b. 20 February 1937, Rock Island, Illinois, USA, d. 2 March 1999, Tujanga, California
BORN INTO A SHOW BUSINESS FAMILY, he was briefly a child star in a series of B-pictures featuring a dog called Rusty. After graduating in film studies from the University of Southern California he turned to songwriting. He joined Elektra as a staff songwriter in the mid-sixties and eventually persuaded the label to record him.
His first two albums (David Ackles, 1968, and Subway to the Country, 1970) were marked by an eclecticism that was unusual for the time. His third album, American Gothic (1972), was a classic. Produced by Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin (whose songs for John’s 1971 album Tumbleweed Connection dealt with similar themes, as did many of the songs of The Band at the time), American Gothic was unique in the brooding intensity Ackles brought to his melancholic tales of rural despair and deprivation.
Where others looked back with simple nostalgia, Ackles, his songs orchestrated in such a manner as to recall both Aaron Copland and Kurt Weill, looked back with the toughness that characterizes Willa Cather’s treatment of the pioneers in her novels. The album sold badly and after one more on Columbia (Five and Dime, 1974) Ackles faded from view.
His reputation as one of the more intriguing singer-songwriters of the seventies was confirmed with the reissue of his first three albums in 1994 to strong critical acclaim. By this time he was supporting himself by lecturing on songwriting and writing scores for student productions, including a critically applauded reworking of The Threepenny Opera in 1996 for which he also returned to the stage.
© Phil Hardy, Dave Laing, The Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music, 2001