David Axelrod, Influential Producer and Composer, Dies at 83

Photo: David Axelrod, Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns.

American composer, arranger, and producer David Axelrod (April 17, 1933–February 5, 2017) has died at the age of 83, after a lifetime helping to shape the style and sound of popular culture.

Also: Meet Artist Awol Erizku, the Man Who Photographed Beyoncé’s Mystical Maternity Photos

Born in Los Angeles, Axelrod was raised in South Central, where he grew up listening to jazz and R&B music. In 1963, he began working as a producer and A&R man for Capitol Records, and helped to develop the careers of African American artists including the legendary Lou Rawls. Axelrod produced a succession of gold albums and hit singles for Rawls, and wrote the classic hits “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing,” “Your Good Thing (Is About to End)” and “Dead End Street.”


With his career taking off, Axelrod partnered with jazz great Julian “Cannonball” Adderley to produce the 1967 album Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at ‘The Club’. The song “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” skyrocketed to No. 11 on the US pop charts, making Adderley one of the most successful jazz artists of the decade.

Axelrod was so successful at fusing art with pop that Capitol allowed him to create some of the most experimental solo albums of the time in homage to the mystical poetry and paintings of eighteenth century artist William Blake. The albums, Songs of Innocence (1968) and Songs of Experience (1969) used sweeping strings and heavy beats to create a sound so far ahead of its time, it spoke to the Hip Hop generation a couple of decades ahead.

DJ Shadow in his Entroducing album sampled Axelrod’s “The Human Abstract” for his “Midnight In A Perfect World” (1996).

In the early 1990s, when producers began digging in the crates for beats so raw and funky no one could compete, the music of David Axelrod came to the fore and was sampled by artists including Lauryn Hill, Lil Wayne, Wu-Tang Clan, DJ Premier, DJ Shadow, De La Soul, Mos Def, The Beatnuts, Masta Ace, Quasimoto, and Kool G Rap, among others.


Swizz Beatz looped “Holy Thursday” for the track “Dr. Carter”, on Lil Wayne’s album Tha Carter III.

Questlove took to Instagram to honor Aexlrod’s passing, writing, “So sad to hear about the passing of musician/composer #DavidAxelrod. He was so immersed in creativity and so pure with his arrangements he WAS hip hop. And understood and appreciated hip hop culture (most cats would get guarded about time moving on & easily take the “NO!!!!!!!!” disposition if they aren’t informed. David embraced and often reached out to producers and beatmakers for cool collabos) he appreciation for music and his ability to recognize musicianship is what I’ll take from him. Rest in Melody.”


In memory of David Axelrod’s sonic legacy, Crave has compiled a collection of tracks for your listening pleasure. Enjoy!

Producer Diamond D sampled “The Warning Talk (Part II)” to create the beat “Hip Hop” on Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides.

Quasimoto (aka Madlib) sampled “The Signs Pt. II’ for the track “The Unseen” of his album The Unseen.

The Beatnuts sampled the Electric Prunes song “The Adoration” for their “World Famous Intro.”

Lou Rawls, “Dead End Street,” 1967.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.