|Obituaries on David Ackles in Newspapers & Magazines|
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Obituary printed in "The Independent", March 1999, written by Brian Mathieson.
There is a cliché in rock journalism about "that difficult third album". David Ackles' third album was considered by many as his masterwork. A critique of his homeland, American Gothic contained the astounding Montana Song which, in 7 minutes, told of the trials faced by the early settlers that made America. He set this to an orchestral score of Coplandesque proportions that etched a panorama reminiscent of John Ford.
Born in 1937 into a show-business family, David Ackles became involved in performance at an early age. He started out in vaudeville as young as four, then took the role of Tuck Warden in four Rusty films for Columbia Pictures (My Dog Rusty, 1948).
Having studied literature at Edinburgh University, Ackles took a degree in Film Studies at USC before working in musical comedy, theatre, film and script writing for television. By the late sixties, he was writing songs that were of stunning beauty and Elektra employed him initially as a songwriter, on the basis of hearing Blue Ribbons.
His persuasiveness led to a more elaborate contract, which resulted in three wonderful albums over five years. Ackles had a richly textured, but unusual voice for rock music. Whilst he had a tender approach to ballads, the vocal tone could develop into an angry rasp or a scornful snarl, depending on the subject matter.
He shared with people like Harry Chapin and Randy Newman the ability to write in character and to construct stories around an individual. He was the prisoner returning home to find his love had not waited for him (Down River) and the drifter who couldn't face returning to his family (Road To Cairo). But he drew the line at singing in the first person about the wounded soldier who sought to damage children's minds by slipping them pornography (Candy Man).
Many of Ackles' songs related to the downtrodden or to those who had created difficult situations for themselves. In each case, he tried to give his characters an element of self-respect and dignity. He then added music that ranged from simple, beautiful melodies to complex arrangements that could have come from the pen of Bernstein or Gershwin.
His first album used the Elektra house band, yet his arrangements brought the best out of his musicians. Not for him the notion of a bass player who simply plodded along to keep the beat - instead, the bass line was often a counterpoint to the main theme. By the third album, Ackles was using a full orchestra and his arrangements showed his understanding of a wide range of musical styles.
The title track of American Gothic said in four minutes what it took David Lynch a complete TV series to describe. He then went on to produce a series of vignettes that summed up life in his home country in the late twentieth century. Interestingly, the album was made from the perspective of living in England.
Despite enormous critical acclaim, his unusual voice and eclectic style was not to the taste of the general public. Something of an artist's artist, Ackles had a number of songs covered by others. Although he reached a critical apogee with American Gothic he was dropped by Elektra, who clearly could not see their investment in him being recouped.
A switch to Columbia for his fourth album didn't assist his career in music. Perhaps Columbia was looking to promote him as another Leonard Cohen, but the result was a good album that few people bought. The contract was terminated and nothing more was heard of David Ackles until Elektra re-released their three albums on CD in the mid-nineties.
His career in popular music cut short, Ackles returned to writing TV scripts, along with work on ballet scores and some lecturing on commercial songwriting. In 1981, a drunk driver rammed his car and his arm was badly damaged. A steel hip meant he spent six months in a wheelchair, but he fought free of it when asked to choreograph a show. It still took years before he was able to return to the piano.
Ackles completed the score for a musical, Sister Aimee in the early 90s and continued to write for TV. He settled on a six-acre horse farm near Los Angeles and worked as a professor of theatre for the USC. He was involved in student theatre production and had a success with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera in 1997. An open and warm man, he was well loved and greatly respected by his students.
As a committed Christian - although some of his lyrics seem to express the doubts that all of us have from time to time - Ackles was a member of the Pasadena All Saints Episcopal Church. He had strong commitments to helping others, both in a direct sense and through his writing. Although Ackles overcame a bout of cancer a few years back, it cost him part of his left lung. He then became very unwell again in 1997 but clung on, through chemotherapy until his death last week.
It is a strange aspect of popular music that some people can remain in the business for many years, purveying difficult or complex sounds, while others of equal talent have their careers foreshortened by record companies that cannot appreciate their worth. Perhaps if Ackles had been valued as much in his own country as he was in Europe, we would have had many more than those four magnificent albums.
David T Ackles, singer/songwriter, theatre professor; born Rock Island, Illinois 20 February 1937; married Janice Vogel 1972 (one son); died Tujunga, California 2 March 1999.
Obituary printed in "The Guardian", March 1999, written by Christopher Hawtree.
The singer-songwriter David Ackles, who has died of cancer aged 62, had a rollercoaster career which reached its high point in 1972 when American Gothic was Melody Maker's album of the year.
