Sinister Image: The Horrific Moods of Les Baxter

Actor Vincent Price anc composer Les Baster, behind the scenes of HOUSE OF USHER

 

Actor Vincent Price and composer Les Baster, behind the scenes of HOUSE OF USHER

A personal look back at the composer whose tintinabulations brought Poe to the big screen with a big scream

It was the mid 1980s, and I was sitting in a screening room in Hollywood, trying to watch a preview of John Boorman’s THE EMERALD FOREST. Sitting next to me was composer-conductor Les Baxter. The reason I say “trying” is that Les was well into giving me a non-stop audio commentary of how this film would have been if he were scoring it. As I was beginning to learn, Les Baxter had zero tolerance for rival composers in this field; however, there was a good reason for this, as I would discover much later on.

I was a close personal friend to Les for the better part of the 1980’s. At that time he lived on a large, ranch-style estate in Chatsworth, California, surrounded by mountains. Les loved living large and had done so most of his adult life. The royalties from his film-scoring and album sales allowed for this lifestyle, and Les made no apologies for doing whatever came his way to keep himself in the manner he felt he deserved. In order to be his friend, one had to make allowances for his bitterness towards the music industry, particularly the Music Academy, which he felt (sometimes rightly so) had gone out of their way to malign his work and character to the point of spreading rumors that he employed ghost writers to do some of his composing, which was indeed a lie. This situation cost him dearly as he lost important friendships with colleages like Nelson Riddle and John Williams, whom he sued during the time I knew him.

The tragedy of Les Baxter is that he really was a genius whose musical talents were towering, and in a perfect world he would have been in the Hall of Fame with Grammys, as well as be revered by his peers. One of the things he felt held him back was having scored so many grade-Z potboilers. The industry simply would not take him seriously. When Les had been considered for the big-budget film GREEN MANSIONS, he was shot down by those within the MGM music department who said film required class and style and Les possessed neither. MGM finally gave him their B-titles, such as THE INVISIBLE BOY, instead.

When I met him, the fact I was so enamored with the American International Pictures films that he had scored pleased him greatly, because it meant I sort of got who he was and wasn’t just another young guy being taken to lavish meals by a wealthy musician. Les had audio cassettes of both his scores for HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM in his car, complete with dialogue from the soundtrack, so we could travel about listening to them. He felt his score for MASTER OF THE WORLD was his best and was very proud that it was one of the few ever released on vinyl during his lifetime. THE DUNWICH HORROR was another, which was my personal favorite and the one he autographed when we first met.

I think one needs to know just exactly how important a figure Les Baxter was during the ’50s and early ’60s to fully understand his fall from popularity; the advent of Elvis, along with the British invasion, rocked his world to its very core, and he never recovered from it for the rest of his life. Les was an important part of the lounge music era; and especially for swingers with a taste for Exotica, Baxter was the man. His albums for Capital records were best-sellers (the best of this material collected onto a 2-CD set titled, appropriately, The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter), and he was on radio and television constantly, finally having his own show as well. When this suddenly disappeared, he was left feeling no self-worth for his abilities and je began to drift, turning down nothing, as he needed money to sustain what his lavish lifestyle. Les had owned homes in Hawaii and had he held onto his assets he would have been set for life.

Les was a very sensitive and complex man with impeccable taste in art and music. His idols were Igor Stravinsky and Ravel; he also adored Rio, with special emphasis on Carnival. Les had gone to Carnival over and over, soaking up the beats and the rhythm in the streets of Rio. He was planning to do an album about Carnival with an eye for Broadway later on.

Vincent Price in THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

Vincent Price in THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

I think he realized the importance of the horror films he scored as he would never tire of playing the tracks if asked. He loved PIT AND THE PENDULUM the most because this score was atonal score and ultra-modern for its time. He told me that when AIP chief James H. Nicholson first heard the opening cues for the film, he called Les into his office and with tongue firmly in cheek began in mock angry tones, “Les, this is not what I asked for on the picture.” After a pause he then smiled at Les, adding, “It is so much more!” From that moment on Les had a patron in one of the two powers-that-be at AIP.

