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Les Baxter

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Les Baxter
Background information
Birth nameLeslie Thompson Baxter
Born(1922-03-14)March 14, 1922
Mexia, Texas, U.S.
DiedJanuary 15, 1996(1996-01-15) (aged 73)
Newport Beach, California, U.S.
GenresLounge music, exotica
  • Composer
  • conductor
  • singer
  • musician

Leslie Thompson Baxter (March 14, 1922 – January 15, 1996) was an American musician, composer and conductor.[1] After working as an arranger and composer for swing bands, he developed his own style of easy listening music, known as exotica and scored over 250 radio, television and motion pictures numbers.[2]

Early life[edit]

Baxter studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music before moving to Los Angeles for further studies at Pepperdine College. From 1943 on he played tenor and baritone saxophone for the Freddie Slack big band. 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 in two early Nat King Cole hits, "Mona Lisa" and "Too Young". He also recorded Yma Sumac's first album: "Voice of the Xtabay", which can be considered one of the first recordings of exotica. In 1951 he made the original recording of "Quiet Village" which years later became a hit for Martin Denny. 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), and is remembered for a version of "Sinner Man" (1956), definitively setting the sound with varying tempos, orchestral flourishes, and wailing background vocals.[3]

"Unchained Melody" was the first million seller for Baxter and was awarded a gold disc.[4]

"The Poor People of Paris" also sold over one million copies.[4] 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.[citation needed]

In the 1960s, he formed the Balladeers, a conservative folk group in suits that at one time featured a young David Crosby.[5] 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 their song "The 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.

Baxter worked in films in the 1960s and 1970s. He worked on movie scores for B-movie studio American International Pictures where he composed scores for Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films and other horror and beach party films including House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo. He also composed a new score for the theatrical release of the 1970 horror film Cry of the Banshee after AIP rejected Wilfred Josephs's original one. 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.[6]

When soundtrack work fell off in the 1980s, he scored music for theme parks such as SeaWorld.

Baxter died in Newport Beach, California at the age of 73.[2] He was buried at Pacific View Memorial Park, in Corona del Mar, California.


According to Milt Bernhart, Nelson Riddle was a ghostwriter for Baxter when Baxter was working for Nat King Cole, although while Baxter was working and was credited as a conductor for Nat King Cole, he never was officially credited as a composer or arranger. Bernhart states that Riddle told him that Baxter did not write the material on his exotica albums.[7]: 37  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]."[7]: 38  But Baxter went on to write symphonies for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and guest conduct at the Hollywood Bowl.

Nelson Riddle held a grudge against Baxter for supposedly 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.[8]

Gene Lees states that the exotica albums were written by Albert Harris and the material recorded with Yma Sumac was written by Pete Rugolo.[7] According to Rugolo, he was paid $50 per arrangement to ghost for Les Baxter and that he "did a whole album with Yma Sumac".[7]: 66 

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 arrange in order to cope with his hectic schedule.[9]

Baxter's frequent conductor and orchestrator Hall Daniels also said the criticisms were the result of "sour grapes" by people who held a grudge against Baxter for one reason or another.[9]

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 "Tumpa". According to Heller, they were all in Baxter's own handwriting.[10]

Furthermore, the Les Baxter papers, which are housed at the University of Arizona, show a significant number of arrangements in his own hand.[11]


Baxter has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6314 Hollywood Blvd.[1]

Selected filmography[edit]


Albums, soundtracks and compilations[edit]


All released under Capitol Records:


  • (1960) Baxter's Best (compilation) (Capitol Records)
  • (1995) The Lost Episode of Les Baxter (1961 recording) (Dionysus Records)
  • (1996) By Popular Request (Dionysus Records)
  • (1996) The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter (Capitol Records)
  • (1998) Best of Les Baxter (EMI-Capitol Special Markets)


With various artists:

  • (1961) Wild Hi-Fi Drums / Wild Stereo Drums (Capitol Records)
  • (1969) All the Loving Couples [OST], one track (United Artists Records)

Arrangements for other artists[edit]

The Forum:

101 Strings:

  • (1970) Million Seller Hits (Alshire Records)
  • (1970) Que Mango! (Alshire Records)
  • (1975) Movie Themes (Alshire Records)
  • (1975) Hit Songs from Spain (Alshire Records)


  1. ^ a b c "Les Baxter". Los Angeles Times. July 24, 2008.
  2. ^ a b "Les Baxter; Music Arranger, Composer". Los Angeles Times. January 20, 1996.
  3. ^ Randol, Shaun (November 20, 2012). "Variations on a Theme: Sinner Man". The Mantle forum.
  4. ^ a b Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. pp. 71–72. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  5. ^ Carvounas, Robert J. (2009). A History of the Golden Bear, Huntington Beach. Santa Ana, California: Westminster Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-615-26601-5.
  6. ^ Weaver, Tom (2000). Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes. McFarland & Company. p. 216. ISBN 978-0786407552.
  7. ^ a b c d Lees, Gene (2003). Friends Along the Way: A Journey Through Jazz. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300099676.
  8. ^ Levinson, Peter J. (2005). September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle. Taylor Trade Publishing. pp. 91–93. ISBN 978-1589791633.
  9. ^ a b "Artist Interviews » Les Baxter". Artistinterviews.eu. January 15, 1996. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  10. ^ "Exoteque Music : Exotica Research". Ele-mental.org\accessdate=2015-08-17. Archived from the original on May 17, 2013.
  11. ^ Baxter, Les. "Earthlight." The Les Baxter Collection. University of Arizona School of Music. Web.

External links[edit]