’s Messiah that label honchos, ever lacking subtlety, titled David Axelrod’s Rock Interpretation of Handel’s Messiah.
The Rock Messiah came out in 1971.
It’s not the Rock Messiah; it’s just The Messiah. That first version of that cover—I saw it, and I chased the producer around a desk. And he got out the door, and when I got out, he was gone!
You literally chased him?
I literally chased him. I was gonna beat him up.
Was it your choice to do Messiah?
No. It was the guy who was the head of A&R in New York. The vice president of A&R at RCA. He said, “Get a hold of David Axelrod and see if he’ll do his version of The Messiah.” I thought it was a damn good idea. But the cover. Oh, Christ, the fucking cover. But BMG has rereleased it.
And they changed the title for you?
Yes. Not for me. I’m so glad somebody did. It’s called The Messiah. But I really liked that photo [on the back cover], because it’s real. I was working. I said, “Look, I can’t stop [for a photo shoot].” Because I was really behind.
§ § §
In 1972, Joe Sutton was hired as MCA’s executive vice president of the music division, overseeing Decca, Kapp, and Uni Records. Axelrod was hired to Decca and states that he worked on so many records that the label had to set him up with his own on-site bungalow. But for all of our searching, we’ve only turned up a couple of 45s on Decca, as well as a 45 he produced for Big Black on Uni. While Axe was asked to do Big Black’s arrangements, he ended up farming it out, which got him into trouble. “How dare you farm something out. I hired you,” boss Russ Regan told him. “Russ knew right off the bat—when he heard it,” Axe says. “And I couldn’t argue with him; he was correct. I didn’t have [any] business to farm it out.” While the record is still a funky treat, Big Black was nonetheless dropped from the label.
On the Decca side of things, “Run for Daylight,” which was tacked onto an otherwise forgettable comedy album, has a feel similar to Axelrod’s funky work on The Auction, his only solo release on Decca. “I asked for a lot of money for [‘Run for Daylight’],” Axe says, “because the guys who wrote it, [Jay] Tarses and [Tom] Patchett, wrote a lot of TV shows.” He reminisces further: “H.B. is the singer and I was the arranger. The thing that was really weird was I was really pissed off when I was writing the song—” He suddenly returns to the tragic story of The Auction—a funky opus based on African American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s writings. Axe’s memories bring him back to that moment in time where he saw his future axed by sparring music executives. He pauses. “See, it’s times like this that I could really use a cigarette. This is when you think about having a cigarette. Damn it.”
This is another example of Axelrod’s memories being his own. Often, we ask about the music on a certain record, a certain session, and Axe can’t recall the details. But he always remembers the politics of the music business surrounding the particular record. When we try to ask him about the music on The Auction, an album that often shows up sealed—a sign of a record never getting a true release—we instead find out how it suffered its sad fate.
You wrote unusual vocals for Earth Rot, but The Auction is unique as well.
That’s the greatest album I’ve ever done in my life. They had so many orders in the first week; it would have changed my life. It was gonna be a smash-hit album. Joe Sutton, who had signed me, decided he wanted to be the [next] president of the label. What a time to cheese off the president of the label. “Couldn’t you have waited, you stupid fuck?” Because every distributor got these faxes—they had these Telex machines at the distribution centers—“Do not release David Axelrod’s The Auction without my permission.” It was signed [by president] Mike Maitland. He could not let Joe Sutton have a big hit while Joe Sutton and he were duking it out to be president of MCA.
The 45 single, “The Leading Citizen,” was released.
That was somebody. That was Nixon. “The Leading Citizen” was Richard Nixon.
That’s who you’re talking about?
Sure. Read the lyric. It was the first time I decided to write lyrics professionally. Now, Cannon had called [actor] Brock Peters, and Brock Peters was originally going to do that narration thing on the track, “The Auction.” But when Cannon heard the track, and he’s reading the lyrics, he suddenly goes, “Fuck this!” He calls Brock Peters [and tells him] not to show up, because he wanted to read it, which was great.
§ § §
When we bring up the Decca B-side “The Lost Lament” by name, Axelrod can’t remember it. He explains that it was standard operating procedure for the label to release a film theme as a single (“Theme from Gumshoe” on the A-side) and let him put an original on the flip. “I was like the staff arranger. They would come up with a movie, and they would want an instrumental version of it. They never gave a fuck if it sold or not. The promotion department gets airplay and a mention of the movie. That was the whole idea!” We want to play the track for him, but he’s having none of it. After a brief tussle, we defiantly make our way to his turntable with “The Lost Lament” in hand. “I remember this,” he says as the first strings come in. “I reused this. It’s called ‘My Family’ [from Heavy Axe on Fantasy Records]. That’s this.”
