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