David Ackles: Biography


  David & Janice Ackles on the cover of American Gothic

Born in Rock Island, Illinois, on 20 February 1937, into a show-business family, David Thomas Ackles became involved in performance at an early age. His grandfather had been a music hall comedian and his grandmother was leader of an all-woman band of the type featured in the movie Some Like It Hot. He started out in vaudeville as young as four, then, between 1946 and 1949, took a role in the film series Rusty the Dog for Columbia Pictures. David played a character named Tuck Worden. His brother in the series was played by Dwayne Hickman, who moved on to become Dobie Gillis on American TV.

During his degree course at the University of Southern California, David took a year out in Scotland to attend Edinburgh University, where he studied literature. He then returned to the States, to complete his degree in Film Studies. His skills encompassed ballet and choral music composition though he moved on to film, musical comedy and theatre as well as writing for television. He also managed jobs as a private eye and a security guard and it has been suggested that he spent some time in prison, having strayed onto the wrong tracks for a while. By the late 60s 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. These received enormous critical acclaim, although his unusual voice and eclectic style may not have been to the taste of the general public. Something of an artist's artist, David's Road to Cairo was picked up by Julie Driscoll, but failed to make the singles charts, while Spooky Tooth made a passable version of Down River. He reached a critical apogee with American Gothic before being dropped by Elektra, who clearly could not see their investment in him being recouped.

The promotion of his first album involved a lot of radio work and many people in the UK went out and bought his material as a result of hearing Down River or Blue Ribbons played live on John Peel's Radio One programme. Others didn't discover his work until the release of American Gothic, with its rave review by Derek Jewel in the Sunday Times.

In the States, David played many shows and concerts, including one in 1970 at the Troubadour, West Hollywood, supporting Elton John, who became an immediate fan.

A switch to Columbia for his fourth album didn't assist his career in music. Perhaps Columbia were looking to promote him as another Leonard Cohen, but the result was a good album that few people bought. The album wasn't even issued in Europe and fans there had to rely on obtaining one of the few imported copies. The contract was dropped and that, for many people, was the last we heard of David Ackles.

At least that was until the early 90s when the release of his three Elektra albums on CD sparked renewed interest. Phil Collins had appeared on Desert Island Discs, a UK radio show, where he cited Down River as one of his favourite tracks of all time and one that, if he were marooned on a desert island, he would want to have with him. Elvis Costello also professed himself a fan and featured one of David's songs as part of his stage act for a while.

His career in popular music cut short, David 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. Movie scripts include Word of Honour (1981, co-written with Douglas Graham, music by Bruce Langhorne, who both worked with him on Five and Dime) and Father of the Year. He also wrote a children's series for American television.

David completed the score for a musical, Sister Aimee in the early 90s and had written more for TV. He settled on a six-acre horse farm in Tujunga with Janice, his wife of 26 years. She is the lady featured on the covers of the American Gothic album. When interviewed for Q Magazine in 1994, David expressed a wish to get back in touch with Bernie Taupin to record some new songs, but that hope was never fulfilled, although he did record a great deal of material over the years. Most recently, he was involved in student theatre production and had a success with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera for the University of Southern California in 1997. An interview with him for the USC's Daily Trojan was available on the USC website, but has now been removed. A copy of it appears on my Press Articles page (see below). The interview makes scant mention of David's past life as a singer/songwriter, concentrating principally on his views on directing and on the piece he was working on.

A committed Christian - although some of his lyrics seem to express the doubts that many people have from time to time - David 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 David 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 and the prayers of all those around him. Indeed, he remained remarkably cheerful, as if in denial of his illness, despite the obvious pain that he suffered towards the end. In doing this, David's bravery became an inspiration to the many people who knew him. He died on 2 March 1999. His music will live on in our hearts.

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