Les Baxter (March 14, 1922 – January 15, 1996) was an American musician and composer. Although he is best known as a practitioner of exotica music, he also scored several films, many of which were horror.
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?”.
By 1950 he had moved to Capitol and had progressed to conducting and arrangement, including one of Nat King Cole’s big early hits, “Mona Lisa”. From here, he branched out into his own strange world, firstly scoring a travelogue called, Tanga Tiki and then a series of concept albums: Le Sacre du Sauvage, Festival of the Gnomes, Ports of Pleasure, and Brazil Now. These thickly-layered, atmospheric works featuring bird song, abstract wailing and all manner of jungle and tribal sounds became part of the exotica movement, the archly-kitsch imagined sounds of far-flung lands and would soon inspire similar minds; Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Esquivel.
Sadly, much of his work up to this point was over-shadowed by back-biting and malicious rumour. It was alleged on several occasions that Baxter was actually the front for a ghost-writer, the actual composers of several works suspected to be Albert Harris, Pete Rugolo and Nelson Riddle, most famously Frank Sinatra’s band leader. The evidence for this was Baxter’s extremely slow composition and supposed inability to read music, both claims which have since been largely disproved. Regardless, Baxter shrugged off the criticisms and after further, often ‘challenging’ exotica works, cinema beckoned.
Having already composed the familiar’ whistle’ theme for TV’s Lassie, Baxter’s first work of note and a rarity in respect of the reasonable budget, was the Vincent Price-starring, Master of the World. This association with Price and more especially of the Gothic was to become a cornerstone of his career but one sadly that more often than not went uncredited. The speed at which AIP demanded new scores and the lowly resources afforded him and his orchestra meant that he was lucky to receive a credit for his work, luckier still if he was happy with the results of scores his name was attached to.
Baxter scored many of the Poe cycle of films, which have since become critically acclaimed but at the time were seen as fodder by many. Amongst well over a hundred scores he composed there are a handful of particularly interesting ones, unusual in that he was required to re-score a film which already had a soundtrack, for the American market. These included famous Mario Bava works such as Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963) and Baron Blood (1972), peplum – Goliath and the Barbarians, and comedies – Beach Party.
In terms of the slew of Italian films he worked on, there is simply no justification for the so-called need for an alternative score. Composers such as accomplished as Stelvio Cipriani (Tragic Ceremony; Tentacles, a theme recycled possibly more than any other in film history, Piranha II), Roberto Nicolosi (Black Sunday) and Angelo Francesco Lavagnino (Castle of the Living Dead; Queens of Evil) were amongst those whose works were presumably considered ‘too exotic’ for the American palate. In fact, it was naturally conservative AIP who insisted that the films were given a new score for the American market. Their explanation, according to the composer Bronislau Kaper (Them!) was that they found Italian scores, “stupid, arrogant, monotonous and tasteless”.
The fun didn’t end there. Samuel Z. Arkoff’s notorious cost-cutting extended to the regular recycling of not only individual cues but entire tracts of music – the score to Samson and the Slave Queen is nearly all taken from Goliath and the Barbarians, not that Baxter got double the money. Similarly, The Premature Burial (1962) features cues heard in some of his previous scores. It is worth noting that although Baxter was one of the most high profile composers to be put in this position, others, such as Herman Stein (Tarantula, This Island Earth) also had their music re-used or went uncredited.
For Mario Bava’s 1960 classic, Black Sunday, so much money was invested by AIP (over $100,000, more than the film’s shooting budget) that they felt obliged to make it their own, despite it coming to them already successful and fully-formed. Ironically, having dispensed with Nicolosi’s subtle, unobtrusive score, they replaced it with something not only extremely similar but something which, if anything, attempted to overshadow Bava’s visuals. At least with 1963’s, Black Sabbath, a distinctly different score took the place of Nicolosi’s work, a somewhat blander, mainstream effort compared to the shifting and free-form original. The extremely distinctive Cipriani score to 1972’s Baron Blood, was given one of the more extreme make-overs and for once actually adds something new, something less intrusive and, well, scarier.
This bizarre practise continued to an even more ludicrous instance for Cry of the Banshee (1970) with AIP insisting on separate scores for both the British and US versions of the film. There are several explanations for this, however daft; firstly, Baxter had by this stage become part of the furniture at AIP and could apparently do no wrong; secondly, the original composer, Wilfred Josephs, was known only for his work in television, not the familiar big-hitter the Americans demanded; finally, the cuts to the US version were so sweeping that the film made little sense with only minute cues remaining. Regardless, it is one of Baxter’s most revered works, though the original is fun for its faux-Elizabethan sound.
After the mid-70’s, work began to dry up on both sides of the Atlantic as Italy’s industry concentrated on home-grown scores and America entered the realms of enormous blockbusters. There was still opportunity there (some work on Frogs in 1972, the score to The Beast Within, a decade later) but both exotica and his film themes had had their time (though he did compose themes for Sea World, amongst other tourist attractions) and it would be after his death that Baxter began to be reappraised in a much more positive light.
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