“I had a great time at Fantasy,” Axe says. “I lived there, because I was doing so much work. Fantasy was unbelievable.” Over a decade before, when Axe worked at Hi-Fi Records, Ralph Kaffel had owned California Records Distributors, which distributed all the independent jazz labels. Axe would bring over some Hi-Fi records—like Arthur Lyman—and trade him for some jazz titles, growing quite the record collection in the process. It was the start of a friendship that would last for years. And as Kaffel was now president of Fantasy Records, Axelrod found a new home. In 1973, both he and Cannon settled into their new digs. Basically continuing where they left off at Capitol, they recorded Inside Straight, a funky session in the vein of the famous “live” Capitol records (swap Joe Zawinul for George Duke), and they even knocked out another Rick Holmes astrology record, Love, Sex, and the Zodiac.
Axe made some of his greatest records at Fantasy, including his aforementioned 1974 solo album, Heavy Axe, which he says sold well. Axe updated his sound tremendously on that album, swapping out the bass for a Moog, played by a blind man with perfect pitch—Rudy Copeland, who is Solomon Burke’s current organist.
You started out producing Cannon, and then you co-produced his later Capitol records together…
And then he started producing me. Heavy Axe is not a joint-production. It says “Produced by Julian Cannonball Adderley.” He was the producer.
Did he help pick songs?
He picked the songs. I didn’t particularly want to do [Carly Simon’s] “You’re So Vain.” I didn’t know how I was gonna do that. That was really a hard thing to do, and I ended up winning a—there used to be a magazine called Record World, and they made “You’re So Vain” the “Cover Record of the Year,” which I thought was really cute. I didn’t want to do it, and told Cannon: “ ‘You’re So Vain’? Jesus.” I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do with it.
You did it pretty straightforward.
Rhythm and blues—singer was Stephanie Spruill.
She sang on “Space Spiritual” from Soul of the Bible.
A terrific singer. She made a ton of money doing commercials.
Rudy Copeland plays all the bass lines on a Moog.
See, I wrote out a bass line; my copyist was so stupid, he copied it—and he knew Rudy. The engineer was so out to lunch, he sets up a music stand with a light on it. Rudy Copeland is blind! I’m writing a part for him, the copyist is copying it, the engineer is setting up a fuckin’ music stand—for this guy that’s blind. What a bunch of morons. Jesus, can you picture three fucking morons?
How’d he learn the part?
Because he could hear; he was just great. He could hear what was going on. I had him right next to me; when I wanted him to play fills, I’d hit his ankle twice with my foot. Now there were two great saxophone players [at the session], Jackie Kelso and Bill Green, and they were convinced that Rudy could see. And Jackie Kelso said, “Axe, I don’t even wanna discuss this. I know he can see.” And then they kept bringing it up: “Well, how come you got a music stand?” I said, “Because we’re idiots.” And Jackie said, “Yeah, right, you’re an idiot.” He didn’t know that we were idiots.
When did you get the idea use a Moog instead of an electric bass?
I think that was Cannon’s idea. I made a mistake, though. I think it would have been hipper if I used a bass and a synthesizer together. It would have been a motherfucker. It’s pretty hip as it is, but it would have been absolutely incredible if it would have been a bass and a synthesizer.
§ § §
At Fantasy, Axelrod also worked with Cannon’s brother, Nat, arranging strings on the heart-wrenching “Quit It.” “It’s one of the best string arrangements I think I ever did,” Axe says. He got that soulful song from Caiphus Semenya when he arranged the strings for a non-Fantasy release by African vocalist Miriam Makeba—with the Crusaders filling out the rhythm section. Axe also teamed up with Johnny “Guitar” Watson on Love Rhymes, a great soul album by Betty Everett, who Axe calls “one of the weirdest chicks of all time.” He also made a funky album with organist Merl Saunders, one with sax elder Gene “Jug” Ammons, and two with Funk Inc.
In a previous interview, Axelrod had talked about bringing in ringers to record both Funk Inc. albums—and that of course caused some controversy. Axe clarifies for us that he definitely used able keyboardist Bobby Watley and tenor player Gene Barr. “[Barr] was so good that Cannon and I were going to record him,” Axe recalls. We were curious about the change in sound—from heavier funk to melodic R&B—in the two Funk Inc. records that Axe produced. But, again, what he recalls is the politics of the biz.
