Les Baxter (March 14, 1922–January 15, 1996) was an American musician and composer.
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 was credited with the early Nat King Cole hits, “Mona Lisa” and “Too Young”, but both were actually orchestrated by Nelson Riddle. In later releases of the recordings the credit was corrected to Riddle. 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). 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.
Baxter did not restrict his activities to recording. As he once told Soundtrack! magazine, “I never turn anything down”.
In the 1960s, he formed the Balladeers, a besuited and conservative folk group that at one time featured a slim and youthful David Crosby. He operated in radio as musical director of The Halls of Ivy and the Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello shows; he also worked on movie soundtracks and later 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.
When soundtrack work reduced in the 1980s, he scored music for theme parks and SeaWorlds. In the 1990s, Baxter was widely celebrated, alongside Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman Group, as one of the progenitors of what had become known as the “exotica” movement. In his 1996 appreciation for Wired magazine, writer David Toop remembered Baxter thus:
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.
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Les Baxter collection at the University of Arizona
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