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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
Occupation(s)Music arranger, composer

Leslie Thompson "Les" Baxter (March 14, 1922 – January 15, 1996) was an American musician and composer. After becoming well known as an arranger and composer for swing bands in the 1940s, he developed his own style of world music-influenced easy listening music, known as exotica, during the 1950s and 1960s.

Early life

Baxter studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory before moving to Los Angeles for further studies at Pepperdine College. From 1943 on he was playing 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 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.[1] "Unchained Melody" was the first million seller for Baxter, and was awarded a gold disc.[2] "The Poor People of Paris" also sold over one million copies.[2] 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] 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.[3] 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 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 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.[4]

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.[5] Survived by his daughter Leslie, he was buried at Pacific View Memorial Park, in Corona del Mar, California.[6]


According to Milt Bernhart, Nelson Riddle was a ghost writer for Baxter when Baxter was working for Nat King Cole. This doesn't make any sense, though, because while Baxter was working (and got 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 

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.[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  This does not make much sense either, because arrangements and most compositions for the album (Voice of the Xtabay) were officially credited to Moises Vivanco on the original release. Les Baxter was just credited as conductor, only in 1991 the German film documentary Yma Sumac - Hollywoods Inkaprinzessin claimed that most of the album was in fact ghostwritten by Les Baxter for Moises Vivanco.

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.[9]

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.[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, 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 stereo comforts in the whitebread suburbs."


Baxter has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6314 Hollywood Blvd.[12]

Selected filmography


Album, Soundtrack & Compilation



  1. ^ Randol, Shaun (November 20, 2012). "Variations on a Theme: Sinner Man". The Mantle forum.
  2. ^ a b Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. pp. 71–2. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  3. ^ Carvounas, Robert J. (2009). A History of the Golden Bear, Huntington Beach. Santa Ana, California: Westminster Press. p. 58. ISBN 0-615-26601-0.
  4. ^ Weaver, Tom (2000). Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes. McFarland & Company. p. 216. ISBN 978-0786407552.
  5. ^ "Les Baxter; Music Arranger, Composer". Los Angeles Times. January 20, 1996.
  6. ^ Les Baxter at Find a Grave
  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". January 15, 1996. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  10. ^ "Exoteque Music : Exotica Research".\accessdate=2015-08-17. Archived from the original on May 17, 2013. ((cite web)): Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (|url-status= suggested) (help)
  11. ^ Baxter, Les. "Earthlight." The Les Baxter Collection. University of Arizona School of Music. Web.
  12. ^ "Les Baxter". Los Angeles Times. July 24, 2008.