Les Baxter Biography

14 March 1922, Mexia, Texas, USA, d. 15 January 1996, Palm Springs, California, USA. Baxter studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory before moving to Los Angeles for further studies at Pepperdine College. Abandoning a concert career as a pianist he turned to popular music as a singer, and at the age of 23 he joined Mel Tormé’s Mel-Tones, singing on Artie Shaw records such as ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’. He then turned to arranging and conducting for Capitol Records in 1950 and was responsible for the early Nat ‘King’ Cole hits, ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Too Young’. In 1953 he scored his first movie, the sailing travelogue Tanga Tika. With his own orchestra he released a number of hits including ‘Ruby’ (1953), ‘Unchained Melody’ (1955) and ‘The Poor People Of Paris’ (1956). He also achieved success with concept albums of his own orchestral suites, Le Sacre Du Sauvage, Festival Of The Gnomes, Ports Of Pleasure and Brazil Now, the first three for Capitol Records and the fourth on Gene Norman’s Crescendo label. Baxter had obvious skill in writing Latin music for strings, but he did not restrict his activities to recording. As he once told Soundtrack! magazine, ‘I never turn anything down’.

In the 60s he formed the Balladeers, a besuited and conservative folk group that at one time featured a slim and youthful David Crosby. He operated in radio as musical director of Halls Of Ivy and the Bob Hope and Abbott And Costello shows; he also worked on movie soundtracks and later composed and conducted scores for Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films and other horror stories and teenage musicals, including Comedy Of Terrors, Muscle Beach Party, The Dunwich Horror and Frogs. When soundtrack work reduced in the 80s he scored music for theme parks and seaworlds. In the 90s Baxter was widely celebrated, alongside Martin Denny (for whom he had written ‘Quiet Village’) and Arthur Lyman Group, as one of the progenitors of what had become known as the ‘exotica’ movement. In his 1996 appreciation for Wired magazine, writer David Toop remembered Baxter thus: ‘Baxter offered package tours in sound, selling tickets to sedentary tourists who wanted to stroll around some taboo emotions before lunch, view a pagan ceremony, go wild in the sun or conjure a demon, all without leaving home hi-fi comforts in the white suburbs.’


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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