The David Axelrod interview from Big Daddy magazine

by Eothen Alapatt

Lou Rawls, David Axelrod, and H. B. Barnum in Capitol Studios.

Lou Rawls, David Axelrod, and H. B. Barnum in Capitol Studios.


The other day, I called David Axelrod to clarify some points for this interview. I asked about fellow arranger extraordinaire H. B. Barnum. From there, Axelrod proceeded to weave an incredible tale. The day that he met Barnum, way back in the early 1950s, the two up-and-comers were hanging out with some female companions in Leimart Park in the western part of Los Angeles. A group of Chicano thugs, out to draw the blood of some unlucky sap at the Harvard Recreation Center, in a completely different part of the city, rolled onto the scene and mistook Axelrod for their boy. Before he knew what hit him, one of them had drawn a knife and sliced into Axelrod’s belly. As Axelrod clutched his stomach, cinching what would become a scar he carries to this day, Barnum took his wounded friend upon his shoulders and proceeded to—get this—knock down every last attacker that stepped forward as he made his way from the park. Finally the cholos got the point and departed. “H.B. can seriously punch. He hits harder than Fernando Vargas!” Axelrod exclaimed. “If he hit you right now, with that left hook, you’re going down. He’s short, but he’s so powerful.”

David Axelrod’s life is sensational. Forget for a minute that the man produced some of the finest R&B and jazz albums of the 1960s for luminaries such as Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley. Forget Axelrod the visionary who, long before Shadow and his sampling contemporaries “endtroduced” themselves to the musical world, created the blueprint for classical melodies melded with the funkiest of backbeats. This interview would be worth reading for the intense anecdotes that characterize David Axelrod’s life.

But the name of the game is music, isn’t it? And as we all know, Axelrod is responsible for some of the most dynamic American music ever recorded. From David McCallum’s “The Edge,” to Adderley’s seminal “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” to his divine 1968 debut Song of Innocence, and the prolific beauty that followed —his creativity has never waned. He has yet to compromise his artistic integrity or release a wack album.

So take a deep breath and delve into our attempt to present the entire scope of David Axelrod’s musical life. From his birth in South Central Los Angeles, from his humble beginnings as jazzer Gerald Wiggin’s assistant, through lucrative days spent producing Capitol Records’s finest, to the calmer North Hollywood lifestyle he enjoys today, you’ll share our amazement with the blessed path David Axelrod walks.

Now Mr. Axelrod…

Make it Dave, or Axe—that’s what all the guys call me…

Yeah, I see it on the back of all the album covers. For real, I can call you Axe?

Of course! Sure…

The privilege! Okay, Axe. You were born in South Central Los Angeles.

1933. I grew up there. Knew it like the back of my hand and still do.

Your longtime friend and musical compatriot Don Randi said you grew up in the Black part of town…

It was Black…

But you’re not Black…

No, but I was raised by Blacks. For a while I thought I was Black.

But this wasn’t any kind of identity crisis, was it? You were just associating with the folks that surrounded you.

Exactly. But it got pretty bad. Gerald Wiggins had to straighten me out a few times. See, I had reached the point where I was asking questions. For instance, if someone was talking with Gerald about a record, I’d butt in and ask, “Well, is he colored?”—which was the term at the time—”Or is he grey?” And we’d get into it! Wig would say, “Stop asking that question! What you should be asking is, ‘Is he good or isn’t he good?!’ ” I had reached a point where I honestly thought, “If he’s a White musician, he can’t play.”


Well, I was also very young. See, I never make a big deal about where I grew up. To my father, the idea of bigotry was totally brainless. But the fact that we had no money meant that we kept moving east during the White Flight. So all the Whites are moving west—’cause they’re running from the Blacks—but we’re moving east ’cause we had two boys, two girls, my father and my mother! He needed a place with three bedrooms—wherever that was, we landed.

So except for music, was race ever an issue for you?

Never! It shouldn’t be an issue! That’s the problem today. The biggest issue we face—the biggest—is race!

