His sound, as immediately recognizable as it was sparse, combined cavernous, heavily miked drums with baroque orchestration (just a step away from overblown) and ahead-of-his-time themes ranging from the environment to heightened mental awareness.
Born in Los Angeles in 1936, Axelrod learned about arrangement and production largely on his own. He began working as a staff producer for the cool jazz labels Specialty and Contemporary, and led a pair of 1959 LPs -- Free for All by Frank Rosolino and The Fox by Harold Land -- that developed an earthy response to the trademarked light, airy sound of West Coast jazz.
By the mid-'60s, Axelrod had grown famous in soul and jazz circles for his excellent recording skills, including two of the finest performance albums of the era, Lou Rawls' Live! and Cannonball Adderley's Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at "The Club" (the latter was actually a studio date). Both artists tapped him for studio work as well, and Rawls especially benefited by scoring no less than five pop hits during 1966-1967. Capitol rewarded one of its most successful producers just one year later, releasing Axelrod's solo debut, Song of Innocence. Based on the visionary, mystical poetry of William Blake (as was its follow-up, Songs of Experience), the album sounded like nothing else from its era, with melodramatic strings tied to heavy, echoed breakbeats -- often supplied by session drummer supremo Earl Palmer. After Songs of Experience, Axelrod turned his attention to the growing plight of the environment with 1970's Earth Rot.
Even aside from his burgeoning solo career, Axelrod stayed busy as a producer during the '70s; he recorded several Cannonball Adderley LPs plus works by Gene Ammons and Joe Williams. He also started an association with Sesame Street, for which he co-wrote dozens of songs. After 1980's Marchin', he took an extended hiatus from recording. Axelrod returned in 1993 with Requiem: The Holocaust on Capitol's Liberty subsidiary, and recorded a surprising tribute to roots music, The Big Country, two years later. In 1999, after several big dance and hip-hop producers (including Prince Paul and De La Soul, the Beatnuts, and DJ Shadow) made Axelrod a frequent sample source, Stateside released the retrospective 1968 to 1970: An Axelrod Anthology. Album reissues appeared the following year, and Axelrod even recorded a remix of "Rabbit in the Headlights," originally by the DJ Shadow project UNKLE.
Axelrod returned to his beloved Studio B for an eponymous album released in 2001 on the Mo Wax label. Loosely based on Goethe's Faust, it had begun production 30 years earlier and was completed with nods to some of the beat makers who had kept his music alive. Three years later, Axelrod conducted an orchestral performance of his work at London's Royal Festival Hall. A CD/DVD documentation of the concert arrived later in the decade, as did a handful of archival releases. The Edge (2005) compiled Capitol-era highlights from Axelrod's first three albums and productions for David McCallum, Letta Mbulu, Don Randi, Rawls, and Adderley. The Edge of Music (2006), a two-disc set, widened the scope with later solo and collaborative cuts. Three albums and a disc of instrumental versions were bundled for The Warner/Reprise Sessions: The Electric Prunes & Pride (2007). On February 5, 2017, DJ Shadow announced Axelrod's death and concluded a remembrance with gratitude: "You are a bonafide hero to an entire generation of hip-hop kids and musical dreamers." ~ John Bush & Andy Kellman