This was his third Elektra album after David Ackles and Subway To the Country. Written in England, it is the equal of the Band's work and superior to most of Bruce Springsteen's. It ranges across such subjects as the military, infidelity, Native Americans, and, in Montana Song, a picture of the United States through the eyes of early settlers. It is one of the few pop songs that can carry for 10 minutes, and its complex musical structures were overseen by Bernie Taupin.
Born to a show-business family in Rock Island, Illinois, Ackles took to the stage in vaudeville at the age of four, and in the late 1940s appeared in the Rusty film series. During a wild youth, he was jailed five times for theft but, in the end, decided that studying literature would bring greater knowledge to his lyric-writing. He read English literature at Edinburgh University and then film studies at the University of Southern California. He had begun to compose and was enthusiastic about ballet and choral music. He also went on a monster binge, which ended up with him married and in Las Vegas. The union did not survive sobriety.
Ackles's post-USC life resembled a Jim Thompson novel. He worked as a pianist, gardener, playground director, private detective and automobile salesman - no bad experience for someone who would take America as his subject. After some television scriptwriting, he got a songwriting contract with Elektra Records in the late 1960s - his Road To Cairo was Julie Driscoll's follow-up to her version of This Wheel's On Fire. After American Gothic, he made a fourth album, Five And Dime, for Columbia.
Ackles then lived by writing TV scripts and ballet scores, and lecturing on songwriting. He bought a six-acre farm in Tujunga and became a pillar of the local church. In 1981 he spent six months in a wheelchair after a drunken driver smashed into him and needed a steel hip - his arm never fully recovered. Once again, he found joy in stage work, and returned to UCS a couple of years ago for a much-praised student production of The Threepenny Opera. He is survived by, his wife, Janice, and his son.
David Ackles, singer-songwriter, born February 20, 1937; died March 2, 1999.
Obituary produced by Reuters in March 2002, for publication in newspapers throughout the world.
He could have been another Leonard Cohen or Randy Newman, but when he died earlier this month in complete obscurity, American singer-songwriter David Ackles had to be content with the vague appellation "an artist's artist."'
As often happens in such cases, major pop stars have issued glowing tributes to Ackles. Between 1968 and 1974, he released four albums (on Elektra and Columbia) that bombed. Ignored in America, he enjoyed a cult following in Britain, where it seems the people who bought his albums turned out to be huge in their own right.
Elton John and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, Phil Collins and Elvis Costello have hailed Ackles as nothing short of a genius.
"He is one of the best that America had to offer,'' says John, for whom Ackles was the opening act when he made his triumphant American debut at Los Angeles' Troubadour club in 1970.
"It is a mystery to me why his wonderful songs are not better known,'' Costello says.
Indeed, as the obituary in Britain's Independent newspaper noted, "Many of Ackles' songs related to the downtrodden or to those who had created difficult situations for themselves. His music ranged from simple melodies to complex arrangements that could have come from the pen of Bernstein or Gershwin.''
Not exactly the stuff of top 40 radio. But Ackles, who had tasted stardom as a child actor during the 1940s (Tuck Worden in four "Rusty'' features), turned his attention to other pursuits.
He became a Christian, wrote scripts and scores, and spent the last seven years of his life as executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Society of Fund-Raising Executives.
Ackles died of cancer on March 2. He was 66.
Obituary in the May 1999 edition of Mojo by Andy Gill
David Ackles: Unflinching singer-songwriter
OF ALL THE SINGER-SONGWRITERS signed to Jac Holzman's Elektra Records in the late '60s, David Ackles was by far the most individual. He played piano rather than guitar, which alone made his debut single Down River a striking enough proposition on its release in 1968. But it was Ackles' voice which first caught the ear, a warm, lugubrious baritone which reflected the maturity of both the performer and his work.
Born into an Illinois showbusiness family in 1937 - granddad and grandma were vaudeville comedian and women's bandleader, respectively - Ackles was briefly a child actor before studying literature at Edinburgh University and film at the University Of Southern California. His talent for evocative melancholy became clear on his eponymous debut album (released as The Road To Cairo in the USA). Ackles was never afraid of tackling big themes like loss of faith, addiction, childhood trauma and the withering of love; the songs on his second album, Subway To The Country (1969), tackled unpleasant subjects - mental illness, an amputee soldier's pornographic revenge on small children. Though impressive, its creepy, cynical tone proved commercially disastrous, and by the time of his masterpiece, American Gothic (1972), he was struggling to keep his career alive.
Following a move to Columbia which stalled after just one album, Ackles retired from rock and moved to LA, where he worked on ballet scores, wrote TV scripts and lectured. In the early '90s, he scored a musical, Sister Aimee; later, as adjunct professor of musical theatre at the University of Southern California, he directed a successful 1997 student production of The Threepenny Opera.