Let’s focus on the music though. White music in the ’30s is much different than Black music of the ’30s.

Very true. But you have to understand something. If you’re going to follow the tradition of jazz, you have to know everything. Today, I talk to all musicians—White, Black—it doesn’t make a difference. But most don’t even know who Ben Webster is, and that’s a tragedy! You should know the tradition of where you’re coming from—regardless of the color of your skin.


I was very lucky, ’cause I had an older brother who wanted to become a musician—a drummer. So he constantly practiced to all of these big-band records. I would sit with him and wind up his record player—for that he’d pay me a nickel! [laughs] I’d become exhausted, but he didn’t care. I guess he was twelve or thirteen years older than I was. So if I was five, he was seventeen or eighteen. And I don’t think he cared how tired I was getting! But I got to hear the music. He listened to a lot to Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Those were his two favorite big bands.

At the tender age of five, you’re absorbing jazz. But as you grew older, you weren’t just playing your brothers records; you were picking your own. What did you gravitate towards?

In my early teens, it was mainly rhythm and blues. I loved rhythm and blues. By the way, people are insane if they think that rhythm and blues started with Vee Jay Records in Chicago. It started in Los Angeles with Amos Milburn. “Bewildered”—remember that one?

Of course.

Well, we all dug him, ’cause he dressed so sharp and he always had an inch and a half of Chesterfields sticking out of his pockets. It was so hip and we were young, like fifteen years old. It would be the equivalent today of someone having an inch and a half of reefer in his pocket.

This is around 1950. You’re surrounded by intense music.

Well, we rolled through all these clubs. Like the Million Dollar Theater. They would get all these R&B acts, and the big bands. They’d run a picture and then they had the live acts.

So you’re prowling the streets of Los Angeles, looking for music.

Always! See, my father died when I was twelve. And the War was on. My mother couldn’t control me and there were no guys around that could—they were all in the service! So more or less I did whatever I felt like doing. My friends and I loved to go to these clubs. And I think there were only a few of us that picked up on the music; most of the guys were going just to drink. It was corrupt back then. Cops didn’t care; they were getting paid off. You just had to be cool.

Any acts that you remember?

Of course! T Bone Walker! Like B. B. King said, “He’s the father of us all.” There are three great drunks in my life. In chronological order: 1] T Bone Walker 2] Johnny Mercer, and 3] an arranger named Gordon Jenkins. I call them “the greatest” ’cause I was so aware of all three of them. Just to sit with them and talk was so great… Where were we?

Who else were you listening to?

Right! Well, Amos, Roy Milton and his Solid Senders featuring Camille Howard, Pee Wee Crayton, Louie Jordan. I started getting into a lot of trouble in Los Angeles. So I moved over to the East Coast, ’cause I had lots of relatives out there. While I was living in New Jersey, I met this guy in Englewood. He owned a gas station and worked for my uncle, washing his delivery trucks—all one hundred of them! He had lived in L.A. and had graduated from Dorsey High School—where I had gone. How weird is that?

What was his name?

James Samuels. And he became my best friend. He started bringing me to the Black Elk Club.

The Black Elk?

I don’t know much about those clubs, but they were very well known. And segregated. There was a Black Elk club, and a White Elk club. At that time, I don’t care if it was New Jersey, it was no different than Biloxi, Mississippi. It was very segregated. Suddenly all these people adopted me. They were my closest friends.

Were you checking out jazz?

Finally! James took me into New York City. We went to 52nd Street. This was the first time that I had heard real jazz. Jesus! I couldn’t believe it!

Who were you checking out?

Everybody! Name it, they were there! It was like a documentary. The Three Deuces, the Onyx, and all those things. We even went one Friday night to the Savoy Ballroom. It was such a thrill—who hadn’t heard of the Savoy? When I went back to L.A., I was seriously listening to jazz. All bebop—that’s all I cared about.

When did you return to L.A.?