Axe recounts how Fantasy president Ralph Kaffel let Priced to Sell go away quietly. “It was the Billboard R&B Pick of the Week,” Axe says, “but Ralph didn’t give a shit. He’s a very cold dude when he wants to be.” It all started with pianist Hampton Hawes’s Northern Windows, when Kaffel complained to Axe about using a horn and woodwind section, because of the high copying and arranging bills. Axe challenged him on the spot. He told him to bring in all the vice presidents of the label to listen to the album. If they didn’t like it, he’d pay the copying bills himself, he’d forego his own arranging bill, and he’d pay the band himself. “They went daffy over it. They loved it,” Axe recalls. One man even yelled, “Yes!” as the first track started to play. “They were all going daffy over it, and I saw Ralph whisper to this chick; she leaves [and] comes back with a check.”
Axe got paid, but made an enemy. “He never hired me again.” And the records that were ready for release were affected as well. In 1974, according to Axe, Funk Inc.’s Priced to Sell and Hawes’s Northern Windows were the Pick of the Week in R&B and jazz respectively. “I was very proud of that,” Axe says. They were slated for greatness but instead left for dead. Still, Northern Windows set a new bar. Its sound was clearly superior to Axelrod’s work at Capitol studios. Axe admits that it was “the best rhythm sound I’ve ever had.” Bassist Carol Kaye and drummer Spider Webb never sounded better.
You credit Fantasy engineer Eddie Harris with achieving the great sound of Northern Windows. You said: “He made the bass drum sound like it was coming through the floor.” The engineering on most of the Capitol recordings can’t compare.
Believe it or not, the equipment at Fantasy was better than the equipment at Capitol in the studios.
Definitely. For some reason, [Alan] Livingston, as great as he was, had no interest whatsoever in the engineering department. I’m going to tell you something: Lou Rawls Live was taped directly to 2-track. We were probably the last studio in the world to have a 2-track goddamn board. Luckily, I got started in life when I did, so that was not a problem.
Did you ever work with the engineer or did you leave him alone and let him do his job?
Well, I’d tell him what I’d want.
Would try to shape your own sound?
I always would. You cue the engineer.
What about actually miking instruments to get a certain sound?
No, the engineer does that. If I don’t like the sound, then I do change it. Just tell them all how I wanted it to be. You don’t have to do that if you have a really good engineer. They know how to do it, because everybody does their job. What I tell them is the sound I want.
So you never tried to shape the sound specifically? You never thought about things in those terms as a producer?
No. All I know is: what I wanted to hear, I better hear. If not, then we would work on it so it sounded like I wanted it to sound.
You had it in your head and you were going for that?
Exactly. You can see that if you look at my scores. A lot of the stuff that is done in the remix is written at the bottom of the score. While I’m working, I’m already figuring out what I want to do with the remix. I mean, I can operate the board, or I used to be able to.
The “remix” being the final mix after the recording. Did you ever feel you had a particular sound?
Of my own? That’s a strange question, because I don’t know. I hear people tell me that I do, but I think it’s a musical sound, and they’re confusing a musical sound with a sound sound.
Gene Ammons’s record, Brasswind, is credited to producer Orrin Keepnews, but it sounds like your record. Do you feel that you really produced it?
Well, he did, but it would have been better if he had put down “Supervised by,” because he doesn’t really produce anything, ever. He never told me anything. So I don’t know why we are doing takes, because there were three or four takes of everything, and he never came out to tell me anything.
He was in the booth and you’re doing your thing?
Yeah. I was conducting. I’m going, “These arrangements are perfect; he’s not having to change anything.” I got to admit, we were remixing when [the back cover art] came in to be okayed by Orrin, and I said, “Jesus, Orrin, I’ve never even given myself a credit that big.” I never have! Look at how big that credit is, that arranging credit. “Arranged and conducted by David Axelrod.”
It’s above Orrin’s name, too.
Jug loved that album. He told me, “Your two tunes are better than mine. I want you to start writing now, four originals, I’ll write two, and we’ll let Orrin come up with a couple of things.” He didn’t know he was dying. I didn’t either. I said, “What are you doing in a hospital?” He was in Tulsa. He said, “I don’t know—strangest thing happened: Today, this phone book hit me in the arm. It must have been at an angle, ’cause it broke my arm.” He had bone cancer, and it had already taken over his whole body, and three weeks later he was dead. I told him what had happened [with Kaffel], and I said, “I don’t think that I could do this, Jug. I would love to do it.” He said, “Don’t worry about it. Just start writing the songs and arranging them, because you’re gonna do it.” I said, “Oh, okay.” [laughs] He said, “I can deal with Ralph. Cannon may not be able to, but I can.” So there was something—some way with Jug—to do with something with Ralph that Cannonball couldn’t.
