David Axelrod, the ‘60s and ‘70s jazz and soul producer known for his ornate arrangements and distinct rhythms, died on Sunday. Many who didn’t know Axelrod’s name knew his music through samples; his productions and original compositions have been a favorite of hip-hop DJs and rap producers for decades, shaping and texturing tracks by everyone from DJ Shadow to Lil Wayne, Earl Sweatshirt to Eminem, Macy Gray to De La Soul. Though he found his greatest popular success producing records for singer Lou Rawls and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, it is his idiosyncratic (and widely sampled) solo projects that have become the most celebrated part of Axelrod’s legacy. He was 83.
Born and raised in Los Angeles’ South Central, Axelrod attempted a career as a boxer before pursuing music professionally, at first as a drummer. He began producing jazz records in 1959, and joined Capitol Records as an A&R man and producer in 1963. He quickly developed a reputation for both live recordings and studio arrangements, typified by the 1966 one-two of Lou Rawls Live! and Soulin’. The combination of Rawls’ silky voice and Axelrod’s showy backing propelled the singer into crossover stardom. Their collaboration produced a string of big, career-defining hits, though it was relatively brief; the two parted ways in 1970, when both Rawls and Axelrod left Capitol.
Though Axelrod was brought on by Capitol with the goal of developing black jazz artists, he also dabbled in West Coast psychedelic rock, most notably on Mass In F Minor and Release Of An Oath, the two albums he wrote and produced for the Electric Prunes. The latter was credited to the band, but largely performed by Axelrod’s session musicians, including the powerhouse drummer Earl Palmer. Despite his reputation as a crossover hit-maker, Axelrod’s tastes skewed toward the esoteric and mystical. Both of the Electric Prunes albums reflected the William Blake-influenced religious and visionary themes that would dominate his original compositions.
The first two albums that he put out under his own name, Song Of Innocence (1968) and Songs Of Experience (1969), melded baroque pop and soul jazz, and remain the definitive examples of Axelrod’s sensibility. The obsessiveness of his interests was reflected in the fact that he produced astrology-themed concept albums for both Cannonball Adderley and his brother, cornetist Nat Adderley. Axelrod continued releasing solo concept albums—including the crate-digger staples Seriously Deep (1975) and Strange Ladies (1977)—throughout the 1970s, but withdrew from the industry after 1980’s Marchin’. Hip-hop sampling brought him back to prominence in the 1990s, which led to a number of compilations devoted to his work and several returns to recording. His final album of original material was 2001’s self-titled David Axelrod, which sounded as though the composer-producer had stepped right back into the studio circa 1969.