|David Ackles - Biography|
David Thomas Ackles was born on February 20th 1937 in Rock Island, Illinois. He had two siblings, sisters, Sally and Kim. The Ackles were a generation’s old, show business family, and as youngsters David and Sally performed in vaudeville as The Ackles Twins. In the mid-nineteen forties the family relocated to California where between 1946 and 1949 David starred in a string of Rusty the Dog movies. Following high school, David enrolled as an English major at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. As part of his course, in 1957/58, he studied at Edinburgh University in Scotland. Returning to USC Ackles became a Communications [theatre, film and music] postgraduate, and played the male lead in "Make It Move," the first USC student movie to be filmed in colour.
Jac Holzman launched the Elektra Records in New York in 1951, and moved the label’s HQ to the West Coast in 1966. After graduating from USC, Ackles worked as a pianist, gardener, private detective, security guard and automobile salesman, while using his free time to hone his skill as a composer. He composed ballet and choral music, as well as wrote songs. David Anderle, who Ackles had known at USC went on to work at Elektra Records, and hearing his songs recommended David to Holzman. Already thirty years old, Ackles signed with the label in 1967, as a songwriter. David eventually signed a recording contract with Elektra. Andrerle and Russ Miller [Elektra’s then, head of song publishing] shared the production credit on his self-titled, ten-song debut recording. Members of what became the Elektra band Rhinoceros supported Ackles during the January 1968 recording sessions. Released midway through that year “David Ackles,” included the classics “Down River,” “Road To Cairo” and “Blue Ribbons.” The album failed to ignite as a major seller, although the British band, Brian Auger Trinity, featuring vocalist Julie Driscoll, who had just enjoyed a # 5 single in the UK with Dylan/Danko’s "This Wheel's On Fire," cut an atmospheric version of “Road To Cairo.” It failed to chart.
None of Ackles' Elektra albums were major sellers and Holzman released David from his contract. Ackles signed next with an admirer of his work, Clive Davis, head of CBS Records. Davis departed the label shortly afterwards, and when Ackles’ “Five & Dime” was released it sank quick due to lack of promotion. Ackles never released another recording during his lifetime. He wrote screenplays with Douglas Graham who had helped him produce “Five & Dime,” and continued to write music. In time he entered the academic world, becoming an Assistant Professor in the School of Theatre, at his former alma mater, USC. In 1981 David was involved in an auto accident, the victim of a drunk driver. In the early nineteen-nineties Ackles completed work on the musical “Sister Aimee.” Diagnosed as suffering from lung cancer, around the same time, he recovered after part of his left lung was removed, but the cancer returned in 1997. David Ackles finally succumbed March 2nd 1999 in Los Angeles, California.
|David Ackles - Album Reviews|
|“Five & Dime” Raven Records|
You could theorise that, musically, Ackles had eloquently said – in words and music - everything that it was possible to say with his three Elektra recordings. That’s a theorem to which I would happily subscribe. Having returned to America, he attempted a simpler approach, recording much of “Five & Dime” at his Pacific Palisades home. Considering that this was thirty years ago, for those times, it was an innovative approach. These days it’s commonplace. Where necessary, the orchestrations were added in Los Angeles at Paramount Recording. Side 1 of the vinyl version of the album was sub-titled “5 cent side” and Side 2 the “10 cent side.” I’m certain that, much as he probably aimed for voice and piano simplicity on “Five & Dime,” he could not purge the sound of an orchestra from his music. Throughout his recording career David consistently employed an approach to melody writing – he also penned ballet and choral music – that was influenced [stylistically] by the European’s Brecht/Weill, as well as New York born Richard Peaslee. Here, the rumbustious vaudeville styled opening cut, “Everybody Has A Story” – “Everybody has a story, Everybody has a tale to tell. Lost riches, Open ditches, Rooms that smell,” is a prime example of the latter approach.