Wasn’t Cannon important enough to Fantasy Records that he could bring you back into the fold?
Cannon was never really confrontational.
You didn’t get to work on Cannon’s last record.
Yeah, that was called Phenix. He got really upset. The last record he ever worked on was Seriously Deep, and he got so drunk on that session—he was co-producing with Jimmy Bowen, who’s a brilliant producer—and Bowen says to me, “Oh, great, I don’t know what to do; this guy’s really bombed out of his brain.” And what happened was, when he heard the rhythm I was using, that’s what he wanted on [Phenix], but Ralph would not let me in the building. I was persona non grata. How’s that? Does that go with zeitgeist? I was not wanted as a person at Fantasy.
§ § §
About a year after Axe’s split from Fantasy, on August 8, 1975, Cannonball Adderley died. Two years after that, Ralph Kaffel’s longtime business partner, Jack Lewerke, died. When Axe called Kaffel—for the first time in three years—to offer his condolences, the two made amends. “No use holding grudges,” Axe says casually. Kaffel told him that he finally understood how Axe felt when Cannon died. “It’s amazing how [Ralph and I] became so close again. I knew him in 1957—that’s why I say again.” For Axe’s 2001 self-titled album on Mo’ Wax, he penned the song “Fantasy for Ralph” as a tribute to his old friend.
On the wall in Axelrod’s apartment hangs a photo of Cannonball Adderley. In the promo shot taken shortly before his death from a stroke, Cannon—with his long beard beginning to gray and his eyes meditative—looks like a wise man, a magus, a guru. He watches over Axe like a saint. “Because he was a saint,” Axe says, getting emotional. “Cannon should be canonized. Guy had a heart that was—phew! Jesus.”
Axe and Cannon worked together one final time before his death in 1975. After Fantasy Records, Jimmy Bowen got him a deal with Polygram for a funky jazz record. And Axe made a monster—Seriously Deep—with the help of beatsmith Ndugu Chancler, who Axe felt could have become “another Elvin Jones.” However, as we know all too well, making a great record isn’t enough. “They wouldn’t let anything happen with that album. Jimmy Bowen resigned as head of Polygram for the West Coast, so they couldn’t let anything happen to that record. I don’t know how I get caught in these traps with these presidents and vice presidents and executive vice presidents in charge of the West Coast…”
Previously, you told us how Cannon helped you get over your son Scott’s death, but you never told us how you got over Cannon’s death.
Who said I did? And I never got over my son’s [death]. I think about my son every day. And how I fucked him up. That could have been prevented. I was too busy making music at Capitol. I was always at Capitol.
You’re not one to talk about regret. Are you saying that you regret spending so much time at Capitol, because you weren’t there for your son?
I wasn’t there for him at a certain age—when he needed me. Because all kids need a father at a certain age, and I wasn’t there. What are you gonna do? That’s life.
Have you ever forgiven yourself?
No. There isn’t a day that’s gone by since he’s died that I’ve not thought about Scott. I’ll bet you Paul Newman thinks of his Scott every fucking day. I think he had a drug problem. You could print that. You should. I lost Scott. I think about him every day. Paul Newman lost his Scott, and he thinks of Scott every day. And he’s got everything—he holds the fucking world. He’s got millions of dollars, but does it help him with the son that he’s lost? And the answer is no.
Did Cannon’s death have anything to do with the fact that you didn’t do as much music from 1975 on?
I didn’t want to.
Was it a semi-retirement?
No, how could I retire? I was in my forties.
You had had a lifetime of experience.
So what? I’d had a lifetime of experience since I was thirteen [when] my father died. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to work that much, because there was some other shit I wanted to get into. I started getting more involved with twelve-tone composition—with [the work of Arnold] Schoenberg and [Alban] Berg and [Anton] Webern—and I really started working with that. And that’s a lot of work; it’s a lot of concentration.
You had enough money saved up that you didn’t have to work as much?
That’s true. I had to go back to work in 1978, because I got married to Terri.
That’s when you wrote “Terri’s Tune” for Strange Ladies.
Terri… We’ve been married twenty-eight years.
Strange Ladies and Marchin’, both on MCA, were your last solo records in the 1970s. Did they do pretty well?