1953, I think. I’m bad on dates; I’m not a kid anymore. But I was about twenty years old. You have to remember—I was born and raised in L.A. I have blood as thin as water! So when that first winter hit in Jersey, man… I couldn’t deal with it! So I spilt and joined the Marine Corps. From there I moved back to L.A. And I fell into a heroin jones. One day I was on Central Avenue, the heart of the Southside. All the great clubs and places to eat—the Texas Barbecue—man, I loved it. Anyway, I was at the Turban Room and there was this group playing, the Gerald Wiggins Trio.

Did you know who he was at the time?

Nope, I had no idea. At that time, I thought Bud Powell was the best on piano. Anyway, I was waiting for a connection and I was ordering drinks. Finally, Slim, the bartender, looked at me and said, “Guess what kid? Time to straighten out the tab!” He’s looking at me, and I’m a young White kid on Central Avenue. Because of my jones, I probably weighed 125 pounds. [laughs] And he ain’t no fool. So I’m thinking, “If I pay this guy and my man shows up, I ain’t gonna score.” What am I going to do? Slim could read what I’m thinking. Bartenders, if they’ve been around long enough, know what’s happening. Especially on Central Avenue. But all of a sudden, this voice says, “Don’t worry about his tab.” And it was Gerald Wiggins. He said he’d take care of it. I thought that was some really strange stuff. Anyway, my guy never shows up—a great disappointment. [laughs] So Wig asked what I was doing. And I said, “Nothing really.” I didn’t have a car, and he asked where I lived. He said, “I’ll give you a lift.”

So you’re kicking it with this great jazzer. Were you excited?

Well, to tell the truth, I thought he was a faggot. So I was thinking, “I’ll roll him, take him for his goddamn money.” So we went up to his place. He opened the door—and there was his wife!

A great deal of relief for you?

Well, I don’t think I felt relieved. It was probably good for him, ’cause I was seriously gonna bounce him and snatch whatever he had. [laughs] But it was like The Man Who Came to Dinner.

What’s that, a film?

Yeah! I keep forgetting how young you are! It’s about this big syndicated columnist, very powerful guy, who slips and falls on some guy’s walk and takes over the whole house. It was funnier than hell.

And that’s the way it became with you and Gerald.

Yeah! [laughs] I started hanging with him eighteen hours a day. We went everywhere. It was great. He introduced me to so many great guys…

And what were you doing?

Sitting around and listening to them talk jazz. You can learn a lot from listening. He introduced me to a lot of great guys that I made great music with later in life.

Like whom?

Bill Green, Buddy Colette, Johnny Kelso… A bass player named Don Bagley.

And he never explained why he picked you out of the crowd that night in the Turban Room.

Never! To this day. See, Gerald deals in whims anyway. [laughs] I ask him why and he stares at me like I’m an idiot.

Well, it’s good for us that he picked you. He broke you into creating music.

Yeah. It was weird the way it happened. I was with him for, like, four years. And he had never really explained anything about music. But because of these conversations with all of his friends—including the greatest instrumentalist ever, Art Tatum…

Really—Art Tatum, the pianist—the best ever?

Well, it can’t be a horn player, ’cause Art Tatum has ten fingers, which means ten instruments. And he was so incredible—they’ll never be another. I don’t care about Arthur Rubinstein. I’ve heard his records, and I have some of them. There’s no classical player that has chops like Art Tatum.

What a life you lead! And your big break?

It happened after I was already in the business. I was working for Southwest Distributing Company. A terrible, terrible job, but it helped me get into records, ’cause the owner, Bob Sherman, had a label—Tampa Records. He had me do promotions. And he made a record with a drummer named George Jenkins—The Last Call. I knew George ’cause he lived on 30th Street. I put that record on the charts. We went around the States, and I really hustled that record. Man, I was good at promotion. Anyway, one day I was with Wig, and he was shaving. All that time we’d been together, and I’d never sat down by the piano with him in the room. All those years! So I did something on the piano, and Gerald burst out of the bathroom. I’ll never forget this—he had his shirt off, and he had shaved one whole side of his face! I don’t know how you shave—

Not like that!

