Obituary: David Ackles

THERE IS a cliche in rock journalism about "that difficult third album". David Ackles's third album was considered by many as his masterwork. A critique of his homeland, American Gothic contained the astounding "Montana Song" which, in 11 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, and then took the role of Tuck Worden in four Rusty films for Columbia Pictures (My Dog Rusty, 1948; Rusty Leads the Way, 1948; Rusty's Birthday, 1949; Rusty Saves a Life, 1949).

Having studied English literature at Edinburgh University, Ackles took a degree in Film Studies at the University of Southern California before working in musical comedy, theatre, film and scriptwriting for television. By the late Sixties, he was writing songs that were of great delicacy and Elektra, on the basis of his "Blue Ribbons", employed him as a songwriter.

His persuasiveness led to a more elaborate contract, which resulted in three highly praised albums - David Ackles (1969, later reissued as Road to Cairo), Subway to the Country (1970), American Gothic (1972). 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 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's 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.

His first album used the Elektra house band, yet his arrangements brought the best out of his musicians. Not for him the bass player who 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 a grasp of a wide range of musical styles.

The title track of American Gothic said in four minutes what it took David Lynch a complete television series to describe. He then went on to produce a series of vignettes that summed up life in his home country in the late 20th century. Interestingly, the album was made from the perspective of living in England.

Despite critical acclaim, his unusual voice and eclectic style were not to the taste of the general public. Something of an artist's artist, Ackles had a number of songs covered by others; and, although he reached a critical apogee with American Gothic, he was dropped by Elektra.

A switch to Columbia for his fourth album, D.T. Ackles: Five & Dime (1973), didn't assist his musical career. 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 television 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. It took years before he was able to return to the piano.

Ackles completed the score for a musical about Aimee Semple McPherson, Sister Aimee, in the early Nineties. He settled on a six-acre horse farm near Los Angeles and worked as a professor of theatre for USC. He was involved in student theatre production and had a success with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera in 1997. A practising Christian, Ackles had a strong commitment to help others, both directly and through his writing.

David Thomas Ackles, singer/songwriter and teacher: born Rock Island, Illinois 20 February 1937; married 1972 Janice Vogel (one son); died Tujunga, California 2 March 1999.

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