Strange Ladies did. Marchin’…I don’t know how it did. I’m not in love with that album. Sometimes you get with people—you see, managers—and they give you input, and even though you try not to pay attention to it, it’s still there. And it fucks you up. The best music is written when they leave you alone. When everybody leaves you alone, and you just write the music. I never really bore down on that record. They just wanted it to be more commercial than I wanted it to be, because I don’t think that way when it comes to my records—what I hear is what I want to write. They meant well, let’s put it that way. At that time, we were getting along very good and we had some good times, but the minute somebody starts saying that, it gets stuck in your head. The other managers do that too. Lenny Poncher once said that I was the most mismanaged artist he’d ever known. [laughs] He said I bounced from one disaster to another. And I said, “It seems to be true, doesn’t it?”
What exactly did they say to you about Marchin’?
They viewed the album as one thing, and I wanted to do something else. And it came out—it wasn’t either.
You mentioned once that you could put a disco beat under the song “Marchin’.”
Sure, in a minute. “Marchin’ ” could have been turned into a disco track so fast. But I couldn’t do that. How could I do that?
When did that come up?
That happened in the studio. We were listening to a playback, and Earl [Palmer] said, “You know, I can make that disco in two seconds—on the drums.” He wanted to see what I would say. I said, “No, I don’t think so. Let’s just leave it.” And he put his hands on each side of my head and kissed me on the forehead.
Earl Palmer co-produced both Strange Ladies and Marchin’.
You always want a musician [in the booth], someone that can be objective, because it’s always hard to be objective about your own shit. Like on the Mo’ Wax album, I used H. B. Barnum in the booth, and H. comes up with good ideas. I remember on one of the tracks on Strange Ladies, Earl said, “You always write very dark anyway, but we can get the trumpets to go up an octave. Why don’t we just try it and see what it sounds like.” So I said, “Okay.” And it’s true: I do like it down. I like dark—and strange. So after we did the take, I came into the booth, and he goes, “Now, listen to this. Isn’t that better?” And it was.
In 1976, you wrote the music to the film—coincidentally titled—Cannonball. Why didn’t you do more soundtrack work?
I never wanted to.
Did people approach you?
Oh yeah. It’s hard—to me—it’s so hard to do a three-minute cue. I could turn that three-minute cue into a thirty-minute piece of music. It’s just difficult.
It always seemed to me that someone would make a movie around your music.
I don’t know. That’s been said.
Your music is so visceral.
Well, I love film. Film is a very big influence on me. The films that I see and the books that I read are a big influence on me. Probably just as much as the music that I hear.
§ § §
While, unfortunately, there was never a soundtrack released for Cannonball (the pre–Cannonball Run road-race film starring David Carradine), there is another popular break-laden soundtrack that Axe had his hand in. While we were looking through Axe’s record collection, we found an acetate of Lalo Schifrin’s Kelly’s Heroes. It has been whispered about that Axe was involved, but as he had no credit on the album, it couldn’t be confirmed. Axelrod speaks very highly of Lalo, and Axe is extremely loyal, so he was hesitant to go on record about Kelly’s Heroes unless he had Lalo’s permission. So we subsequently spoke to Lalo, and he explained that he had asked Axelrod—who he considered an “expert in rock”—to arrange some of the songs, in order to give the album a certain sound. Axe’s touch is immediately discernable on “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” from the kazoo intro (Axe’s idea), to the bass-and-drum breakdown, and the electric-guitar solos. “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” the other public-domain track, is also unmistakably an Axelrod song, recalling the mellow electric-piano vibe of Heavy Axe. “Isn’t that a hip fucking arrangement?” Axe says. We can now add the Kelly’s Heroes soundtrack to David Axelrod’s discography.
Axelrod’s music has appeared onscreen uncredited a few other times as well. For some extra cash, he wrote background cues for Capitol’s European division but never knew what came of them. They were likely used in commercials and television shows, and perhaps even a French film, but it’s difficult to confirm. Axe also wrote music for Sesame Street in the early days of the program, as he was friends with Loretta Long, who played the famous Susan character. Hearing some of the incredibly funky bits and pieces from the early shows intrigues us—but some mysteries are better left unsolved. It should be noted that the “Axlerod” credit that appears on many of the Sesame Street albums is a different composer.