Yeah, I don’t either… But that’s the way he shaves. One whole side and then the other. Gerald is weird, man. Anyway, he told me to replay what I’d played. And I had no idea what I had done. He stared at me for a while, and then he said, “You’re a dummy.” And he turned around and went back to shaving. So I kept fooling around, and I played the pattern again. And this time I remembered what I’d done. So Wig finished shaving, put on his shirt and grabbed a sheet of manuscript paper. He wrote out the C scale, with the treble cleft and the bass cleft. Then he told me to go buy a musical notebook. He said, “Put notes all over it in the key of C, so whenever you see those notes you’ll know them.” Then we went to F major. One flat there… Then we went to the key of E flat major. Then he said, “I want you to get a book of scales and learn those notes by heart. Do it for every key and their relative minors.” And when I learned those lessons to his satisfaction, he said, “Now I’m going to teach you how to read music.”

So this is your “formal” training…

Oh yeah, very formal! [laughs] Well, he sat me down and played a metronome. He wrote out all the types of notes—eighth notes, quarter notes, whole notes—and then patted out the meter on his side. And that’s how I learned to read music!

So Wig taught you the basics. But you must have been practicing on your own.

All day long! By this time I’d landed a job at Motif Records. I met Jack Devaney. That man did so much for me! I have a feeling he’s dead now—last time I saw him he was a complete alcoholic, never sober. But this was 1956, and he’s an easy-going, nice guy. But he had clout. He was the West Coast Representative for Cash Box magazine. Down Beat was the jazz bible, but Cash Box was much bigger. People listened to him. Motif was owned by one of the wealthiest men in California—Milton W. Vetter—and Jack talked him into hiring me. Originally, I was a sales manager, but the guy who was producing was such a lunatic that he got fired. So next thing I know, I’m about to produce a record.

Were you confident in your ability? You were pretty young!

Yeah, I’ve always had confidence. I don’t know what it is.

So the first David Axelrod production—who and when?

Well, I used Gerald of course, ’cause I was comfortable with him. It was the Gerald Wiggins Trio. 1956. We did all these old tunes, “3 O’ Clock in the Morning,” etc… I don’t know the name of that album, but it’s the first one I did. And I knew my job. See, a producer is to music what a director is to film. What a director does, a producer should do. What is a song but a story anyway? The arrangement becomes the screenplay; the musicians and singers are the actors. The engineer is like the camera man. And the producer is the boss. You gotta pull it all together. That’s how I’ve always gone about it.

You produced Harold Land’s album, The Fox, around 1958 or ’59. That was a landmark record for you—we’ll answer “why” later. But what did you do between the Wig record and The Fox to build up your chops?

Well, remember that Motif was nothing more than a write-off. There really wasn’t that much to do. So I could do whatever I wanted, but four times a year I’d make a record just to keep it legal. Meanwhile, I was doing stuff for other labels. Devaney constantly got me gigs. I’d give him half, but there wasn’t much money. I’d get a hundred bucks or less for an album.

But you gained worthwhile experience…

Exactly! At the time, all the R&B labels were starting jazz divisions. Devaney spoke to the owner of Specialty and convinced him to hire me. Of course, the first record I cut was with Wig. We did Around the World in 80 Days. Specialty wanted another one, so I recorded Buddy Colette. They liked it. Then I did one with Frank Rossolino. See, in a Down Beat interview, I said that certain West Coast jazz was like “wet dream music.” That’s a great line, isn’t it? You knew something happened when you woke up but you got no satisfaction! Frank read that and burst out laughing. He called me up and said, “We have to record together!”

How did you two get along?

