September 1, 2009

Mod-A-Day: Les Baxter

Les Baxter is the leading figure in the history of exotica, even though the genre draws its name from Martin Denny's mid-fifites album. Still, Baxter is the father of the easy listening adventure sound of the south pacific and beyond. Wherever exotica went, Les Baxter was there, often leading the way. His work for Capitol Records in the 1950s introduced most of the major movements in exotica. His 1950 album, Music Out of the Moon, featured the theremin and was probably the best-selling theremin album of all time--and also founded the "space" school of exotica.

In 1951, he did the same for the "jungle" school of exotica with his landmark Ritual of the Savage LP, for which he wrote the theme song of exotica: "Quiet Village." He crested the European cover wave with his only number one hit, "Poor People of Paris," in 1956. He produced the first album by the four-octave Peruvian songstress, Yma Sumac (and claimed credit for many of its numbers, which were actually written by Sumac and her husband, Moises Vivanco). And he can be credited with anticipating the percussion school with his all-drums album, "Skins! Bongo Party with Les Baxter."

Baxter started performing in his teens as a concert pianist. He studied music formally at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and Pepperdine College. He worked as a tenor sax player, and then as a singer eventually getting hired as a member of the Mel-Tones, a harmony group formed by Mel Torme around 1947.

Baxter quit to work for NBC Radio as a one of a vocal quartet that sang on Pepsodent commercials on Bob Hope's radio show. He began arranging and ended up as musical director for Bob Hope and, later, Abbott and Costello. He continued with occasional vocal work as late as 1952, when he was in the back-up quartet on Frank DeVol's hit, "Love Letters in the Sand." His first album, "Music Out of the Moon," featured a choir, one cello, one French horn, a rhythm section, and a theremin. Baxter said of it, "No one had heard of a combination like that. It was a little weird. I didn't know what popular records were. I didn't know what I was doing."

At Capitol Records, where he primarily worked writing arrangements and conducting the orchestra on recording sessions for such singers as Frank Sinatra and Bob Eberle, he was involved in a historic session with Nat King Cole that included "Mona Lisa," "Nature Boy," and "Too Young"--although the arrangements for the latter were actually done by Nelson Riddle, not Baxter as some (including himself) later claimed. He also arranged and conducted on a series of LPs released under the name of dance studio entrepeneur Arthur Murray.

Like a number of Capitol's house arrangers, Baxter was able to record his own arrangements and, often, composition. Some arrangers didn't put much energy into such recordings, but Baxter clearly found them vital creative outlets and experimented with a variety of themes, musical devices, and genres. Of these, his "Ritual of the Savage" has become a classic in its own right, a musical travelogue accompanied by recorded jungle noises and bird calls that later inspired Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and others.

Baxter recorded for Capitol until 1962, when he began to focus on film scores, particularly for Roger Corman's American International studio. Feature scoring credits include "The Pit and the Pendulum," "Beach Blanket Bingo," "Operation Bikini," and many other now cult-favorite B-grade movies.

Baxter also worked in radio and television. He was the music arranger for the Bob Hope and Abbott & Costello radio shows and wrote and arranged for such TV shows as "Cliffhangers," "The Milton Berle Show," "The Tycoon" and "The Gumby Special." He briefly hosted his own variety show in southern California. He also dabbled in acting, appearing in "College Capers" (1954) and "Untamed Youth" (1957) with Mamie Van Doren and Eddie Cochran.

His last great release was Que Mango!, recorded with the 101 Strings Orchestra in 1970. Here is an album that is ... well, just luscious. Baxter combined his typical sense of adventure with a South American vibe capitalizing on the past success of artists like Sergio Mendes and Herb Alpert with bossa nova and other latin flavored stylings. His arrangements incorporated the era's jet-set sort of soft rock sound which worked perfectly with the 101 Strings Orchestra and is what has endeared it to the space age bachelor pad types ever since. The two songs here, "Que Mango" and "Jungle Montuno" are both from that album and perfectly represent Baxter's suave, go-go sixties style.

Baxter finally retired to Newport Beach, but continued to write and, occasionally, perform until his death in 1996. He was by all accounts delighted with the 1990 cocktail nation's revival of interest in exotica.

Les Baxter -- Que Mango!

Les Baxter -- Jungle Montuno