Though he had over two decades worth of work under his belt, Axelrod’s phone stopped ringing soon after the release of Marchin’ in 1980. Tragically, his devoted wife, Terri, suffered a horrific car crash in 1986 and suffered extreme trauma to the brain. Early diagnosis predicted that she might never recover. Axe’s old friend Quincy Jones stepped in and offered the services of his personal neurologist, who proffered a contradictory hypothesis after reviewing Terri’s charts: “They don’t know what they’re talking about,” is how Axe bluntly remembers it. Terri did recover, but she had to undergo a period of intense therapy. “I did her rehabilitation,” Axe remembers. “Luckily, the rehabilitation company sent a guy over who knew Songs of Innocence. But there was a lot of stuff he hadn’t heard—like stuff I did on Fantasy. I played music for him. He loved it—and turned out to be a terrific guy. He said, ‘We can do her therapy for six weeks. And then Medi-Cal takes over. They’re no good.’ He said, ‘You can do this. If you can write this music I’ve been hearing, you can do this. Watch what I do. You’re a bright guy; you can get it.’ And I did.” Axelrod worked with Terri for months, from the point when she couldn’t even look at a set of stairs, until she could function completely on her own.
On the surface, or in short conversation, Axe can appear abrasive and confrontational. But Carol Kaye said it well when she stated, “Any time you meet a gruff guy that has got a good sense of humor, you know he’s a good person. [Axelrod] was beautiful.” Anyone who has seen him dote on his wife knows what she means. Anyone lucky enough to call him a friend knows that they no longer make ’em like they made Axelrod. For every story Axe can tell about wanting to punch some A&R or label exec, his friends can tell one that shows what a loyal, dedicated man he is.
What happened to you after Marchin’?
I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know myself what happened. My phone stopped ringing.
Didn’t you do a few albums during the 1980s that didn’t get released?
I did a record with these two guys, and I never got paid, and the record never came out. I did three albums in the ’80s [for other artists]. All three are good albums, but it was the same thing each time.
You started running out of money.
You know this!
I don’t know all of it. It doesn’t seem to be a big deal for you: having tons of money or having a little.
It’s just money. You know what it’s like upstairs [in my apartment]; you can’t move for all the books. We spend between four and five hundred dollars a month on books. I’ll get around to them, too.
What happened after Terri’s accident in 1986?
In 1988, we were living in a “tar shack.” I call it a tar shack; it was like one big room behind [a friend’s] house, and it had plywood going up to about four feet from the top, and then four feet from the top was wrapped around with tar paper, black tarpaper—you know, the stuff you put on roofs? It had a hot plate. The bathroom had a toilet [and] a sink with only cold water.
When you were living in this tar shack, were you depressed?
No, I never let myself get depressed, ever.
Did you still play music?
You had a keyboard there?
It seems like you were the same person no matter how fortunate or unfortunate you were.
You’re gonna be the same person unless you’re an idiot.
There are a lot of people who aren’t like that.
They are fucking idiots!
A lot of people would have gotten depressed living in a shack, trying to figure out what happened to that two-acre mansion in Encino.
I know what happened to it.
It was sold.
You know what I mean. You were completely broke at this point?
Completely broke. When we ended up moving out of there in 1989, into this apartment upstairs, I weighed 122 pounds.
Did Terri’s medical bills have anything to do with it?
Did royalty checks stop coming in?
The strange thing was, nobody could find me. She applied for SSI, Social Security Insurance, because she was disabled when we moved in here. [Then] I had to give back all the money we got from SSI, because somehow they had notified BMI, and I got this huge fucking check! And that’s when I knew about sampling.
How big was that first check?
It was five-figure money.
§ § §
“I love Dre,” Axe says. And he should; on “The Next Episode,” Dr. Dre sampled and replayed the Axe-written song “The Edge” and shared some of his multiplatinum earnings with Axe along the way. “And I understand that he’s got a greatest hits album coming out. I just think that’s fantastic. I love him.” Dre and Lauryn Hill—as well as worldwide sales of Axe’s numerous compilations and reissues—have made Axelrod’s life a bit more comfortable as of late, but in the early 1990s, most samples were unlicensed, and those that paid trickled in slowly. Axe always seems amazed that anyone had difficulty finding him in the ’90s: “I was in the goddamn union!” he screams. But the reality was that he was hard to locate until after the release of his remix of “Rabbit in Your Headlights” from UNKLE’s 1998 album. Previous to that record’s release, those interested in his whereabouts postulated that perhaps he was enjoying the life of a rich recluse—this is the man who once had a base salary of one million per year (adjusted to today’s dollars); who owned acres around his house in Encino—for those of you who don’t understand the scarcity of prime Southern California real estate, that’s a hell of a lot; who was on a first-name basis with salesmen at fancy car lots around the Capitol building in Hollywood. Reality couldn’t have been farther from his ’60s glory years.
