Happy Birthday, David Ackles

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Thursday, February 27, 2014
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Happy Birthday, David Ackles

Today would’ve been the 77th birthday of singer/songwriter David Ackles, who died in 1999 at the age of 62. If you aren’t familiar with his work…well, that was always a problem for him when he was recording it, too, unfortunately, despite the fact that he was regularly on the receiving end of critical acclaim. Indeed, in the wake of Ackles’ death, a Reuters piece quoted Elvis Costello as saying, “It's a mystery to me why his wonderful songs are not better known."

Well, let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?

First, a little history lesson: Ackles was born in Rock Island, Illinois in 1937, but his family soon moved to southern California, where he would go on to spend more or less the rest of his life. With a musician for a father and a mother whose family had spawned several English music hall performers, Ackles seemed to have music built into his DNA – indeed, much of his youth was spent singing – but his first career was actually as a child actor for Columbia Pictures, and after graduating from high school, he went on to study English literature and ultimately earned a MFA in film studies from the University of Southern California. In fact, it wasn’t until Ackles crossed paths with Jac Holzman at Elektra while working at the label as a staff songwriter that his recording career began.

The three albums Ackles recorded for Elektra – David Ackles (1968), Subway to the Country (1969), and American Gothic(1972) – have a small but devoted fanbase, some of whom are pretty big names in their own right. In addition to the aforementioned Mr. Costello, Phil Collins is an avowed admirer (on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs program, Collins said of Ackles, “He taught me that writing songs didn’t have to be moon/spoon/June, that you could write intelligently about more serious subjects”), and in addition to Elton John inviting Ackles to serve as the opening act for his debut American performance in 1970, Bernie Taupin ended up producing American Gothic, which is generally recognized as the “if you must buy only one, this is it” album of the trio.

In the wake of American Gothic, Ackles left Elektra and signed to Columbia, where label president Clive Davis was a fan and was excited at the prospect of hearing what Ackles would do next. Unfortunately, by the time he finished his Columbia debut, Five and Dime, Davis was no longer with the label, and the new ruling class had no real interest in supporting the album, leaving it to sink like a stone. It turned out to be the last album Ackles ever recorded: although he continued to write songs, even completing a musical (Sister Aimee) during the ‘90s, none of it ever emerged in recorded form.

We’ve put together a playlist of Ackles’ first three albums. Give ‘em a listen, won’t you? He’s an acquired taste, yes, but once you’ve acquired it, you too will find yourself wondering why he wasn’t a bigger success.