As the gentle, waltz paced “I’ve Been Loved” opens David introduces the main players – old, retired folk who now have all the time in the world left on their hands. Some of them continue their life journey alone, but their memories provide precious sustenance, and it is their voice he echoes in “I’ve been loved, So I know I’m alive.” The female lead in “Jenna Saves” inherits Uncle George’s money as a young child and from that point on shares nothing in her life with any living person. Wishing for redemption, on her death she bequeaths her riches to the Lord - “Now she rides a golden horse, in hell, of course.” Illinois born, but raised in California, Ackles’ title “Surf’s Down” parodies “Surf’s Up,” the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks tune that the Beach Boys had recorded a couple of years earlier. Lyrically it also parodies surfer’s language, [unusually] possesses an upbeat pop melody, and in the credibility stakes includes a backing vocal from Dean Torrance of Jan & Dean fame.
The good time sounding “Berry Tree” is a testament to beauty as well as the riches of nature, while “Run Pony Run” is an upbeat song about seeking freedom. On 21st October 1966, the name “Aberfan,” a Welsh mining village located near Merthyr Tydfil, became headline news worldwide, when the unstable # 7 waste tip enveloped a farm cottage, Pantglas Junior School and some nearby houses. 116 school children and 28 adults perished that morning. Ackles retells the story, warts and all, and in a way reversed his achievement with “American Gothic.” In the latter his lyrics looked homeward from a foreign land, with “Aberfan” he looked eastward across the ocean to a land where he once lived. “House Above The Strand” is a tender marriage proposal, “A Photograph Of You” is filled with precious memories of what might have been, while “Such A Woman” is a slow building blues song. As for “Postcards,” I can only reiterate, pretty well, what I said two years ago, “The 5 cent side ended with the heartbreaking tale of lost love "One God Woman's Man" and mention of an unsent postcard, while, in the 10 cent side closer, "Postcards," the narrator muses, "May I write you from time to time? A picture postcard from the five and dime?" It was as if Ackles was saying "farewell for time being." Sadly he never officially released another recording during his lifetime.”
The aforementioned seven-song enhancement is titled “Ackles Rendered,” and apart from a rendition of the ballad “Your Face, Your Smile,” from David’s 1990’s musical “Sister Aimee,” performed by American singer Stacy Sullivan, five tracks [dating from the late sixties/early seventies] feature a quartet of songs from his self-titled Elektra debut. The closest that Ackles came to becoming a hit songwriter was in the UK, with “Road To Cairo” by the Brian Auger Trinity with Julie Driscoll. Auger had just scored a # 5 British Pop single with “This Wheel’s On Fire,” but failed to chart significantly with Ackles tune. In “Down River” the listener is privy to one side of a conversation between old lovers [years after their split], and realisation [that there is no way back] for the ex-con male character arrives with “Sure I remember Ben we went all through school, Is that right, well he ain’t no fool.” Performed here by Spooky Tooth and The Hollies, neither vocalist captures the inherent desperation and heartbreak in the story line. Obscure British vocalist, Louisa Jane White, sings David’s tale of inter-racial love “Blue Ribbons,” and the legendary Martin Carthy delivers a mournful reading of “His Name Is Andrew,” the tale of a loner. Finally, the sixth song [recorded in 1970] is the title cut of David’s sophomore album “Subway To The Country,” tastefully interpreted by Harry Belafonte.
Lacking promotion, circa 1973, Ackles’ fourth and final recording sank without trace after supporter and label boss Clive Davis departed CBS. Thirty years on, in the wake of the Elektra trio being reissued by Collectors Choice two years ago, those nice Australians at Raven Records have thankfully resurrected, to CD, the final part of Ackles precious recorded legacy.
Score 8 out of 10
|David Ackles – Features|
|Kerrville Kronikle obituary|
My first musical memory of David Ackles is hearing “Down River” on John Peel’s legendary Radio London show “The Perfumed Garden” – or had Peel joined BBC Radio 1 by then? It’s hard to recall, after all it was the sixties! All of David’s recordings possessed something unique, with stylistic influence c/o Brecht, Weill and Copeland. This century and millennium will soon be gone, but one David Ackles song will shine on as a beacon in the canon of American 20th century contemporary music. I refer to “Montana Song.” Like Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” it captured, perfectly, a facet of the vast and rich tapestry that is America. David Ackles, thank you for your precious spirit and for sharing your music with us.