However, Axe did start working again in the ’90s. His old friend Jimmy Bowen was president of Liberty Records, the country-music subsidiary of EMI. In 1993, Axe composed Requiem: The Holocaust, which some might generically label a classical outing but actually recalls that famous fusion quote from the 1968 Billboard review of Songs of Innocence1—classical string segments and Earth Rot–style vocals give way to walking bass lines and Ernie Watts’s bluesy sax solos. Due to a number of factors—it was on a country label; cries of controversial cover art; and Bowen fell ill and wasn’t able to fully back Axe up—the album went nowhere, and only recently was released in Europe (with new art). Axe’s underrated follow-up took note of the label’s specialty: 1995’s The Big Country took country classics and flipped them with classical orchestration and funky jazz and R&B. But it never saw a proper release until a recent U.K. reissue.
So, unfortunately, the two albums didn’t give Axelrod the recognition he has always deserved, but a new generation, raised on hip-hop, started seeking out his long-out-of-print records, helping to ignite a larger interest and appreciation for the producer/composer born in 1930’s Los Angeles.
If hip-hop wasn’t making you money, would you still like it?
I like the rhythm…
Do you see it as an extension of R&B and funk and Black music?
Sure I do. Why not? Everything keeps evolving. This certainly isn’t the end of rap music. It’s going to evolve. We’re going to get to the point where we’re using a lot of arrangers.
Here’s the 12-inch of 1994’s “Without a Doubt,” in which Black Sheep sampled “Holy Thursday.” Have you heard it?
No, I’ve never heard it. Put it on.
[we silently listen to most of the song]
That’s some strange shit.
Is it weird hearing yourself in that context?
Yeah, it is. It always is. Sometimes I hear these things and go, “Jesus.”
Have you listened to a lot of the hip-hop songs that have sampled you?
No. Very few. Very few, actually.
You don’t have to okay the usage of your music?
You don’t have the right to okay them. Once they’re out, once the music is out, you can do anything you want with it. Rodgers and Hammerstein used to try to stop certain people from doing things, and they couldn’t do it. And if they can’t, who the fuck can? Once the label gives permission. There’s nothing I can say about it. They own the record. I don’t own the record.
They own your publishing too?
Well, no, sometimes MPL [Music Publishing] owns them. The Mass [in F Minor], Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, Release of an Oath, and Earth Rot are all owned by MPL. MPL is Sir Paul [McCartney] and John Eastman.
How do you make money if you don’t own your publishing?
Well, they’d have to pay me.
But they pay you half of the publishing and they keep half, right?
Yes, the writer gets half.
So it’s only songs you’ve written?
Right. The label pays the artist percentage.
Did you sign a contract with Capitol?
Yeah, I did in 1964. No matter what—if I farted, they owned it! I’ve never seen a paragraph that had so many synonyms for the term creativity, so they didn’t have to sign me to an artist contract; they automatically owned it.
And they didn’t have to pay you a royalty as an artist?
No, that’s why I gave myself the $10,000 advances.
You were being generous.
Why? That’s like $70,000 today. You know what you could buy then? What the hell’s the matter with you? A candy bar was a nickel!
Just think of how much those record companies have made off of you.
That’s their job, isn’t it? They paid me a lot of money. They paid me a great salary, and I put everything but the mortgage on the expense account.
Was your coke on the expense account?
You better believe it. Some of it—not all of it.
When Black Sheep sampled Songs of Innocence, you got paid a small percentage for the sample. You don’t get anything for the master, which is owned by EMI. You’re just getting performance royalties through ASCAP, and the writer’s share, which is paid through MPL. As much as you’re getting paid for Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode,” for example, these corporations are getting a lot more.
Don’t they always? We’re living in a corporate world.
You never thought about starting your own independent label? H.B. had his own label.
Yeah, he did. And I thought about it.
Why didn’t you do it?
The same reason I never became vice president of A&R, and I was offered the job by every fucking major there is. In 1968, I sat across from Clive Davis at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool. And he offered me $100,000 a year base pay to come to New York and be the vice president of A&R at Columbia Records. He would also give me an artist deal of two albums a year, percentage and guarantees to be negotiated.
What did you say?
Because I never wanted to be the vice president of A&R anywhere.
I don’t get it. Why?
Because it’s just not for me. I was not cut out to sit behind a desk—
It’s not being a musician?
