If the West has impulsively exoticized the rest of the world for centuries now, then the brilliant Los Angeles arranger and composer Les Baxter was the greatest twentieth century pop music proponent of this impulse. A staff arranger and conductor for the young Capitol Records in the late 1940s, Baxter distinguished himself early on with 1948’s Music Out of the Moon, a lunar-themed pop suite for chorus and theremin. A few years later, Baxter’s seminal “Quiet Village” (click for excerpt) was a commercial success as well, with the LP from which “Quiet Village” was taken, 1952’s Ritual of the Savage (subtitled Le Sacre du Sauvage, for added ethnographic impact), inaugurating and essentially defining the post-War American form of exotica.
Baxter went on to release dozens of exotica albums; they shifted with eerie, wordless choral arrangements, and swelled and pulsed with lush string sections and jazzy passages. There were the compositions with titles like “Jungle River Boat,” “Voodoo Dreams,” and “Oasis of Dakhla.” There were the Asian instruments and Afro-Latin rhythms and chants that populated these compositions – all appropriated freely from indigenous tradition and Baxter’s imagination.
Baxter’s initial success may have tapped into some lingering South Pacific nostalgia from World War II. Ultimately, though, it was that same latent Western fantasy of the Exotic Other that sold millions of Les Baxter’s records in the ‘50s and ‘60s – the same fantasy which found its way into Middle America’s living rooms and onto its console turntables. Sure, Baxter invoked some of the old Heart of Darkness-style tropes of the forbidden and the taboo. His music sounded great, though. And, besides, Les Baxter’s vision was weirder and more imaginative than the ‘50s middle-class demographic it was marketed to.
It was actually bandleader Martin Denny’s 1959 version of “Quiet Village,” though, which permanently affixed the song in the American consciousness. Denny’s version, which reached number one on the pop charts, was the most popular, and, in some ways, even more influential. Any lounge combo could add the token exotic number to their live repertoire and perform in Denny’s laid-back style of cocktail jazz.
There are tons of those Martin Denny-style exotica records, and I love them all accordingly. It’s the rarer, orchestral lull of the Les Baxter school of exotica that we turn to this week on Office Naps, though.
(Ed. note: Thanks to the Randy’s Bamboo Room for the Ritual of the Savage cover scan.)
1. Jack Medell and His Orchestra, Umbe’ (United)
I’d love to know more of the background story to 1957’s “Umbe’,” an obscure and unusual recording on an independent Chicago record label otherwise known almost solely for its black R&B, gospel, jazz and blues releases.
Very little can be turned up on Jack Medell, for one. And what, if anything, does “Umbe’” mean? It seems to be a bit of an Afro-Cuban ritual chant, if anything; set against that dark, quintessentially Baxter-ian sweep of strings, it makes for a fairly ambitious bit of torchlit jungle theatrics.
Thanks to the amazing Red Saunders Research Foundation for the discographical information.
2. Bill Justis, The Dark Continent Contribution (Bell)
Bill Justis is usually remembered for one raucous, honking contribution to rock ‘n’ roll instrumental history: 1957’s “Raunchy,” a hit for Memphis’s Phillips label (a subsidiary of the legendary Sun Records).
Like others who found eventually, if only momentarily, dabbled in orchestral exotica, it was in the relative anonymity of the studio that Justis found his calling. After “Raunchy” and a few years as an arranger and A&R honcho at Sun Records, Justis settled into the comfortable life of a full-time Nashville staffer, penning arrangements for artists in the Mercury/Smash Records stable, putting out some albums of fairly generic instrumentals, and scoring the occasional movie, Smokey and the Bandit, among them.
To anyone only familiar with Justis through his stiff versions of Memphis hits like “Green Onions,” the jazzy, cinematic thrust “The Dark Continent Contribution” will be a surprise. The increasing carnage of the Vietnam War probably laid to rest most lingering notions about the quaintness of the jungle village, but Justis demonstrated that a current of longing for the exotic was still there in some form, though, even in the late ‘60s..
3. Stu Phillips & Orch., Tropical Summer (Colpix)
The Los Angeles music studio world was a world where its staff – its arrangers, composers, producers, and session musicians – were hired to be competant rather than creative, and by that criterion, Stu Phillips was one of the city’s finest. Phillips was an enduring presence behind the scenes; his productions and session arrangements graced a lot of popular, pretty forgettable teenage pop in the early ‘60s. Phillips continued his streak with innumerable albums from the Hollyridge Strings, their saccharine versions of Beatles, Beach Boys and Simon & Garfunkel hits a future staple of thrift stores everywhere. (To his credit Phillips made a lot of great music, too, like his wild sitar instrumentals for the late ‘60s biker soundtrack Angels From Hell.)
Phillips made a handsome living by helping to manufacture pop fare; on “Tropical Summer” he does his “Quiet Village” imitation, distilling The Other to a small, easily digestible wafer with vibraphone cream filling, a cheery, vacation-cruise version of Polynesia that is quintessential exotica.
Thanks to Space Age Pop Music for the facts on Stu Phillips.