Arthur Wood, Kerrville Kronikle
|Requim For A Truly Unsung Giant of American Music|
|Part 1 - In The Beginning|
Lung cancer was diagnosed during the early nineteen-nineties and although he rallied after having part of his left lung removed, David Ackles finally succumbed to the disease on March 2nd 1999 in Los Angeles, California. During his lifetime Ackles only recorded and officially released four albums, the initial three of which – “David Ackles,” “Subway To The Country” and “American Gothic” – were recently reissued in the States by Collector’s Choice Music. In my opinion they are totally unique works, and this is the story of the man who created them…………
David Thomas Ackles was born on February 20th 1937 in Rock Island, Western Illinois. He had two siblings, his sisters, Sally and Kim. Show business had been in the Ackles genes for a couple of generations. His grandfather had been a music hall comedian while his grandmother had led an all-woman big band. As for David’s parents, his father was a talented amateur musician, while his mother, Queenie, who had been born in the UK, came from a line of vaudeville performers. David’s first taste of the roar of the crowd and the smell of grease paint came as a youngster when he and Sally performed as a vaudeville duo, The Ackles Twins. By the end of World War II the family had moved to the West Coast and David went on to star in the Rusty the dog movies. The first was “The Return Of Rusty”  and from “Son Of Rusty”  onward he was credited in the cast list as Tuck Worden. Subsequent titles in the series included “Rusty Leads The Way” , “My Dog Rusty” , “Rusty Saves A Life”  and “Rusty’s Birthday” . This b-movie series was modelled upon the success of the Lassie and Rin Tin Tin films. At the tender age of twelve, David’s movie career came to a temporary end.
After graduating from high school, David enrolled in a degree course as an English major, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. For his junior year, 1957/58, David transferred to Scotland and Edinburgh University where he studied West Saxon, the source language for English. As he told Ptolemaic Terrascope interviewer Kenny MacDonald in 1994, “My father's family came from Aberdeen, and most of my mother's family are from England. I still have some distant cousins around Tring in Hertfordshire.” When Ackles returned to USC he went on to major as a Communications [theatre, film and music] postgraduate. David became involved in film making once again, and appeared in “Make It Move,” a parody of “West Side Story,” and the first USC student movie to be made in colour. Directed by Larry Kent Johnson, the cinematographer was Gary Kurtz, George Lucas’ early career partner. The female lead, Maria, was played by current day KOGO radio talk show host Lynn Harper [using the name Debra Hunt], while David played the male lead, Tony.
When Jac Holzman launched his, New York based, Elektra Record label in 1951, the recordings he releases during the ensuing decade focused mainly upon the acoustic sounds of folk musicians and ethnic blues artists. During that decade, Cynthia Gooding, Sonny Terry, Oscar Brand and Jean Ritchie regularly recorded for the label. By the mid-sixties the imprint was issuing albums by contemporary acoustic performers like Bob Gibson & Bob Camp [and as solo acts], Judy Collins, Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs. When Elektra launched its 74000 series of releases in 1966, Holzman switched the label’s operating base to America’s West Coast, in the process embracing local electric rock bands such as Love, The Doors and Rhinoceros. While the focus of the label appeared to shift, the truth is, Holzman continued to release album by solo singer/songwriters although many of those acts used electric as well as acoustic instruments. Albeit, in some instances, for a short time, Tim Buckley, Steve Noonan [a friend of Jackson Browne] and David Blue all found a home on the label. Where the foregoing acts became Elektra recording artists in their late teens or early twenties, David Ackles arrived at the label in 1967 as a thirty-year old. Let’s backtrack a little however…...
Graduating from USC in the early sixties, Ackles went on to work as a pianist, gardener, playground director, private detective, security guard and automobile salesman, while spending his free hours honing his skills as a composer. As well as writing songs, he composed ballet and choral music. It is said that David composed “Blue Ribbons” after witnessing the 1965 Watts race riots, and while the event is not specifically referenced in his lyric, blue ribbons could be interpreted as a metaphor for a loss of innocence. David Anderle, a contemporary of Ackles at USC, was, by the mid-sixties, working at Elektra Records. After hearing the song Anderle approached Holzman, and Ackles was signed to the label as a writer. The song-publishing arm of Elektra Records was being managed, at that time, by Russ Miller. Another story suggests that Ackles wrote “Blue Ribbons” in the hope that Cher would cover it. Considering that, during the later half of the sixties, alongside more pop oriented material, Cher cut songs by Dino Valenti, Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin and Dylan, the latter does possible.
