It was sometime in 1983 that I interviewed noise maker, Boyd Rice for my radio show on 91X in San Diego. He brought some records to play and one of the songs he played was Tse-Tse Fly by Martin Denny, a very oddly arranged song with strange sounding instruments and a simulated fly buzz running thru it. As Rice spoke about Denny I vaguely remembered a song by him with bird calls in it called Quiet Village. Well, I was plenty intrigued. That was that. I'd been bitten by a Tse-Tse Fly. And subsequently, on my thrift store forays, I kept my eye open for more Martin Denny. Which wasn't hard! Those beautiful exotic covers fairly leap at you from the dusty bins.
I only bring all of this up because this was my introduction to Les Baxter. (I suspect some similar path thru Denny led many others to Baxter, too.) I had, before long, secured a tidy little collection of Denny albums. I enjoyed playing them and displaying the covers. I loved their other-worldly, "borrowed" polynesian sound. In the song writing credits, however, one name began to stand out. This name occurs 2, 3, and 4 times on nearly every one of Denny's early exotica albums. This name was often next to my favorite songs on these records. And this name was next to what turned out to be Denny's only top-ten hit, the song with the bird calls I had vaguely remembered, Quiet Village. One doesn't get very far into an examination of Martin Denny before one discovers the name, Les Baxter.
So it was not long before I was seeking Baxter as avidly as I was Denny. Denny's version of Quiet Village had become something of a mood music anthem in 1959 when young affluent men were trying to impress their friends, and especially their dates, with their new stereos, a recent innovation. The title of the album this song appeared on, EXOTICA, gave a new genre its name. While the genre was new, the music wasn't. Les Baxter had released Quiet Village in 1952. His exotic sounding music goes all the way back to (and likely beyond) his first album in 1947, MUSIC OUT OF THE MOON. While Denny was an immediate passion, and one rather quickly chewed and digested, the Baxter stuff I was finding presented a much wider and even bewildering range of styles. I was easily enchanted by the exotica albums, RITUAL OF THE SAVAGE and TAMBOO, which except for their lushness and grandeur, sound a lot like the early Denny albums. Then you find Baxter taking exotica to glorious new heights with THE SACRED IDOL. You find other delightful oddities, some of which are discussed in this interview.You also find his more "normal sounding" orchestral stuff, the music I tend to think of as the music of my parents, including his high charting pop hits like, Unchained Melody from the film, UNCHAINED, and The Poor People of Paris, both number 1 hits--Poor People... number 1 for 6 weeks! I admit these last would not have jumped out at me--my predilection for the novel and all. But they are an important part of the Baxter oeuvre, where he developed his trademark sweeping strings that so swayed both the public and fellow artists. Baxter, in some cases, has been harder to take, but as a result, has been that much longer in the savor.
Baxter songs soon began turning up on my radio show at 91X in San Diego and continued when I moved over in '86 to a college station, KSDT at UCSD. There I had what I thought was a pretty unusual format. But on the playlist board, where playlists from all the shows were posted, I kept noticing that one list cross referenced mine in some really unusual ways. Similar odd selections I would have been apt to make--that kind of thing. One of the more surprising similarities was the inclusion of some exotica, which, of course, included some Les Baxter. When I finally met this DJ, Peter Huestis, Baxter was an immediate topic of conversation. Years later, when we both found ourselves working on the same magazine, Hypno, he as art editor, I as music editor, and I had secured an interview with Les, it only seemed natural that I should ask Peter to join me on it.
On January 24, 1995 we headed up from San Diego to Palm Springs in my '86 Buick Riviera with our Baxter albums. Though his memory had been affected by liver disease, we found him sly, charming, a bit irascible and, as you'll see, able to talk plenty about his work. After the interview we took him to lunch at a Thai restaurant which was a favorite of his, and then dropped him off at his dialysis appointment. Over the next year I spoke with him over the phone several times. He complained that Capitol was just sitting on his material and wouldn't release it. As he does in the interview, he continued to entreat my help in getting Capitol to put some of his stuff out. I have to admit I did wind up hounding Capitol to "get off their duffs"--both in my articles in the magazine, and by phone calls to the label. I spoke with producer, Wayne Watkins, and he, while being somewhat vague, I suppose for business reasons, assured me that a Baxter project was indeed in the works. I found out later when I interviewed Brad Benedict, who compiled the beautiful double CD Baxter exotica compilation, THE EXOTIC MOODS OF LES BAXTER, that it had been put together not only with Les' knowledge, but his help too, and that of his daughter Leslie.
But Les and I also talked about things that were happening currently with his music--and thru 1995 there was a lot. There was a noticeable increase in awareness of Les Baxter with the publication of the REsearch books, INCREDIBLY STRANGE MUSIC, volume 1 in '93 and volume 2 in '94--as there was with many other of the celebrants in its pages. One such was Esquivel, who throughout 1995 was spurring new interest in lounge music with brisk sales of his '94 release, SPACE AGE BACHELOR PAD MUSIC . During this time there was a growing clamor for Baxter material. When I'd tell him of some article about him or something about him in print, particularly which acknowledged his position as the "inventor" of Exotica, or of appreciation of his work in general, his reaction was both pleased and matter of fact. "People love my music, when they get a chance to hear it!" His braggadocio was charming and not at all off-putting, and, indeed, hard to refute. In the middle of 1998 there seems to be no slowdown of interest in the music of Les Baxter. But he was obviously pleased that it was happening then. Things like Joey Altruda's tribute to Les Baxter late in '95 with a 22 piece orchestra including a former Baxter saxophonist and top session man, Plas Johnson, were enormously gratifying to him.
So when, almost exactly a year after the interview, Skip Heller called me with the news that Les had died the night before, my first feeling was "Damn, not now--when there seems to be so much on the horizon that he'd really be happy to see." I thot, too, of his daughter, Leslie, who'd been so kind and genial when we came to visit. I knew, also, I would miss the phone conversations. He loved music and he loved his music and for a musician and music writer like myself he was an absolute pleasure to talk to--a unique window on a strange and fascinating world--the world of pop, orchestrated music. Since then, Les Baxter has continued to be a source of discovery for me. The real amazement is how good he was, how subtle and effective he was, in as many different styles of music--mostly styles of his own invention. The theremin-orchestra-chorus stuff of his first albums; his exotica albums and many variations thereof; his drum records. His pop hits, with his innovative string arrangements, are some of the best of the 50s--his Poor People of Paris, April in Portugal, Never on a Sunday, his Blue Tango. Even into the 60s and 70s the Baxter magic shows even in schlock horror and teen exploitation film soundtracks, and in the 101 Strings stuff he did in the 70s. It seems that for Les, no matter what the project, each was an opportunity for fun and invention. Apparently, he never took an easy or copycat way out of an assignment. I think he was too proud for that. Whether it was The High and the Mighty or music for DR. GOLDFOOT AND HIS BIKINI MACHINE, the Baxter stamp, the stamp of lively and canny experimentation, is indelible.