Record man’s lush cuts rediscovered by hip-hop
David Axelrod, a producer, arranger and composer who in the 1960s and ’70s was one of the pre-eminent figures bridging and expanding the worlds of jazz and R&B — and whose career was given new life beginning in the ’90s thanks to hip-hop producers who sampled his ornate compositions — died Feb. 5 in Burbank, Calif. He was 85. The cause was lung cancer, his wife, Terri, said. Axelrod’s signature sound mixed the flexibility of jazz and the lusciousness of soul with the influence of composers like Wagner and Stravinsky, and a penchant for psychedelic flights of fancy. His compositions were expansive and majestic but also a little testy and tense, as if messy eruption were imminent but being held at bay by beauty. Axelrod was born April 17, 1931, in the area that became known as South Central Los Angeles, to Morris George Axelrod and the former Pearl Plaskoff. He began frequenting the jazz and R&B clubs on Central Avenue, Los Angeles’ vibrant musical hub, at a young age. “I was raised by blacks,” he told Big Daddy magazine in 2001, discussing his upbringing in a city with fast-changing racial dynamics. “For a while I thought I was black.”
His father, an organizer for the radical Industrial Workers of the World union, died at the cusp of David’s teenage years.
After short times in New Jersey and New York and a stint in the Marines, Axelrod returned to Los Angeles and became enmeshed in the city’s nightlife and music industry. He spent a couple of years alongside pianist Gerald Wiggins, who taught him to read music, and before long he took on record promotion jobs and, eventually, production work.
His first prominent calling card was saxophonist Harold Land’s 1960 album “The Fox,” an outstanding example of hard bop from a city not known for it. Not long after that, Axelrod joined the staff of Capitol Records as an executive focused on developing talent, helping to create what he said was the first black-music division at a major label.
He shepherded Lou Rawls out of a mainstream popjazz sound and into forward-leaning soul, and worked with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who was familiar with Axelrod from “The Fox.”
He also produced instrumental albums conducted by David McCallum, a Scottish actor (“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) who in the late 1960s took a pop music detour.
In the mid-1970s pop tastes begin to shift toward disco, a sound Axelrod had little use for, and he fell out of favor, leading to a lean stretch that included financial struggles and near homelessness.
His wife was involved in a serious car crash in the 1980s, and he devoted himself to managing her care for some time.
She survives him, as do sons Michael, Dana and Brian; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A fourth son, Scott, died in the 1960s.
In the 1990s, crate-digging hip-hop producers began unearthing Axelrod’s productions and sampling them widely, enamored with their thickness and complexity. Axelrod’s sounds appear on Lauryn Hill’s breakthrough album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”; DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing …”; and Dr. Dre’s “2001”; as well as songs by De La Soul, Lil Wayne, Mos Def, Madlib, Kool G Rap and more.