Since they already retained a business connection to Ackles, Andrerle and Miller shared the production credit on what became David’s eponymous, self-titled, ten-song debut recording. While he played piano and sang, Ackles was supported on the January 1968 recording sessions by Doug Hastings [guitar], Danny Weis [guitar], Michael Fonfara [organ], Jerry Penrod [bass], John Keliehor [drums]. Over the latter part 1967, apart from ex-Daily Flash drummer Keliehor, the foregoing quartet of players had gelled as part of a supergroup constructed by Elektra Records producers, Paul Rothchild and Frazier Mohawk [aka Barry Friedman]. Augmented by John Finley [vocals], Alan Gerber [piano] and Billy Mundi [drums], in May 1968, this seven–piece band recorded the album “Rhinoceros.”
Released midway through the year “David Ackles” opened with the blues tinged “The Road To Cairo.” As I said a couple of paragraphs back, Ackles was an accomplished storyteller and he launched his career with one of his finest. It has been stated in print, by some reviewers, that the song title refers to Cairo, Georgia but I tend to believe the song is set in Illinois. Cairo is the most southerly town in that state and the road weary narrator mentions “I wrecked by Lincoln in St. Jo.” There is a Saint Joseph in East Central Illinois [and none in Georgia], apart from which Ackles had been born in Illinois. Having left his wife and family at some indeterminate earlier time, the narrator is on his way home to Cairo. Picked up by a rich kid – “Hey you got another cigar ? Son I sure like this car. Oh from your daddy as a gift” - the story unfolds twenty-two miles outside Cairo, as the narrator experiences second thoughts. With the words, “I been travellin’, Gone a long long time, Don’t know what I’d find, Scared of what I’d find,” the narrator alights from the car under the pretext of buying gifts. The sound of Fonfara’s organ builds gradually over the five-minute duration, and is joined by the other instruments as the song builds to a final crescendo. “When Love Is Gone” is a languid, bass and keyboard driven, song of lost love. Years before Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home,” Ackles wrote “Sonny Come Home” a nightmarish work in which the lead character focuses initially upon things that are broken – glass, bicycle wheels, children’s toys - and closes the opening verse with a reference to “old wounds,” whose precise nature is not defined. Regularly called “home” throughout the song, as it closes Sonny cries in desperation “I hear you, I hear you, But I can’t come home,” as if trapped within some invisible mantle. Although bearing the title, “What A Happy Day,” Ackles employs a melancholic voice to deliver the lyric. As to the precise reason for the happy day, taken in a historical context, numerous interpretations are possible. The voice in “Down River” is that of a recently released ex-convict who returns home to find that his love, Rosie, has a new man. Appearing to take the news in his stride, with the casual parting “I got things to do,” Ackles goes on to repeat the name “Rosie,” over and over, as the volume of Fonfara’s organ builds. The penultimate song “His Name Is Andrew” presents the voice of a character who “works in a canning factory, doesn’t have a friend, and chooses to wait for the end alone.” Having previously led a religious life, aged twenty–one, Andrew strays on to a less than righteous path. Returning to the fold, doubt fills his mind when he hears a voice claim “God is dead.” Where Andrew feels that he has no need for human contact and obviously suffers because of that decision, the narrator of the gentle closer “Be My Friend” craves friendship. Mention of Gilead in the second verse, recalls the verse of the traditional hymn that runs “There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin sick soul.”