Right!—and administer a department. It’s just not what I want to do with my life. So I didn’t. So, now, maybe I made a mistake.
Okay. But if you had your own label, you could have released whatever you wanted and never have had to worry about execs killing off records. Was it just not wanting to deal with the business administration part of it?
Yes. It’s hard. You’re running a whole department, and you’re the boss.
But owning your own label?
That—I should have done it. I don’t know why I never did it. I just never did it. I’ll tell you, H.B. would have been a good vice president of A&R.
You said you never bent when it came to doing the music your way…
I know; that’s bad, too. You should always be able to bend, because if you don’t, you’ll break.
But you never had the trouble of getting your music recorded and pressed up on major labels. The problem was getting it sold.
True. Well, I was selling records. [Otherwise,] I wouldn’t have made three albums [at Capitol]. It wasn’t my idea to do Songs of Experience.
But on a major, you weren’t able to own your masters and publishing.
I never thought in those terms of owning the masters and owning this and owning that—fuck it. There were other things I wanted to do. I was into rock climbing heavily. I spent a lot of time climbing. I broke this arm climbing.
That’s why there’s a cast visible on your arm in the Songs of Experience photos we published in the last issue.
Yeah. That was so stupid. I was being careless, you see. I’d climbed up at Stoney Point [in Chatsworth, California] on that route so many fuckin’ times that my mind was wandering. I was just not concentrating at all. The next thing I know, I was peeling off—which is a hell of a feeling. It’s like a bungee jump except the rope is tied around the waist. It really fucked up my back badly. I didn’t have it tied good and it went up underneath my arms. It was about a forty-foot pitch. I was breaking in a new pair of shoes.
Did the rope break your arm?
No, when I slammed into the side of the rock.
So you’re saying that you were more concerned with possibly falling to your death than owning your masters?
Yes. I wasn’t thinking about owning the master of Songs of Experience that I had to write. Fuck it, I was climbing and breaking in a new pair of shoes.
Twenty years later, when you were in that tar shack, were you thinking about the deals that you had made?
Never look back?
Not the masters? Not the publishing split?
Well, I never think of that shit. I don’t think of it now.
I did all right. Don’t forget, [Capitol was] paying me a salary that was so absurd that once when I was recording Cannonball in the booth—I love the booth to be crowded with people—he was taking a solo that was so fucking good, and I was listening, going, “Just think, they pay me for this.” And everybody just fell out laughing. Then I looked around like, What? Jesus, I said that out loud? Because that’s not the coolest thing to say, you know. “They pay me for this.” For listening to Cannon.
§ § §
Well, it looks like we have to throw in the towel. We just don’t have the stamina to keep going—and we’ve trained for this for a long, long time. But we can’t top “The Ali Shuffle.” The old pro is still standing, and ready to take on the world.
As we begin to leave, Axe starts to reminisce about the late-’70s and his days spent at Carmelo’s, a famous San Fernando Valley jazz club. “That bar was great,” Axe remembers. “All the musicians hung out there. I used to go in all the time. Terri knew where to get me: just call Carmelo’s.” It’s also where Axe would meet his sheet-music copyist, Jack Furlong. “We called the bartender over, and Jack said, ‘Give Axe a drink!’ And I said, ‘Make it a double.’ The bartender said, ‘Okay, Dave.’ I was good friends with that bartender—always be good friends with your bartender, because what he brought me was, like, a triple! Jack said, ‘Listen, it’s none of my business, but please don’t change what you write. I know the pressure is great, especially today, with everyone going into disco. And there’s a lot of your music that could be changed into disco. But there’s no one writing like you.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, Jack. Thank you for the drink, but I’ll never change.’ And I never have.
“I’ve gone through periods where I would be pressured by my managers to change. I’ve always done my best music when my managers left me the fuck alone. Think about my first manager, Lenny Poncher. Look at the records I did when I was with him! The Mass in F Minor was his idea. Songs of Innocence. All the way to Earth Rot. He had a saying, and I’ve always loved it: ‘I’ll get the fights, you do the fighting.’ ”
Brian DiGenti is editor of Wax Poetics and a longtime Axelrod fan. This article nearly killed him.
Eothen Alapatt is manager of Stones Throw Records and a longtime Axelrod fan. He has sworn off all forms of boxing.
- In Billboard’s September 28, 1969, issue, an uncredited (but known to be written by Eliot Teagle) review of Axelrod’s Songs of Innocence states: “Axelrod’s experimentation involves the fusion of jazz elements with hard rock guitar solos and the inclusion of impressionistic classical figures.”
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