Having recovered from an earlier bout of cancer which cost him part of his left lung, Ackles suffered a relapse in 1997, eventually dying on March 2. He leaves his wife of 26 years, Janice, and a son, George, but he w ill be sorely missed by all those touched by his work.
Obituary and Appraisal of David's work in the May 1999 edition of Record Collector by Mark Brend:
By the late 60s, Jac Holzman's Elektra Records had grown from humble folk roots into a unique hybrid of creativity and commerciality. Bankrolled by big sellers like the Doors, Holzman assembled an unprecedented array of musical talent, who produced some of the great records of the era. It must have seemed like the ideal environment for a literate singer-songwriter and pianist like David Ackles, who signed to the company in 1967.
Born in Rock Island, Illinois on 20/2/37, Ackles was immersed in show business from an early age. His grandfather had been a music hall comedian, his mother a radio personality and his father a keen amateur musician. At five, he trod the boards with his sister in a music hall duet, the Ackles Twins. A few years later he played a supporting role to Rusty the Dog in a series of B-movies.
By the late 50s Ackles was studying English Literature at Edinburgh University, followed by a degree in Film Studies at the University of Southern California. During this period he became involved in theatre productions, and began composing songs, ballet scores and choral music. After finishing his studies he spent most of his twenties in a series of dead-end jobs, like security guard and private detective, all the while honing his songwriting skills. In 1965 he witnessed the Watts race riots in Los Angeles, an experience he later captured in "Blue Ribbons". This song attracted the attention of an old college friend, David Anderle, who was a staff producer for Elektra. In due course Ackles was signed up, initially as a songwriter.
After Holzman failed to interest other artists in recording any of his new signing's songs, it was suggested that Ackles should record an album himself. He needed no persuasion, and went into the studio with the Elektra house-band (who released albums as Rhinoceros). David Anderle and Russ Miller shared production chores. The resulting eponymous album was released in 1968, before Ackles had ever performed live as a solo artist. It was reissued, with a different sleeve, as "The Road to Cairo", in 1971. This album was the first of his classic works - a near flawless set of dark, intense songs performed with great feeling.
Already in his 30s, Ackles possessed a lived-in, sonorous voice that lent his poetic songs a sense of gravitas missing from much popular music of the era. Michael Fonfara's sombre yet melodic organ playing complemented his songs and voice perfectly. Many of these early tunes, although performed with conventional rock instrumentation (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards), were already displaying Ackles' interest in musical forms not often explored on conventional rock albums. For every Jim Webb-like expansive ballad (such as "Blue Ribbons"), there was a distinctive oddity, like the Brechtian "Laissez Faire".
Standout tracks include the opening "Road To Cairo" (Cairo, Georgia, not Egypt), which featured a stinging blues guitar solo, a rarity on Ackles' albums. "Down River" is an early illustration of Ackles' fondness for writing in the first person, often about downtrodden losers on the margins of society. He was to explain later that this did not necessarily mean he was writing autobiographically. These first-person songs are best understood as the work of a dramatist - an actor as well as a singer - revealing the strong influence of Ackles' theatrical background.
Fonfara's playing dominated the central song, the funereal "His Name Is Andrew", which Martin Carthy covered on his "Landfall" album. A pessimistic narrative of religious manipulation and doubt, it struck a stark contrast to the euphoric free-love anthems popular at the time. This was the first Ackles song which critics found hard to categorise - a situation which became commonplace by the time he reached his third album.
Despite critical acclaim and some airplay the album was not a commercial success on either side of the Atlantic. Two UK singles - "Down River" and "Laissez Faire" - likewise failed to chart. Nonetheless a number of other artists apart from Martin Carthy covered Ackles' songs, including Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity, whose version of "Road To Cairo" was a near-hit follow up to the massive "This Wheel's On Fire". Around this time, Ackles performed live and appeared on TV. All the signs were that he would develop into a significant force as a songwriter and recording artist.
The follow-up album, "Subway To The Country", appeared in 1969. Russ Miller alone got the production credits, and only guitarist Doug Hastings survived from first album. He and Ackles were joined top session players, including Lonnie Mack who were marshalled to impressive effect by arranger and conductor Fred Myrow. He was another old friend, who went on to write film scores, including the futuristic Charlton Heston thriller, Soylent Green.
Benefiting from the often extravagant arrangements, "Subway To The Country" was another quality record, without quite matching the classic status of the first album. Highpoints include the epic "Out On The Road", distinguished by a vocal performance of unbridled emotional power; and the eerie "Candy Man" (tackling the unfashionable subject of child abuse). Sales were modest, but Ackles' reputation continued to grow.