Following the appearance of “David Ackles,” a number of songs were covered. In the summer of 1968 the Brian Auger Trinity, featuring vocalist Julie Driscoll, enjoyed a Pop Chart # 5 in the UK with Dylan n' Danko song "This Wheel's On Fire." Sadly, their follow-up single, “Road To Cairo,” which enjoyed significant airplay on BBC radio in the UK failed to chart. “Down River” was covered by Spooky Tooth on “The Last Puff” , and The Hollies included it on their album “Romany” . In 1971 Martin Carthy’s "Landfall" album released by Phillips [and revived six years later by Topic Records], included Ackles “His Name Is Andrew.” “David Ackles” was reissued in the States in 1971, with new artwork and bearing the title "The Road to Cairo."
|Requim For A Truly Unsung Giant of American Music|
|Part 2 – "Subway To The Country" and more......|
Last week in Part 1, we traced David‘s life from his birth in Illinois in 1937, through to his early teen career as a movie actor and on to his college years at USC. Ackles lyrics consistently avoided naval gazing self-introspection, a forte of many writers during that era. Much like an actor temporarily adopts the persona of the person he is playing, Ackles inhabited the story songs he wrote and sang. As last week’s episode closed, it was 1968, and David had released his debut solo album. It yielded two singles in the UK, "Down River" and "Laissez Faire," but neither charted.
The following year Ackles recorded his sophomore album. Where David’s debut had clocked in at thirty-eight minutes duration and ten songs, ”Subway To The Country" only featured eight Ackles originals and lasted thirty-four minutes. Russ Miller was retained as the producer, while the Doug Hastings was the only debut album session musician. Miller brought in the late Fred Myrow to arrange and conduct the strings, and the session players included Jim Horn [sax], Larry Knechtel [keyboards], Jim Gordon [drums] and Elektra recording artist, Lonnie Mack [guitar]. If the latter amounted to the changes, Ackles new songs continued to plough the song theatre genre, albeit orchestrated on this occasion.
Although the copy I own states “radio play only,“ it is claimed that this 7" single was included with initial copies of Ackles second album. The album title track appears on one side and an interview with David on the other. In relation to the album title track, David talks [during the interview] of New York being his least favourite city, and that children who grow up there rarely experience the magical and multi-faceted joy of a rural upbringing. The album’s opening track, “Main Line Saloon,” sets the scene with “It’s a bar that never closes” and “I recommend you take a friend, And hold your noses.” David goes on to paint a suitably horrific picture of addiction with “All you see are yellow fingers, Trying to hide the face that crumbles” and “On the day your arms are christened.” In closing the song Ackles employs discordant piano sounds to define the final madness that addiction brings.
In "Candy Man" a harpsichord and kettle-drum immediately create a nightmarish feel, while the lyric explores the tenet that we humans should respect each other. Oscar, a one armed veteran returns from an unnamed war and buys a candy store in the “nicest part of town.” Dubbed “The crippled clown” by local adults, he wreaks revenge by placing pornographic pictures in the bags of sweets he sells to local kids. Facing imprisonment, Oscar exposes society’s double standards with the stinging words, “I only did to some of you, what you all did to me.” By its title alone, the lyrical inspiration for "Inmates Of The Institution" is somewhat obvious, while the doom laden orchestration mirrors the European feel of Brecht/Weill/Blitzstein’s “Pirate Jenny” and Peaslee’s “Marat/Sade.” Two years earlier, Judy Collins had included the latter song on her “In My Life” album. With the atmospherically orchestrated ballad "That's No Reason To Cry," Ackles delivers another true love song. When compared with Ackles' subsequent masterwork, "Montana Song," the Coplandesque sounding album title track could easily be interpreted as a late twentieth century antidote to the generation who sought their future [and financial fortune] in the city. With “If I ever get three bucks together, I’m gonna buy three tickets on a train, I will carry you through clean smelling rain, One boy to a shoulder, Hey ! We better go quick before we get older,” Ackles encompasses environmental degradation, simple family values, the need to impart knowledge and so much more.
“American Gothic” was released 1972, and completed Ackles’ trio of Elektra album releases. At the close of 1972 the now defunct UK weekly music publication, Melody Maker, awarded it the title of Album of the Year. Produced by Elton John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, Ackles penned much of the material while resident in Southern England. On the album liner David commented, It seems like you get a sharper perspective on your own country when you're away from it.”