Les recalled, “Jim was a colleague and a fellow Scotsman. We had many many conversation together over the years. He was bright and progressive in his thinking. I admired him as he did me.”

Les recalled Roger Corman, who produced and directed many of the Poe-inspired horror films that Les scored, in a totally different manner; he told me they never had any kind of relationship to speak of, in spite of several films in common. “Roger never paid any attention to the music for any of the films I scored. I felt Corman had no interest in music to begin with, so he didn’t really pay attention. He never sat in on the recording and never asked anything of me as the composer. We simply did one after another as quickly as possible. As soon as Roger wrapped one he started up another.”

Les was a lifelong admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and delighted in creating scores like the Poe Suite for Vincent Price’s AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLEN POE, a television special that AIP asked Price to do while awaiting yet another film to fill up his contract. Les loved to play cues from CRY OF THE BANSHEE as he felt there were the moments in that score that were new and fresh for a period film (although the director felt otherwise).

Les was always interested in doing new things with music and was so knowledgeable regarding music from all over the world. As far as horror scores were concerned, he said, “The subject matter for horror projects always takes control dictating what I compose. I conducted each and every one of my scores for the Poe films and my commitment was 100%.”

Les loved his film scores and was never really satisfied unless you did as well. One evening he invited the veteran Hollywood photographer Ted Allan and his wife Jean and their adult daughter Holly up to the Chatsworth house during a weekend stayover for me. Ted had introduced me to Les in the first place, so it was like a gathering of extended family. After one of his more dramatic dinners, Les placed us all in his den, where he proceeded to darken the room until it was pitch black, and then he played the entire score for THE BEAST WITHIN, one of his last genre efforts. Towards the end he threw a huge pile of rubber bands up in the air and as they landed on us we all began to scream like teenage girls. It was great! He told us he learned that little trick from “Screaming” Jay Hawkins.

Les was a riot when he felt like it. These were the times I will cherish when I think of Les now. I was pleased to show Les early pressings of the Poe films when they came out on laser discs, as I had provided the liner notes and artwork. I made sure he was given his due on those releases, and he seemed to bask a bit in their preservation. The interest in the music of Les Baxter is growing with each passing year; there are now websites devoted to him with more and more young musicians discovering and admiring his legacy. I just wish Les could have lived to see it for himself. He was some kind of a man…

About the Author

David Del Valle

Since leaving San Francisco State University in 1974, David Del Valle has achieved national recognition as a journalist, columnist, film historian, radio & television commentator and is one of the leading authorities on the horror/science-fiction/cult & fantasy film genres. He has contributed to magazines internationally and has been interviewed by the BBC, A & E Network, Channel 4 (London) and The Sci-Fi Channel. He appeared prominently in American Movie Classics documentary entitled IT CONQUERED HOLLYWOOD!, the history of American-International Pictures. He is also the producer and on-camera host of Vincent Price's only interview regarding his career in horror. Del Valle oversees The Del Valle Archives, a collection in progress of thousands of still photographs, artwork and ephemera dealing with the horror/fantasy/sci-fi and cult genres. He produced and hosted a series of television interviews entitled "Sinister Image," featuring guests that ran the gamut from Cameron Mitchell to Russ Meyer. His print articles and interviews have appeared in such publications as Cinefantastique, Scarlet Street, Cult Movies, Fangoria, Films and Filming (Del Valle was Hollywood correspondent for this British magazine from 1983-1987), Video Watchdog, The Dark Side (UK), Fantastyka and L'Ecran Fantastique of France for which he was also West Coast correspondent. Del Valle recently completed a year as a radio host in Palm Springs, California in an entertainment-oriented program on AM as well as on the Internet around the world.

One Response to “ Sinister Image: The Horrific Moods of Les Baxter ”

  1. Just want to mention, regarding Les Baxter’s non-horror work, that I quite enjoy the two albums he did with exotic singer Yma Sumac: “Voices of Xtabay” and “Yma Rocks.” If you’re into lounge music, camp, retro, or whatever, you will get a kick out of them, and there are occasional echoes of his horror soundtrack work.

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