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 interest 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.