LES BAXTER, AN AMERICAN IMPRESSIONIST
by Enrique Renard
Late in 1936, British composer Harry Revel had a chance meeting with an attractive Frenchwoman at the bar of the Hotel George V, in Paris. "The fragrance of her perfume", stated Revel, "transposed itself in my mind to a melodic theme". When asked, the lady indicated that she was wearing a scent from Corday called ‘Toujours Moi’. "It occurred to me then", continues Revel, "that if one fragrance could inspire melody there must be others that can do the same".
Later on Revel visited Corday in the south of France and sampled a number of their perfumes that elicited other melodies from him. From there he developed the idea of a suite. Before he returned to the States he had set down the first draft of a series of sketches he appropriately called "Perfume Set to Music".
Orchestrating "Perfume Set to Music" presented some serious challenges if what was desired was something that would really honour the title. An ethereal quality appeared appropriate for the arrangements, and when Revel attended the premiere of a movie called "Spellbound" in the early 40s, he knew he had found what he needed.
The movie score included sounds by an electronic instrument (yes, in those days) called the Theremin, that consisted of a metallic bar vertically mounted on a board electrically charged. The sound is obtained by moving your hands closer or further away from the bar depending on the note you want to produce. Not an easy feat, but Dr. Samuel Hoffman was an expert at it, and Revel, fascinated by the novel sound and its extremely delicate, unusual tone, spoke to Hoffman about his suite and his intention to record it using the Theremin.
Clearly though, the strange instrument wasn’t enough. String arrangements were required, and a young man under the name of Leslie Baxter was commissioned to arrange and conduct the suite for RCA. Some A & R executives at RCA probably raised eyebrows at the selection of Baxter. Who on earth was he?
Leslie Baxter, born in Mexia, Texas, on 14 March 1922, studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music, but when he arrived in Hollywood in the late 1930s he was a reedman (tenor sax). He did manage to play with notables such as Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young "where I learned to ad lib", he said, but he was also forced to play his tenor in third rate joints "with sailors and girls in shorts and little fur tops."
Well, other aspiring musicians have had it worse than that at the beginning of their careers. And besides, Baxter met in those days Freddie Slack, a band leader who used to balance a lobster in his head. He relates that one rainy night Slack came to visit him "with a lobster balancing on top of his head with the antennas wriggling around. I guess he wanted to have a lobster…" It is presumed that Baxter got his liking of exotic, unusual music, from feats of this kind.
But the fact that he was an accomplished musician became clear when he delivered the scores forPerfume Set to Music and recordings were issued by RCA in a box set of three 78 rpm records, later transposed into LP format (RCA LPM 35). That splendid effort didn’t make much impression on the public-at-large though. The music was too subtle for them, despite the lovely melodies and the originality of the score. So Baxter had to look for something different.
By 1949, the editors of jazz magazine Down Beat held a contest. Big Bands were on the wane and new gimmicks needed to be found. Participants, many of them winners in the contest, were individuals offering what may be euphemistically termed "originalities". Things like mesmerythm, jarb, id, anertonic, swixibop, improphony and syncope were played. I’d really like to hear how a jarb band sounds… No, on second thoughts I think not. But maybe Baxter got his inspiration for ‘Exotica’, as the term was coined, from some of those guys, and somehow Capitol, then an almost unknown label, got interested and commissioned Baxter to do "Music out of the Moon", with the use of Theremin, of course. But there were no strings, only voices which he used masterfully, and the record sold well enough to keep him recording for Capitol.
But before that, Baxter had joined the Mel-Tones around 1943, a group organized by singer/drummer/composer Mel Tormé. The group had 5 voices, three male, two female, and did excellently mainly thanks to Tormé’s great vocal arrangements; he had learned a lot from his days with Artie Shaw, who also featured singing groups with the band occasionally. But Tormé was recruited by the Armed Services in 1945 and the group disbanded, so Perfume set to Music came in handy shortly after to launch Baxter’s career.
After "Music out of the Moon", Baxter offered Capitol a tune he called Quiet Village. It was something hybrid between south Pacific islands and Afro-Cuban stuff with plenty of strange percussion instruments, marimbas, vibraphone and strings. The record sold over a million, and Baxter was on to fame and money.
An intelligent, musically multifaceted man, he knew he couldn’t just stay with ‘Exotica’. So he offered Capitol a set of his own compositions of moody, romantic tunes called The Woman, each tune relating to a part of a woman’s anatomy, like the arms, the breasts, the hair, the legs, etc.
Apparently no producer got interested in the project in the USA, so, together with Dave Dexter, another composer who helped with the tunes, he offered the suite to Frank Pourcel, a French director and composer of Light Music who got fascinated with the charts. The Woman was then recorded in Paris by Pourcel and released under the name La Femme. It became a worldwide hit (especially because of its sleeve featuring a very attractive young lady wearing nothing but her splendid body).
Capitol got the message, and along came other mood LPs now recorded in Hollywood: Love is a Wonderful Thing, Jewels of the Sea, Space Escapade, Caribbean Moonlight, etc. and also several albums of his ‘Exotica’ trademark: Ports of Pleasure, Ritual of the Savage, Tamboo, The Sacred Idol, Jungle Jazz, African Jazz, etc. He also recorded a couple of albums of movie music and did the actual scoring for some movies, but he was inevitably identified by the public through his ‘Exotica’ recordings.
Success rarely bothers musicians, but being stereotyped is quite another matter. In an interview in his latter years he passionately stated: "I write difficult music. You know Stravinsky’s Petrouchka? I don’t know of any scores as concert like and advanced as my scores. My scores were Petrouchka… Stravinsky, Ravel. Other people’s scores were movie music."
That may be thought of as a bit of an overstatement, but the interviewer saw him go to his grand piano to make his point. He then started to sight read Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau, (Water Games) which turned almost imperceptibly into Quiet Village, and his point was made. One of the last albums Baxter recorded in the US was "The Primitive and the Passionate" and there was also Sensational! (mostly movie songs), both for the Reprise label, in the early 60s.
Then came Brazil Now, for a label called Crescendo. By 1970 he was recording a couple of albums in London for the Alshire label: Que Mango and Million Sellers with an orchestra called 101 Strings. He was 48 years old then, and the disappearance of light music from broadcasting virtually finished his career, as it did other remarkable musicians of the genre under the thundering, loud avalanche of rock n’ roll and other similar nondescript things that today pass for popular music.
Baxter exerted a decisive influence on many musicians of today, although few are willing to recognize it. His music was timeless, always original and challenging. Martin Denny and others followed in his steps and achieved a good measure of success. But no one could really imitate him. He was unique as a man and as a musician. He understood latin rhythms to the extent of being invited to Brazil, the land of rhythm, as an honoured guest to head their Carnival. He travelled the world over, going to remote places to hear exotic and percussive instruments he later would use in his arrangements. His use of strings was equally fascinating, full voiced and in varied textures, but always appropriate to state his themes. He was particularly fascinated with British string players, whom he considered the best in the world, and he expressed his delight at being able to work with them during his all too brief 1970 London recordings.
Les Baxter died on 15 January 1996 shortly after helping to compile the material for the double CD issued by Capitol that year featuring his ‘Exotica’. What a pity that the rest of his music, of far greater excellence (he even composed a symphony) has not been re-issued in CD format. An omission that should be corrected for light music admirers, and the sooner the better.
© Copyright Enrique Renard. This article appeared in "Journal Into Melody" June/July 2005.