Les Baxter / March 14, 1922 - Jan 15, 1996

This entry into the series may well stand as one of the controversial ones, given not only some of the cheese that Les Baxter was involved with, but also for his role in the 1950's phenomenon of the white man's interpretation of "Jungle Drums", etc...as well as (unsubstantiated, and seemingly likely untrue when looking at it deeply) claims of compositional theft made by his understudies. But since it is my piece to write here, I am not going to flinch on calling myself a fan of Baxter's wacky arrangements, particularly in the field of "exotica" and exploito-film scores.

Regardless of your socio-political leanings, many would not deny the immense creativity and musical imagination that went into such classic albums like Ritual of the Savage and the amazing album he worked on with Harry Revel, Music Out of the Moon, the 1947 ground-breaking and avant-garde album that introduced the theremin into popular music.

He also worked as a concert pianist, big-band saxophonist, singer with Mel Torme and Artie Shaw, arranger/conductor/performer with Nat King Cole on a number of big hits ("Nature Boy", "Mona Lisa", etc), conductor and arranger for Frank Sinatra and did a hell of a lot of work in television and radio before heading over to AIP to score films for Roger Corman and others (including Black Sabbath, the film from which the rock band took its name).

He famously dabbled in exploito-funk with Hell's Belles, a break classic. But it is really his work as the pioneer in the so-called "exotica" and "space age pop" genres, with his bizarre and imaginative (and highly experimental) instrumental configurations, his launching of the space-age and "jungle" crazes, as well as helping create the "percussion album" genre. He produced Yma Sumac and wrote the smash-hit "Quiet Village", a standard of its time. As an unabashed fan of the likes of Martin Denny, Esquivel and Arthur Lyman and their brand of (alternatingly wild or corny, sometimes sketchy) "exotica", we would have to see Baxter as a bridge for those artists having a sellable category that moved units in the millions, and providing white-bread honkies with their first taste of "world music" in the '50s. If you look at musical creativity for exactly what it is, Baxter is a pioneer as an arranger and composer.

This 1947 collaboration with Harry Revel, from Music Out Of The Moon, is a pioneering classic of "exotica" and quite avant-garde, especially with its use of the theramin:

Here is one of Baxter's most well-known albums. Somewhere between insensitive kitsch and seriously creative composition, if you listen to it strictly as music it is quite amazing:

Baxter composed "Quiet Village" and his 1952 recording of it came several years before Martin Denny's smash hit version:

Again, more ethnic insensitivity in its presentation (as well, there was plenty of REAL African jazz in the '50s), but as an album of creative music, this is another lovely record. From 1959:

Les composed the theme for this 1963 horror movie that inspired the band Black Sabbath:

Baxter on the funk rock tip...from the Hell's Belles soundtrack:

More Baxter rock-influenced tuneage, this time with his old collaborator, the incredible voice of Yma Sumac:

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