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. 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?".
Baxter then turned to arranging and conducting for Capitol Records in 1950, and conducted the orchestra of two 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), "The Poor People Of Paris" (1956) and is remembered for a version of "Sinner Man" (1956) definitively setting the sound with varying tempos, orchestral flourishes, and wailing background vocals. 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 and the fourth on Gene Norman's Crescendo label. The list of musicians on these recordings includes Plas Johnson and Clare Fischer. Baxter also wrote the "Whistle" theme from the TV show Lassie.
In the 1960s, he formed the Balladeers, a conservative folk group in suits that at one time featured a young David Crosby. Later he used some of the same singers from that group for a studio project called The Forum. They had a minor hit in 1967 with a rendition of "River is Wide" which implemented the Wall of Sound technique originally developed by Phil Spector. He worked in radio as musical director of The Halls of Ivy and the Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello shows.
Like his counterparts Henry Mancini and Lalo Schifrin, Baxter later worked for the film industry in the 1960s and 1970s. He worked on movie soundtracks for B-movie studio American International Pictures where he composed and conducted scores for Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films and other horror stories and teenage musicals, including The Pit and the Pendulum, The Comedy of Terrors, Muscle Beach Party, The Dunwich Horror, and Frogs. Howard W. Koch recalled that Baxter composed, orchestrated and recorded the entire score of The Yellow Tomahawk (1954) in a total of three hours for $5,000.
According to Milt Bernhart, Nelson Riddle was a ghost writer for Baxter when Baxter was working for Nat King Cole. Bernhart states the Riddle told him that Baxter did not write the material on his exotica albums. Bernhart states that, while working for Baxter on recording a score for a Roger Corman film, it was apparent that Baxter could not conduct competently and "couldn't read the scores". According to Bernhart, "Someone else had written [the music]."
Gene Lees states that the exotica albums were written by Albert Harris and the material recorded with Yma Sumac was written by Pete Rugolo. According to Rugolo, he was paid $50 per arrangement to ghost for Les Baxter and that he "did a whole album with Yma Sumac".
Nelson Riddle held a grudge against Baxter for taking credit for Riddle's arrangements on two Nat King Cole hit recordings. According to André Previn, when collaborating once with Baxter, in the time Previn and Riddle had finished their parts, Baxter had written just one bar for woodwinds and included a note for the oboe that does not exist on the instrument.
In a 1981 interview with Soundtrack magazine, Baxter said that these sorts of statements were the results of a smear campaign by a disgruntled orchestrator. According to Baxter, this resulted in Baxter being denied the chance to score for a major motion picture. The job went instead to Baxter's friend Bronisław Kaper. Baxter said that he would give his compositions to orchestrators to orchestrate to deal with a hectic schedule.
Baxter's frequent conductor and orchestrator Hall Daniels also said the criticisms were the result of "sour grapes" who held a grudge against Baxter for one reason or another.
Skip Heller spent time working for and studying under Baxter where he witnessed various score sheets of original Baxter compositions, including Yma Sumac's "Xtabay" and "Tumba". According to Heller, they were all in Baxter's own handwriting.
Baxter, alongside Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, is celebrated as one of the progenitors of exotica music. In his 1996 appreciation for Wired magazine, writer David Toop wrote that 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."
Les Baxter has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6314 Hollywood Blvd.
Album, Soundtrack & Compilation
- (1947) Music Out of the Moon (composed by Harry Revel)
- (1948) Perfume Set To Music (composed by Harry Revel)
- (1949) Music for Peace of Mind
- (1950) Yma Sumac: Voice Of The Xtabay
- (1951) Arthur Murray Favorites: Tangos
- (1951) Ritual of the Savage (Le sacre du sauvage)
- (1953) Festival of the Gnomes (composed by Prince di Candriano)
- (1954) Thinking of You
- (1954) The Passions: Featuring Bas Sheva
- (1955) Arthur Murray Favorites: Modern Waltzes
- (1955) Kaleidoscope
- (1956) Tamboo!
- (1956) Les Baxter's La Femme
- (1956) Caribbean Moonlight
- (1957) Skins! Bongo Party with Les Baxter
- (1957) Round the World with Les Baxter
- (1957) Midnight on the Cliffs
- (1957) Ports of Pleasure
- (1957) Pharaoh's Curse (aka) Curse of the Pharaoh
- (1958) Space Escapade
- (1958) Selections from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific
- (1958) Confetti
- (1958) Love is a Fabulous Thing
- (1959) African Jazz
- (1959) Les Baxter's Jungle Jazz
- (1959) Les Baxter's Wild Guitars
- (1959) Barbarian (Goliath and the Barbarians) [OST]
- (1960) The Sacred Idol [OST]
- (1960) House Of Usher / The Fall Of The House Of Usher [OST]
- (1960) Les Baxter's Teen Drums
- (1960) Baxter's Best
- (1960) Young Pops
- (1961) Broadway '61
- (1961) Alakazam the Great [OST]
- (1961) Jewels of the Sea
- (1961) Master of the World [OST]
- (1961) Wild Hi-Fi Drums / Wild Stereo Drums
- (1962) Sensational!
- (1962) Exotica Suite
- (1962) Voices in Rhythm
- (1962) The Primitive and the Passionate
- (1962) The Fabulous Sounds of Les Baxter: Strings, Guitars, Voices!
- (1963) Les Baxter's Balladeers
- (1963) The Academy Award Winners
- (1963) The Soul of the Drums
- (1966) Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966) [OST]
- (1966) The Forum: The River is Wide
- (1966) Brazil Now
- (1967) Love is Blue
- (1967) African Blue
- (1968) Moog Rock
- (1968) Hell's Belles [OST]
- (1969) All the Loving Couples [OST]
- (1969) Bora Bora [OST]
- (1969) Bugaloo in Brazil
- (1970) Que Mango!
- (1970) Million Seller Hits
- (1970) Cry of the Banshee [OST]
- (1971) Music of the Devil God Cult: Strange Sounds from Dunwich - The Dunwich Horror [OST]
- (1973) Black Sabbath (1963) [OST]
- (1975) Movie Themes
- (1975) Hit Songs from Spain
- (1978) Born Again
- (1995) The Lost Episode of Les Baxter (1961) [Original Television Soundtrack]
- (1996) By Popular Request
- (1996) The Exotic Moods Of Les Baxter
- (1952) Blue Tango
- (1953) I Love Paris
- (1953) April in Portugal
- (1955) Unchained Melody
- (1955) Medic
- (1955) Wake The Town And Tell The People
- (1956) Foreign Intrigue
- (1956) The Poor People Of Paris
- (1959) Dance, Everyone Dance
- (1960) Pepe
- Carvounas, Robert J. (2009). A History of the Golden Bear, Huntington Beach. Santa Ana, California: Westminster Press. p. 58. ISBN 0-615---26601-0.
- p.216 Weaver, Tom Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes McFarland 2000
- Lees, Gene, Friends Along the Way: A Journey Through Jazz, p. 37.
- Less, Gene, Friends Along the Way: A Journey Through Jazz, p.38.
- Less, Gene, Friends Along the Way: A Journey Through Jazz, p. 66.
- Levinson, Peter J., September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle, p. 91
- Levinson, Peter J., September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle, pp. 92-93
- Official Les Baxter Website
- Les Baxter Collection at the University of Arizona
- Les Baxter (I) at the Internet Movie Database