If you've ever been in an elevator with smooth jazz Muzak, or enjoyed a martini to the slow hum of lounge pop, or whistled the classic theme song to "Lassie", then you're aware of Les Baxter's influence on the world of music today. Considered by many to be the father of mood music, Les created an exotic world of fanciful arrangements and modern jazz pop that has affected millions of music fans throughout the world ever since.
Les Baxter was born March 14, 1922, in Mexia, Texas, approximately 40 miles east of Waco. By fifteen he had mastered the piano and was an accomplished singer, and he spent the final two years of high school studying at the Detroit Conservatory. Upon graduation he began attending Pepperdine University (his uncle was its first president) on a music scholarship, but stopped just a few hours shy of a degree to become a concert pianist.
After banging around the classic music scene of the early 1940s, Les was invited to join Mel Torme's vocal group the Meltones as a singer. While working with Mel, Les continued to compose numerous songs, and eventually became a musical director for numerous radio shows, including those of Bob Hope and Milton Berle. At the same time, he also began developing his repertoire of musical instruments - in his lifetime, he learned to play nearly 50 instruments, which helped later when he developed his orchestral work.
Body of Work
In 1952, he signed a deal with Capitol Records and formed his own orchestra. He recorded over 200 pieces of music during his heyday, the most famous probably being The Poor People of Paris, which was the highest-selling single recording of the 1950s. He also worked on numerous films and TV shows, composing the famous whistling theme of "Lassie" (and performing it himself), as well as a number of scores for the popular Z-movies of his day. As a contract composer for AIP, cult classics such as Reptilicus, The Terror, X - The Man With X-Ray Eyes, and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine saw the able hands of Baxter at work (sometimes under the cutesy pseudonym "Casanova").
At the same time, Baxter, along with several other artists, including Martin Denny, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Henry Mancini, began working in a new field of "exotica", which mostly comprised smooth, mood-filled jazz with eclectic arrangements. Sometimes natural bird calls or running water would complement the piece, with marimbas, xylophones, and lush string sections accenting the music's atmosphere. Baxter himself arranged pieces for the famous Jackie Gleason albums of mood music, and continued to release exotic albums with such fanciful titles as Tamboo!, Space Escapade, and Perfume Set to Music. He also pioneered the use of the theremin in his space jazz album Music out of the Moon.
Baxter continued to score movies and produce music up until 1995, when health ailments forced him into retirement. He passed away January 15, 1996. He was 73.
Baxter's music itself is playful, filled with the complexity and lyrical beauty of jazz without its stifling seriousness and free range. Hearing his music today one can't help but think of sunny beaches, tropical islands, umbrella drinks, and the fun adventures one might have with this being the soundtrack to your life. It's no small wonder Baxter helped coined the phrase "jet set" to define his music. The fancy-free 1960s are easily defined by his lovely, romantic, and atmospheric pieces. Sometimes derided as "easy listening" or "Muzak", Baxter's music has much more emotional tension than these two descriptions would lead you to believe.
Today, his music still contains a cult following, with artists such as Tipsy, The Sea and Cake, Archer Prewitt, Air, Jim O'Rourke, Black Heart Procession, Palace, Tahiti 80, and Ivy continuing his fine tradition of lush arrangements, wide-open music, and experimental pop instrumentation.
Music Out of the Moon (Capitol, 1948) - His first album, and arguably his most influential. Jazz filled with quirky electronic experimentalism, predating Quincy Jones and The Silver Apples by nearly 20 years. A landmark release, and a must-have for serious fans of jazz, electronica, and pop music.
Blue Mirage (Capitol, 1954) - The first album to make use of exotica. His previous album Caribbean Moonlight had begun to explore the sounds of other cultures, but this album takes it to new limits, and broadened horizons that most Americans in 1954 had never even heard of, much less heard.
Space Escapade (Capitol, 1958) - Similar to Music out of the Moon, but presenting a much more traditional and mellow output. Much like Carl Stalling, Milt Franklyn, and Raymond Scott in cartoons, Baxter's release here helped define "space music" for years to come. The themes to "Star Trek", Barbarella, and even "The Silver Surfer" were directly influenced by this album. The recent kitschy feature film CQ plays homage to this album with its own soundtrack.
Que Mango! (Scamp, 1970) - A forgotten classic that only recently saw re-release, this shows Baxter at his finest. Avoiding the "California brass" syndrome that affected Mancini and Herb Alpert, this is an amazing album, filled with swelling strings, gorgeous melodies, and subtle musical gags that befit a man who spent his entire life making music for single-concept films. A glorious record from start to finish. (Good luck finding an original LP!)
While the definitive box set has yet to appear (and it would take a long time to truly chronicle the expansive and impressive work Bax did in his lifetime), a good starting point for Baxter (besides the aforementioned records) would be Capitol's 1996 release The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter, containing two discs of his material (though it mostly favors his later, less experimental space work in favor of the lush tropicalia jazz he became known for.)