Just great. Frank was a terrific, funny guy. You know, many years later, Rossolino killed his wife and shot both of his sons. One lived, one died. Then he blew his brains out. Who would have believed that he had such a dark side? I don’t recall him ever being serious! Anyway, during the session, Frank mentioned to me that I should record Harold Land. A bit later, I got a call from Devaney. He set me up with an interview with the guy that owned HiFi Records. Now that was a fairly good independent label. They hired me—for the most money I’d ever saw in my life, a hundred seventy five bucks a week. That was a lot of money for the ’50s. So I started doing some Arthur Lyman records. It was cool, I got my first gold record with him. But I got into jazz with Harold. You know, I took a big gamble with The Fox. I booked studio time at Radio Recorders under HiFi’s name, and I personally borrowed the money to pay for it. Then I took the finished product to Richard Vaughn, the owner of HiFi. Luckily he liked it and decided to buy it. So he asked me how much I wanted. I replied twelve hundred dollars. He promptly cut me a check that I then endorsed and gave to the dude I owed money to.

Did the record take off?

For a jazz album it did. But more importantly, since the Rossolino album never came out, The Fox was the hardest thing coming out of L.A. It was serious bebop. Incredible! Sounded like it was from the East Coast.

Indirectly, this record led to your introduction to Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.

And Cannon became the best friend I’ve ever had. The most intimate… There’s no adjective to describe how close we were. Lalo Schifrin called him “The Buddha of Music.” I wish I had come up with that line. Cannon was a wonderful man. When my son died, he called me from the University of Berkeley. He was on a sixteen-college tour. He was about to get paid a lot of money. But he cancelled the tour to stay with me.

During the worst period of your life…

Of course. Cannon helped me get through it. It was funny the way we met. 1962. I was working at Plaza Records and I was across the street in this room. In walks Ernie Andrews and Cannonball. They were waiting for Joe Zawinul to review some tunes that they were going to record. Well, Ernie sees me and walks over. And when he introduces me, Cannon goes, “Ah ha! The Fox! I knew our paths would cross some day!” It’s amazing, ’cause Cannon listened to absolutely everything. Now segue to Capitol Records in 1964. Six months after I get to Capitol, they sign Cannonball Adderley. He’s up in the executive office with the vice president, Voyle Gilmore, and the president, Alan W. Livingston. They asked him which member of the production staff he wanted to work with. He said “Get me David.” See, there was a terrific jazz producer and arranger working for Capitol named David Cavanaugh. So Livingston says to Voyle Gilmore, “Buzz Cavanaugh and have him come up here.” Cannonball says, “No, no, no!”—and he starts waving his hands, I can just picture it now—“I want David Axelrod.” Cannonball had heard The Fox, he knew that I knew what was going on with bebop. Cavanaugh was old. I loved Monk, but Cavanaugh thought that jazz had stopped with Basie.

So he was old fashioned.

Kinda, but he made some great records. He made a lot of hits.

But you get this new giant, Cannonball. What other stuff were you doing at Capitol at the time?

Mainly Lou Rawls.

Rhythm and blues…

Yeah, mostly R&B. But nothing was selling. You gotta understand something. Capitol was not geared to R&B. By the end of 1965, I had just about had it. And I had worked so hard to get there—to me, Capitol was it! See, I knew I made good records, but I couldn’t get them sold. So I had an idea—why not start a Black music division. I took this idea to Voyle. He thought about it, but concluded that Alan wouldn’t like the idea. So he took the proposal to the Executive Vice President of Promotions. And this guy liked rhythm and blues. See they had hired me to do R&B. I loved it, but I’m signing all these Black artists and no one is selling anything! There was absolutely no promotion. Just think about it. In 1965 when the Watts Rebellion happened, the White guys weren’t going to go down to the Southside to promote records. So I went down to Daisy Reynolds at Flash Records and hustled my own projects. And I knew if we had nothing but Black promotions people we could make it happen. And Alan [Livingston] was so hip. He didn’t think that the majors would ever make it with R&B, but he said, “David, let’s give it a shot.” I love him to this day.

So Lou’s music starts selling better?

I’ll tell you something, the very next record we made was Lou Rawls Live—sold like a million and a half! Back then we only had gold, but it woulda gone platinum easily!

