Les Baxter - Biography
Les Baxter was the bandleader, arranger, and pianist who became The Father of Exotica, a musical trend of the 1950s that brought the unfamiliar sounds of Asian, African, and South American music to the ears of mainstream (read: white) America. He also became an electronic music pioneer by using the newly invented Theremin to give his recordings an otherworldly, sci-fi ambiance. Baxter composed scores for radio shows including Abbot and Costello’s half hour sitcom, TV shows like Lassie and such as Untamed Youth, Jungle Heat, The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold and director Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. By the ’80s, Baxter was living in semi-retirement in Palm Springs, California.
Baxter was born in Texas in 1922, but his family moved to Detroit, Michigan when he was still a boy. He was a child prodigy, picking up the clarinet at age five and already showing his wares on the piano. While still in his teens, Baxter attended the Detroit Conservatory of Music, then Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where he paid his tuition with money made playing piano and sax in LA jazz clubs. He hung out with musicians from Duke Ellington’s band, and when clarinetist Barney Bigard left Ellington, Duke started a boogie-woogie band with Baxter and “T-Bone” Walker. Baxter would leave the band in 1945 to join Mel Tormé’s singing group, The Mel-Tones. He went on to sing commercial jingles with a vocal group on Bob Hope’s NBC radio show and was soon arranging and conducting for the Bob Hope Show and other NBC programs.
In the early- to mid-1940s, Baxter worked for Capitol Records as an arranger and conductor. The label gave him free studio time and allowed him to record whatever he wanted. In 1947, Harry Revel called Baxter to arrange some songs he’d written to feature the Theremin, an early electronic instrument. Music Out of the Moon (1947 Capitol), Baxter’s debut as a recording artist under his own name, became a landmark album—the first space age-disc—and it was issued by Capitol as a 78 rpm album, 45 rpm album, and 10-inch LP. Sun Ra claims it as an early influence, and Baxter’s debut record was a commercial smash.
By the end of the decade, Capitol had Baxter score Nat “King” Cole’s hit “Too Young.” The label also paired him with Yma Sumac to create charts for her album, Voice Of The Xtabay (1950 Capitol)—possibly the first exotica record which is still in print today. Xtabay’s commercial success led to Le Sacre Du Sauvage—Ritual of the Savage (1951 Capitol), which included his memorable composition, “Quiet Village.”
Baxter avoided rock music but kept writing arrangements for Capitol’s pop artists and recording his own exotic albums through the 1950s and early 1960s. His work includes Tamboo! (1956 Capitol), an early world music classic with Latin and African elements blended with pop orchestration; Caribbean Moonlight (1956 Capitol), with accents of Cuban music and calypso; the percussion-heavy set Skins! Bongo Party with Les Baxter (1957 Capitol); Round the World with Les Baxter (1957 Capitol); Space Escapade (1958 Capitol), which featured the Theremin on its smooth spacey tunes; African Jazz (1959 Capitol); Jungle Jazz (1959 Capitol); Teen Drums (1960 Capitol), which is exotica, not rock & roll; The Sacred Idol (1960 Capitol), the Latin tinged soundtrack for an unreleased film; and his last effort for the label, Jewels of the Sea (1961 Capitol), which was another smooth Theremin classic.
When he left Capitol, Baxter concentrated on scoring the aforementioned films. Available soundtracks include The Dunwich Horror (1970 American International), Bora Bora (1968 American International), Cry of the Banshee (1970 Citadel) and the motorcycle flick, Hell’s Belles (1970 Sidewalk). One standout is Baxter’s score for the Japanese cartoon, Alakazam The Great (1961 Vee Jay), which included oblique references to his idol, Igor Stravinsky, and stands alone as an album of serious music.
As an artist Baxter signed with Reprise and released the exotic The Primitive And The Passionate (1962 Reprise/2005 Collectables); Soul Of The Drums (1963 Reprise), with Olatunji contributing African drums and percussion; and Les Baxter’s Balladeers (1963 Reprise), a folk album featuring David Crosby before he joined The Byrds.
Baxter’s work for B-movies made him a good living but didn’t help his reputation as a composer, and he never scored any major motion pictures. In the recording studio Baxter revisited Yma Sumac for Miracles (1972 London) and made Brazil Now (1966 Crescendo); African Blue (1967 Crescendo); Moog Rock (1968 Crescendo); Love is Blue (1972 Crescendo); and Que Mango! (1970 Alshare). The latter was his last exotica album, cut for the 101 Strings organization. It was also Baxter’s last venture into the studio as a bandleader.
In the 1980s Baxter accepted a commission from the Los Angeles Composer’s Guild to write original music for their concert orchestra. His last public appearance was in 1994 when he conducted the Los Angeles Composer’s Guild orchestra playing a new work, “Metamorphosis,” and a string transcription of “Havana” from Tamboo. In 1993, the lounge revival happened and fans started stopping by his home and sending him fan letters, but his kidneys had started to fail and he was in poor health. Baxter died at home in 1996.
Several collections give a good overview of Baxter’s career, including the two-disc, 40-track The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter (1996 Capitol) and The Best of Les Baxter (1998 EMI).