Maintaining the aforementioned European/Brechtian feel, the album title cut deals with marital infidelity and opens the eleven-track, forty-four minute set. Horace Jenkins finds solace in booze and “sends for pictures of black stockings,” while Molly, his wife, “sells her wares in town” to farmhands. "Ballad Of The Ship Of State" is a barbed observation of the way government's treat their armed forces, whether alive or dead, once the fighting has ceased [#]. The song lyric marks one of the rare occasions where Ackles uses humour to deliver his palpable sense of outrage. Long before they were fashionable causes, the disappearance of family values within the context of small town America and the treatment of Native Americans [and for that matter, all other creeds] came under Ackles' lyrical microscope, as "Family Band" and "Ballad For Billy Whitecloud" respectively attest. “Love’s Enough” and “One Night Stand” find Ackles in love song mode, while the good time “Oh, California!” stylistically recalled Ackles early days in vaudeville. The melancholic “Waiting For The Moving Van” is a reflection upon life and on all the jobs we intended to complete, but somehow never found the time. None of the foregoing, however, prepares you for the symphonic, ten-minute long album climax [and closing track], "Montana Song." Before music videos were de rigueur, I repeatedly played out in my mind's eye, the panoramic story line that gradually unfolds through the late nineteenth and into early twentieth century America. Having established the family's identity, in a new country, through the ownership of a piece of land, the next generation deserts the farm for the city, in search of the greater financial benefits gained through factory work. Add to that, the many illicit pleasures offered by the city. “I went out to Montana, With a Bible on my arm, Looking for my fathers, On a long abandoned farm, And I found what I came looking for.” Heartfelt and timeless, sums up "American Gothic." Coplandesque ? – absolutely, in terms of its orchestration. The term classic Ackles Americana, undersells this masterwork. Americana being far from a widely used term at that time.
On one of the album liner photos, David stands holding an upturned gardening fork, with his life-to-be, Janice Vogel, by his side. The picture mimicked “American Gothic”  by Iowa born, Regionalist painter, Grant Wood. David and Janice were married in 1972. Their only son, George, was born five years later. During the early nineteen-nineties, George played bass in the Christian music band, Tuesday’s Child.
Sadly, none of Ackles Elektra albums proved to be major sellers and Holzman released David from his contract. Clive Davis the head at CBS Records, and an admirer of Ackles work, then signed him. Shortly afterwards Davis left the label, and although David went on to record “Five & Dime” it literally died in the starting blocks, due to a lack of promotion. A more pop oriented effort than his previous releases, considering the critical kudos poured upon his previous efforts, particularly “American Gothic,” I wonder if the approach Ackles adopted was deliberate ?
Disillusioned, Ackles never pursued another recording deal, and after struggling as a songwriter for a time, he moved on to the next phase of his life. According to the IMDb web site, in 1981 Ackles co-wrote, with Douglas Graham, the screenplay for the TV made, mystery movie “Word Of Honour.” It starred Karl Malden [Lieut. Mike Stone in tv’s “The Streets Of San Francisco”] and Rue McClanahan [Blanche Deveraux in “The Golden Girls”]. He also worked on “Father Of The Year,” and a children’s television series, while writing ballet scores as well as his totally unique songs. Eventually, and with some reluctance, David entered the world of lecturing. His subject, songwriting.
In 1981, David was involved in an almost fatal auto accident. A drunk driver ploughed into Ackles’ car leaving him with a badly damaged hip. Confined to a wheelchair for six months because of his pinned hip, another year elapsed before David could sit down at a piano, let alone play. He eventually struggled back to fitness, and in the early nineteen-nineties completed work on a musical titled “Sister Aimee.” Almost concurrently David was diagnosed as suffering from lung cancer and following removal of part of his left lung he appeared to recover. In the mid-nineties, David and Janice settled on a six-acre horse farm in Tujunga. Cancer returned in 1997 and two years later David Ackles passed away.
Ii is my understanding that Ackles continued to record his compositions, from the mid-seventies through to the late-nineties, albeit of demo quality. None of them have seen the light of day commercially. In 1997 at his former alma mater, USC, where he worked as Assistant Professor in the School of Theatre he directed a student production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's “Threepenny Opera.”