So you have gold records under your belt and the confidence of the president of Capitol. Were you producing Cannon at this time?

Sure. We had done a couple albums together that were really like “work.” But then we started to become good friends. It all began when we were recording an album in New York, where Cannon was living. On a break in the session, Cannon took me into the bathroom. He took out a glass vial, held his thumb in his palm, and made a fist around it. Then he poured some powder into the crack. And he told me, “I want you to do what I do.” I said, “Look man, I’ve been through that crap; I don’t need it in my life.” I thought it was heroin, but it was cocaine. I’d never even seen the stuff. This was astonishing, ’cause I’d taken everything known to mankind! [laughs] I made him laugh, and he blew the coke all over the place. He said, “I know your whole story, this is coke not heroin, for God’s sake!” He told me to be quiet and do what he was doing. I loved it immediately. It was a very different high than anything I’d ever done. We never abused it—I never did anything but sniff it. I’ll admit that between 1965 and 1981, I spent a great deal of money on it. And I never wanted to quit it. It quit me! I had a very bad experience. One time, my pulse shot up to 266 beats per minute. According to my doctor I had a metabolic change. And, as you can tell, I’m very manic-y anyway.

Luckily you pulled through.

Well, it was very easy actually. We called my doctor and he said, “Give him 60 mg of Valium right now and have him chase it with a big glass of cognac.” The guy on the phone replied, “A big glass?! With his heart rate?” And the doctor said, “Shut up, and stop playing Florence fucking Nightingale. It’s to make the Valium work faster!” And it worked—I haven’t touched the stuff since.

Which is good…

No, it isn’t. [laughs] I liked it, and it never got in the way of anything. When I wrote music, it helped keep me awake—even Freud noted that. And I can rail off the names of musicians that are in their seventies that have been snorting coke for fifty years! And they’re still doing it! This was just a freak thing that happened to me!

Whew! Back to that session with Cannonball…

When we got done, he took Oliver Nelson and myself across the street to this funky bar. Cannon asked for cognac and the bartender looked at him like he was nuts. So Cannon asked for any kind of brandy. We all got these snifters and started drinking. Then he went to the phone booth and called his wife Olga—one of the most beautiful people I’ve met in my life—and he took us home for dinner. I thought this was great of Olga, ’cause now she had to make dinner for not only Cannon, but for Oliver and myself. When we got to his place, finished with dinner and were sitting around having drinks, he started bringing out all these records. All R&B. I know them all, but I started saying, “You don’t have the real stuff.” I started dropping all these names. He looked at me in disbelief. I knew everyone he was bringing out—Ernie K-Doe, Bobby “Blue” Bland…

But you’re saying, “You need to be up on these guys—Amos Milburn, Lowell Fulsom, and all that.”

Right! That really blew him away. He never expected it from me. That’s what made us tight.

This mutual appreciation for R&B makes its appearance in the jazz that you both created. For instance, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy—the second biggest-selling jazz record of all time.

That record caught everyone by surprise—and no one was more surprised than Cannon and me. We never went out to make a commercial record. But Joe Zawinul could write these terrific songs. He wrote “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”

Very funky music. You hear the soul and R&B reverberate through every bar. That song gets its drive from the backbeat! You must have had something to do with this.

I always had input. We went through everything together, Cannon and I. If there was something I heard that wouldn’t be good on the album, I would say, “No go!”

And you’re a funky dude. You’re into this deep-dish R&B that the average person had no idea about. You were up on jazz, but you were definitely aware of the change in popular rhythm that R&B helped usher in. And on top of injecting funk into the jazz of Adderley, you’re doing the same with soulsters like Rawls and pop artists like David McCallum.

