Les Baxter: Exotic and Dramatic!

« previous episode | next episode »

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Composer Les Baxter (1922-1996) had a flair for colorful, dramatic music. He created "exotica" classics like "Quiet Village," arrangements for the extraordinary singer Yma Sumac, and one of the first pop recordings to feature the keening, electronic sound of the theremin. Baxter also wrote inventive film scores, mostly for genre movies such as "House of Usher," "Panic in Year Zero!," "Beach Blanket Bingo" and many, many more.

Recently there's been a renaissance of interest in and enthusiasm for Les Baxter's film music, and a flurry of scores thought lost have been issued on CD. In 1990 David Garland interviewed Baxter extensively, and on this show presents the film score-related highlights from that interview, plus music Baxter composed for the films mentioned above, as well as "Black Sabbath," "Hell's Belles," "The Dunwich Horror" and other genre classics.

The Comedy of Terrors (Full movie)

Pit and the Pendulum

"The Dunwich Horror" music

"Panic in Year Zero!" Trailer

Comments [11]

I've been a great lover of film scores for many years now, so, naturally I love your program. Les Baxter did music in 1979 for an episode of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY, and according to IMDB, also for shows called THE CURSE OF DRACULA and THE SECRET EMPIRE all in '79. But in 1991, and probably the TV show in question, he did work on something called L'OEIL DU CYCLONE, an anthology documentary series, and the episode he worked on with Billy May and Moises Vivanco sharing music credit, was "Yma Sumac: La Castafiore Inca" which didn't air until 1993. And I'll bet it's safe to say that it didn't air in America. Outside of BUCK ROGERS I do not remember these other shows ... but I vividly remember his work for the Corman films, particularly "The Raven".

Jan. 22 2012 07:26 AM

Thank you very much for this interesting program. Sometimes it feels like a weird fixation - there's so much excellent music and film music around - but I really feel like Baxter's music lures me in like no other, it has really put a spell on me. I caught the collecting bug after seeing Baxter's name in the credits of The House of Usher when I was probably 12 or so. In the credits it is mentioned there's a soundtrack LP, which there wasn't. This was a total enigma to me. This brooding avant garde easy listening (as it sounded to me) was something I wanted to have and play. I waas thrilled to find Caribbean Moonlight a few years later, but didn't know about Baxter's exotica output. So I was suprised by the apparent ballroom repertoir of that record. But soon I found out that even with this material Baxter created real depth to his music. Although I was actually looking for his soundtrack stuff, I got hooked to his exotic output. The appearance of much of his film music on CD recently got me really excited and The House of Usher music draws me in exactly like when I was a kid. I had never heard him talk so it is nice to hear how humble and good natured he sounds. I wouldn't mind listening to the whole conversation. So thanks again!

Jan. 19 2012 03:00 PM
Joe Longo

How do I get copies of Les Baxter's sound tracks? I especially am interested in his soundtrack for "The Pit and the Pendulum."

Jan. 18 2012 10:15 PM
John Coburn from Houston

I think the tv show that Baxter did was Cliffhangers;more specifically the ongoing segment The Curse of Dracula.

Jan. 17 2012 09:16 PM
David Garland

@Theduke, thanks for being a looooong-time listener!

@John Kaufman, thanks for describing your visit chez Baxter! I wish I coulda been there.

@Robert Kurilla, Night Gallery ran in the early '70s, so would not be the series Baxter was creating music for in 1990. Apparently Gil Melle, Eddie Sauter, Oliver Nelson, and other great composers did write for Night Gallery. I guess it's been about 40 years since I saw an episode...

Today I received in the mail the new Kritzerland CD of Les Baxter's score for "The Raven." Too bad I didn't have it in time to include it in this show, because the music is amazing. Baxter in horror/humor mode, with great colors from electronic keyboard, plus wacky instrumental choices. It seems this limited edition is close to being sold out...

A little detail about the original 1990 broadcast of my interview with Baxter: it was important to Baxter that I should be sure to call his good New York friend Larry Storch, to make sure he was listening. So in one day I got to speak to both Les Baxter and Corporal Agarn of "F Troop." A surreal day for a child of the Sixties.

Jan. 16 2012 04:19 PM
John Kaufman from Allston, MA

David, Since you asked, my friend Peter Beckman knew Les Baxter. One day, Les invited Peter to his house in Hollywood. Peter asked if he could bring a friend and I came along. Baxter's house wasn't huge but was a very typical Los Angeles ranch house with a spectacular view of the surrounding hills. Les (he asked us to call him that), talked about his work for American International Pictures and Roger Corman. Much of what he said is reflected in your 1990 interview. Les wasn't pleased by the trend towards using already recorded music, as opposed to original scores, in then current Hollywood films. He was a genial guy with a lively sense of humor. We were lucky to have him play tapes of scores then unavailable on commercial recordings. I only saw him two or three times but I'll never forget it. For a lifelong fan of genre films, Les Baxter was a hero.

Jan. 15 2012 08:43 AM
Theduke from Newark, NJ

I still have hope that we will see "The Pit and the Pendulum" on cd some day. The Intrada issue of "The House of Usher" and the Kritzerland cd issue of "The Raven" keeps my hope alive. Sadly, Les Baxter, may be right.
Anyway, I was thrilled to meet you for the Bernard Herrmann birthday celebration.
I vividly remember listening to the Les Baxter broadcast way back in 1990!

Jan. 14 2012 10:10 PM
Robert Kurilla from NYC

Hello, David:

Your query about the TV show Les Baxter wrote for... In one of the pieces tonight you played, I recalled some sounds that I reminded me of the theme to "Night Gallery" hosted by Rod Serling, including a blast sound at the end of the phrase.

Jan. 14 2012 10:00 PM
John Kaufman from Allston, MA

I had the pleasure of meeting Les Baxter and going to his house where he played recordings not commercially issued. Les was a fascinating and genial man who had myriad amazing tales of Hollywood. One of my favorite west coast memories.

Jan. 14 2012 08:37 PM
rss from nyc

While it's true that Les Baxter "created" "Quiet Village," it wasn't until Martin Denny weirded it up with "jungle" sounds and recorded it in the late '50s that it really struck a popular nerve and became a huge hit -- aided in part by the soft-core covers and alluring titles (Exotica, Primitiva) that Denny (or his record company Liberty) favored for his albums: large-breasted lovelies strategically half-submerged in jungly ponds. Sex-starved kids (male variety) collected them all -- they were even better (visually and hormonally, I mean) than Julie London's albums (Calendar Girl et al). Wasn't growing up in the '50s awful/wonderful . . .

Jan. 14 2012 09:08 AM
Michael Meltzer

I still have my old 45 RPM Capitol Records Les Baxter 7" disc of "Gigi" and "I Love Paris."
It's a treasure!

Jan. 14 2012 02:46 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.