In no hurry to embark on a third album, Ackles decamped to the UK and a rural idyll in Buckinghamshire. The songs he wrote there appeared on the album for which he is best remembered. "American Gothic", released in 1972, was produced by Elton John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin. Ackles had once gigged with Elton in the States and there was considerable mutual admiration. The album was a highly ambitious song-cycle taking Ackles' homeland as its theme. He commented on the sleeve that "it seems like you get a sharper perspective on your own country when you're away from it". For the first time Ackles wrote the arrangements as well as the songs, a task which he apparently found enormously time-consuming. Whatever energy was expended in preparation for the album was well spent, though - "American Gothic" was an unequivocal artistic triumph.
Drawing on a wide range of musical influences, it was a work of breathtaking ambition. A number of critics, including Derek Jewel in The Sunday Times, hailed it as a landmark, a whole new direction in popular music. In many ways this acclaim became a rod for Ackles' back. More than a few people bought the album on the strength of the reviews, and were baffled by the complexity of both songs and arrangements. Ackles himself felt immensely pressured by what he saw as unreasonably high expectations on him.
Even now, "American Gothic" remains hard to describe and impossible to categorise. Elements of folk, blues, country and gospel were interwoven with echoes of Gilbert & Sullivan and contemporary classical composers. Many of the songs, like "Ballad Of The Ship Of State" and the ten-minute "Montana Song", were elaborate constructions that eschewed the conventional verse/chorus/middle eight structure of most rock songs. It was, however, in no way related to some of the similarly complex progressive efforts of the day, but more like a stage adaptation of an expansive novel of American life. It is a record that demands attention and effort.
Sales of "American Gothic" were a slight improvement on the first two albums: it even crept briefly into the lower reaches of the US charts. But Ackles, a perfectionist who had gone over budget on all three albums, was deeply in debt to Elektra and still, despite the critical plaudits, not shifting large numbers of records. By mutual agreement his contract was terminated and he went to Columbia signed by Clive Davis, a long-term fan. It was the beginning of the end of his recording career.
Shortly after Ackles arrived at Columbia, Davis left, replaced by people who either didn't understand or didn't care about their new signing. Ackles was allowed to record one more album, but that was it. No promotion, no support. Disillusioned, he resolved to give up recording, struggling on as a songwriter for a while before moving to the next phase of his life.
That elusive fourth album, "Five And Dime", released in 1973, is unknown even to many die-hard Ackles fans. It was never released in the UK, although a few US promotional copies did find their way over here. Meanwhile, sales in the States were minimal. It turned out to be another good record, although it lacked the intensity of his earlier releases. Only "Abervan", a narrative about the Welsh mining disaster, explored similar musical territory to the previous album. "Surf's Down', an ironic poke at the surfing scene of the 60's, is a plausible but distinctly un-Ackles-like parody of the genre - lent authenticity by the falsetto harmonies of Dean Torrance (from Jan and Dean). Written, arranged and produced by Ackles, the album was recorded mainly in a makeshift studio in his house.
By the late 70s Ackles had all but disappeared from the music business. He made a living writing film music and TV scripts, lecturing on commercial songwriting and latterly teaching theatre studies. His three Elektra albums were reissued on CD in 1992, although they were soon deleted again. This prompted a modest renewal in interest, and sections of the British music press started to mention him reverentially. Elvis Costello expressed his admiration; Phil Collins selected "Down River" as one of his Desert Island Discs.
Ackles' subsequent life was not without incident. In 1981, a drunk-driver hit his car. In a wheelchair for six months, Ackles needed a hip-replacement, while his arm was so badly injured that he couldn't play piano for some years. In the early 90s he became ill with lung cancer, but made a good recovery after having a part of a lung removed. Yet in an interview with Q a few years back, Ackles exuded good-humoured contentment. Living on a six-acre farm in Tujunga, California, he was by then a committed Christian and a pillar of a strongly socially active church.
In autumn 1997, the cancer returned, and David Ackles died on 2nd March 1999, a few days after his 62nd birthday. His wife Janice, who featured on the cover of "American Gothic", and their son George, survive him. Shortly before he died he began to plan a new release of songs drawn from a wealth of previously unissued material. His family and friends intend to see this project to fruition as a tribute to him.
Ackles achieved neither the fame nor the legendary status of so many of his Elektra label mates. Nonetheless, two of his albums have a genuine claim to classic status, and all of his recordings were unique for successfully assimilating a range of influences not normally associated with rock music. He was a great and underrated talent.
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