With McCallum, everything we did went top ten and gold. But I don’t think that people were buying the music. I think they were buying the little autographed pictures that we put in the albums. The little girlies were so in love with that guy! He was so cool, he just did his thing and people loved him. It’s a funny story how I got him to come to Capitol. I had read somewhere that he had broken Clark Gable’s record for the most fan mail received in one week. I thought, “Whoa! This little dude is doing something.” I had met him before when I had produced The Man From U.N.C.L.E. theme—David starred on that show. Now make no mistake—David came from a musical family. His father was a concert master and David had studied the oboe from the time he was a kid till he was fifteen or so. Anyway, at one of our weekly A&R meetings, I said I wanted to sign McCallum to Capitol. Voyle asked what I planned to do with him. I knew he couldn’t sing, and I didn’t want to have him recite spoken word over some lush arrangements, as was popular at the time. But I knew I’d do something! Voyle, who led the meetings, said, “That’s just not good enough.” He moved to the next order of business. But before we could do anything, Livingston—who’d just been looking at Voyle and me—looked at me and said, quietly, “If you can sign David McCallum, do it.” That was it. Voyle got red in the face, but that was el jefe! The chief had spoken.

And he turns every record he’s on into gold. At the time you’re also doing quite well with Lou Rawls and Cannonball.

Are you kidding me? I’m golden boy! I’m the Oscar de la Hoya of Capitol Records! I could do anything I wanted to do. I was rich—making the equivalent of $700,000 a year!

This is around 1966-’67. David McCallum’s Music: A Bit More Of Me. There’s a song on that album, called “The Edge.” One of my favorite David Axelrod compositions.

I’m going to tell you something. Listen to that song close, especially to the chords. Everything I do, you’ll hear in that tune. I’ve done so much afterwards, but there is also something there—in the undercurrent—that is similar to that tune.

How’d you manage to sneak such a progressive song onto a pop record? For your arrangements, that funky rhythm—McCallum couldn’t have been responsible for that.

Well, we could give McCallum anything we wanted, ’cause we knew he was going to sell records. For the most part, we were making instrumental versions of hits. But I had to be careful—I had to say, “Will this song, which is in the top eighty of the Billboard top one hundred, make the top ten?” It was kind of a gamble, that worked out pretty well. On that record, McCallum wrote two tunes, H.B. wrote one, and I wrote one. And we all made out pretty well, ’cause those records really sold.

What is “The Edge” about?

Third-world countries. There are these areas of ramshackle houses that stretch for miles. People actually live in the containers used to ship Coca Cola bottles. It’s terrible. I saw it in San Juan. I thought that it couldn’t get much poorer than South Central, L.A. Well, guess what—dirt streets and these “Coca Cola shacks” for miles. That was “The Edge”—the edge of the world. Where else can you go? Well, you could kill yourself. But those people have so much spirit that they would never do that.

Such a powerful song. Starting with the guitars clashing with the brass, the whispering flute over that powerful backbeat. People now say that the song reminds them of the Wild West.

The Wild West? What the fuck does that song have to do with Wild Bill Hickcok? C’mon man, it’s about my people! I’d never seen poverty like that firsthand!

That was one of your few original compositions on your early Capitol productions. And a great indication of where you would travel to a few years later with your solo ventures. Did you ever explain to McCallum how you developed the concept?

No, he didn’t care.

You know, no matter how musical McCallum might have been, I always wondered what he really could have done in a session with you.

[laughs] David is a great guy. I always liked him. But the sessions were a little weird. There really wasn’t anything for him to do! This is what happened: When we were ready to record, he would get up and all these camera men would start taking pictures. That was it!

An image…

Of course! But is there anything wrong with that?

§ § §

Whew! Halfway done, and we’ve barely even scratched the surface. Dynamic sessioners like Carol Kaye and Earl Palmer, the Electric Prunes, the breakthrough Song of Innocence, Songs of Experience, and the altogether mysterious Earth Rot, staff positions at Decca and Fantasy—and a new album based upon rhythm tracks that Axelrod cut to acetate in the late 1960s… Come back for our concluding interview—not to be missed!

The following interview was done in 1999 and 2000, and first published in Big Daddy magazine (RIP).


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7 Responses

  1. Where’s Part 2?!? Could someone please direct me to it or make it available on here?

    Dick B

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