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Baxter, Les

Baxter, Les

Composer

Les Baxter was one of the leading figures in a style of orchestrated music that developed in the 1950s. He is known as the "Godfather of Exotica," a type of lounge music characterized by Latin rhythms and other influences that range from Polynesia to Hawaii to South America. His prolific output of music spanned four decades and included the scores to more than 100 films. The popularity of his music faded for two decades, but by the mid-1990s exotica and other types of lounge music were enjoying a popular revival. Unfortunately, Baxter died before he had a chance to enjoy the full impact of that revival.

Baxter was born on March 14, 1922, in Mexia, Texas. His family soon moved from Texas to Detroit, Michigan. Baxter was considered a child prodigy at the piano, which he learned to play at age five. In addition to piano he also learned to play the clarinet and was a talented singer. He studied at the Detroit Conservatory of Music before leaving the midwest in the 1930s to attend Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, near Los Angeles. While studying composition at Pepperdine, he supplemented his income by playing backup piano and tenor sax in jazz clubs around Los Angeles.

Around 1945, Baxter tired of playing saxophone and joined jazz singer Mel Torme's singing group the Mel-Tones. Baxter performed with the Mel-Tones for a few years and sang on a recording by big band great Artie Shaw. Eventually he left the Mel-Tones and joined NBC Radio. There Baxter performed weekly as a member of a voice quartet that sang Pepsodent commercials for comedian Bob Hope's radio show. Not long afterward, Baxter began arranging and conducting music for the Bob Hope show as well as for the radio show featuring comedy duo Abbott and Costello. Soon enough he was musical director for those shows and others on NBC Radio.

By the end of the 1940s, Baxter was working for Capitol Records, arranging and conducting for the record company. He worked with many notable performers of the time. Probably his most famous work was on the album that produced Nat "King" Cole's hit "Mona Lisa." In addition to his assigned studio work, Baxter took advantage of the freedom he was given to record whatever he liked in the Capitol recording studios.

Baxter was incredibly curious and adventurous in his compositions and arrangements, experimenting with themes, instruments, and genres. His first release with Capitol was the album Music Out of the Moon in 1947. The album was a major style departure from the standard pop album of the time. On it Baxter used a choir, a cello and a French horn, a rhythm section, and one of the first electronic instruments ever invented, the theremin, which used an electromagnetic field over which the instrumentalist moved his hand to create sound. The album sold well enough that Baxter was encouraged to continue recording in a variety of styles.

His next notable work involved compositions and arrangements for noted Peruvian singer Yma Sumac. Sumac had a voice that covered five octaves and Baxter was able to utilize her voice to create the exotic sounds found on her debut album Voice of the Xtabay. Almost concurrently Baxter released the album Ritual of the Savage, which became the standard on which all future exotica albums were based. Described in the liner notes as a "tone poem of the sound and struggle of the jungle," Ritual of the Savage introduced the style and scope of music that would inspire later composers and arrangers such as Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman.

Throughout the 1950s Baxter had chart success with his arrangements of songs like "Because of You," "April in Portugal," and "The Poor People of Paris." In 1955 his "Unchained Melody" was number one on the Billboard charts for two weeks. In 1956 "The Poor People of Paris" hit number one for six weeks. His composition "The Quiet Village," which was originally released on Ritual of the Savage, was recorded by Martin Denny and became a hit for him in 1959.

In 1953 Baxter scored his first movie, a travelogue called Tanga Tika. He was billed as composer for such films as Untamed Youth (1957), Jungle Heat (1957), and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958). By 1962 Baxter had scored more than 30 films, most of them eventually considered classics of the B-grade movie genre. That year he left Capitol Records and began focusing on movie composing.

Most of Baxter's work on film scores during this period was done at American International, the studio run by horror movie director Roger Corman. Baxter scored music for Corman's series of films based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, including The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, and The Raven. In the mid-1960s Baxter became the arranger and composer for the series of "Bikini" movies that initially starred teen heart-throbs Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. The films from this time period included Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Beach Blanket Bingo, and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.

The 1960s were Baxter's most prolific period. He scored a number of films, and also arranged and composed for television. He is responsible for the well-known whistling theme to the TV show Lassie. His other television work included Music of the Sixties (The Les Baxter Special), Buck Rogers in the 21st Century, The Milton Berle Show, and The Gumby Special.

Baxter's work for films slowed down significantly in the 1970s, and by the 1980s he was keeping himself busy scoring music for theme parks. He also conducted his own works on occasion. One of his last performances was in 1995 at the Century Club in Century City. On January 15, 1996, Baxter died at the age of 73, from a heart attack caused by kidney failure. The music Baxter pioneered had begun making a popular comeback in the 1990s, marked by the 1996 release of Capitol Records' The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter. Unfortunately, the artist did not live long enough to enjoy this resurgence of public acclaim for his musical style.

For the Record . . .

Born on March 14, 1922, in Mexia, TX; died on January 15, 1996, in Newport Beach, CA. Education: Attended Detroit Conservatory of Music, Detroit, MI; attended Pepperdine College, Malibu, CA.

Performed as concert pianist as a teenager; during college played tenor sax and sang; joined the Mel-Tones, 1945; joined NBC radio as a singer for commercials; musical director for Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello radio shows; released first recording, Music Out of the Moon, 1947; began composing and arranging film scores, 1953; arranged and conducted recording sessions for Frank Sinatra, Bob Eberle, and Nat King Cole, 1950-60s; left Capitol Records, 1962; composed and arranged for television, mid- to late 1960s.

Selected discography

Music Out of the Moon, Capitol, 1947.

Perfume Set to Music, RCA Victor, 1949.

(With Yma Sumac) Voice of the Xtabay, Capitol, 1950; reissued, 1956.

Arthur Murray FavoritesTangos, Capitol, 1951.

Ritual of the Savage, Capitol, 1951.

Thinking of You, Capitol, 1951.

The Passions, Capitol, 1954.

Arthur Murray FavoritesModern Waltzes, Capitol, 1954.

Kaleidoscope, Capitol, 1955.

Tamboo!, Capitol, 1956.

Caribbean Moonlight, Capitol, 1956.

Skins! Bongo Party with Les Baxter, Capitol, 1957.

'Round the World with Les Baxter, Capitol, 1957.

Midnight on the Cliffs, Capitol, 1957.

Ports of Pleasure, Capitol, 1957.

Space Escapade, Capitol, 1957.

Selections from "South Pacific," Capitol, 1958.

Confetti, Capitol, 1958.

Love is a Fabulous Thing, Capitol, 1958.

African Jazz, Capitol, 1959.

Jungle Jazz, Capitol, 1959.

Wild Guitars, Capitol, 1959.

The Sacred Idol, Capitol, 1960.

Les Baxter's Teen Drums, Capitol, 1960.

Baxter's Best, Capitol, 1960.

Young Pops, Capitol, 1960.

Broadway '61, Capitol, 1961.

Jewels of the Sea, Capitol, 1961.

Wild Hi-Fi Drums, Capitol, 1961.

Sensational, Capitol, 1962.

Original Quiet Village, Capitol, 1963.

The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter, Capitol, 1996.

Sources

Periodicals

Daily Variety, January 19, 1996.

Online

"Les Baxter," Lycos Music, http://www.music.lycos.com/(January 14, 2004).

"Les Baxter," Space Age Pop, http://www.spaceagepop.com/baxter.htm (January 14, 2004).

Eve M. B. Hermann

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