David Axelrod – 1931-2017

David Axelrod, visionary producer, composer and arranger – and one of the patron saints of this label – died earlier this week at nearly 86 years old. He and Egon were friends for nearly two decades; Egon produced the David Axelrod anthology The Edge for Blue Note/Capitol Records in 2005 and did numerous interviews with him which were published in Big Daddy and Waxpoetics magazines, amongst others.

He wrote some words on the man, which are published in full at Rappcats. You can read an excerpt below.

Axe died sometime in the early morning of February 5th, 2017, at nearly 84 years old. Terri, his wife of 38 years, didn’t want to disclose the cause of his death, saying that the only thing that really mattered is that he was gone. What do you say to a person so dedicated to another, in that first moment of loss, when that other is a force so beyond the normal that you never thought he would leave? “He just seemed indestructible,” she said, and I knew what she meant. Axe signed off every call with an “I’ll be here.” And, like everything he said, he meant it.

He’d survived so much: the death of his father, which turned his world upside down when he was 13; a heroin jones he kicked only to pick up as bad of a cocaine habit as anyone involved in the 1960s and 1970s music industry could (his description about meeting Sly Stone in front of a Tony Montana-style urn full of blow is still one of the strangest images my mind can conjure); the death by overdose of his son Scott in the late 1960s; his career stall in the late 1970s when he decided he could only write what he wrote, produce what he produced, in the face of disco and the great musical beyond, a dive he was never fully able to recover from; the traumatic brain injury Terri suffered in a car accident, and that he helped her recover from, in the mid 1980s, near homelessness in the 1990s.

This is to say nothing of the fights, not just the boxing, and he was a great boxer in his prime, but the street brawls. Once, after being stabbed in the stomach, he put his arms around friend and his frequent arranging partner H.B. Barnum and continued swinging at the thugs on his sides. He loved rock climbing and sustained many injuries in falls that would probably have killed another person, less determined to not just exist, but push the limits, against all odds. Over the last few years, as we would chat on the phone, he would talk enthusiastically about forthcoming projects, but constantly remind me that he’d lived enough for two lifetimes, and that the pain could be great.

He once told me, in reference to his greatest friend and collaborator, saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley,” that the “…last interview Cannon ever gave was in Berkely, and he talked about our relationship. The whole interview is about he and I. And at the end, he said, ‘If you listen to David’s music – if you listen, ‘cause that’s different than hearing – there’s a layer of violence no matter how pretty it is.’ ”

That underlying threat, or his response to it, that came from so many trials, both self-imposed and thrust upon him, colored Axe’s greatest contributions to music. It was no surprise to me to discover he made classic, tense bop records like Harold Land’s The Fox (1959), which impressed Adderley enough that, upon his signing to Capitol Records, he requested Axelrod’s services directly. Axe understood the real deal blues musicians that populated the tough South Central LA dives that he frequented as a kid; when he suggested to Capitol execs that he promote the black artists on the label in the neighborhoods in which he grew up, they told him to do it himself. So he did. And he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Soon Capitol was the only major label with a promotions department focused around the label’s black artists. By 1966, two years into his tenure at the label under Alan W. Livingston, an Axelrod believer if there ever was one, he achieved career-making success with albums by Lou Rawls (Live!) and Adderley (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!), while producing dozens of other artists. A definitive list has yet to be compiled.

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