Les Baxter – Master Of Exotica

Since I’ve written from time to time about guys like Percy Faith, André Kostelanetz, and a few other specialists in Easy Listening music — a genre that isn’t exactly first on everybody’s playlist these days — it would be understandable if you thought I was at it again. After all, Les Baxter certainly did his share of sweet music. But for much of his career he musically detoured into unusual and intriguing places, and is now remembered as the master of Exotica.

The Texas-born Baxter started out conventionally enough, studying piano and receiving a formal musical education, but as he started out in the post-war years his first professional success was actually as a vocalist. Working as a back-up singer for the Velvet Fog — Mel Tormé — gave Baxter a taste of the big time, but within a few years he’d headed his career in a different direction, one that made better use of his musical skills.

Baxter spent some time arranging and playing with some of the era’s big bands, but he began to become interested in unusual music, and eventually put together a limited-78 album called Music Out Of The Moon. Adding a theremin — that eerie electronic thingy — to conventional instrumentation while mixing in some inventive arrangements, he created something very different for listeners and it became a landmark album.

Within a couple of years Baxter had landed a position as a musical director and arranger for Capitol Records and began working with stars like Nat King Cole, but he also saw opportunities for himself. He soon began to produce albums with titles like Ritual Of The Savage, Tamboo!, and Caribbean Moonlight. They contained songs like “Simba,” “Mozambique,” and “Jungle Flower,” throbbing music that was meant to be evocative of dark and mysterious places. It proved to be very popular and his album sales soared.

Throughout the Fifties and Sixties Baxter continued to record his special sounds, using everything from bongo drums to a moog synthesizer, but he also enjoyed some major hits with records of more conventional music, like “Unchained Melody” and “The Poor People of Paris.” He also became very successful in TV and movies, composing everything from the ‘whistling’ theme for TV’s Lassie to the soundtracks of over a hundred films.

Baxter continued to work through the Seventies and into the Eighties,  but with less frequency. The master of Exotica died of natural causes in 1996, remembered for his music — and some of the most colorful album covers around.

Les Baxter – “Tropicando”


7 thoughts on “Les Baxter – Master Of Exotica

  1. The melody to this piece seems to be strikingly similar to Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village.” Give a listen to that and see if you don’t agree. Denny is less orcherstrated and has more sound effects, but the tunes seem similar to me.

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  2. You’re right, there are some similarities — and I think Denny had more mysterious sounds, and bird and animal calls. 😉

    Actually, I had meant to mention Martin Denny in this piece because he was the other well-known master of Exotica.

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  3. You have no idea how much I enjoy this club. I. for sure, am an old Geezer of 73 years. Thanks and keep up the good works. Rose

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  4. Mr. Lex Baxter certainly put out some great music but you mentioning whistling and Lex Baxter in the same breath in your post is what tickled a most fond memory. I went to see a movie with my mom back in ‘54’ and was captivated by the title song played during the movie. The melody and accompanying whistle was so haunting and beautiful. The song turned out to be “The High and the Mighty”, and was performed by Lex Baxter. The movie of course had the same name.

    It was ultimately nominated for “Best Song” for the 1954 Academy Awards and to this day I remember watching that particular awards show. 1954 was the second year for the awards show to be telecast and I was so hoping that “The High and the Mighty” would win but alas, another great song, “Three Coins In the Fountain”, would make it to the top of the mountain. I was so disappointed but to this day it remains a cherished favorite of mine.

    Thanks as always for the memories….. 🙂

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  5. PS…..

    I guess I should add that “The High and the Mighty” composition did when an academy award that year for “Best Scoring” so that’s something but at twelve years old who the hell even knows what that means. In those days the only thing important with regard to “scoring” was whether the Brooklyn Dodgers would beat the New York Yankees in the World Series…..and that is a fact!!

    Unfortunately however in 1954, unlike 1953 and 1955, two obscure teams, the Cleveland Indians and New York Giants were in the World Series. That quirk matchup was probably one of the first indications regarding ‘global warming’!

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  6. Great stuff, Alan! Thanks.

    And I remember the High and Mighty very well — John Wayne limping down the airplane aisle with the whistling theme music. It really impressed me as a kid, but I think I assumed he was doing the whistling. 😉

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