Universal Pictures, Hammer Films, Tigon, Tyburn, Amicus, and American International pictures are all studios that are synonymous with the world of horror in cinema. Each studios had their own particular brand or style, and each also had a unique way in which they approached the horror genre and over the years built up a stock look which became instantly recognisable with connoisseurs and fans. Each studio also their own preference too when it came to the musical scores for the movies that they produced. Hammer often opted for a more symphonic and grandiose approach with composers that were normally classically trained being commissioned to write the scores for their movies such as James Bernard, Richard Rodney Bennett and Malcolm Williamson penning what are now regarded as classics, under the watchful eye of musical directors such as John Hollingsworth and Phil Martell. American International pictures too in the 1960’s had their favourite or go to composers, but one stood out more than any other, Les Baxter was it seemed the studios composer in residence, and worked on many of their major releases, including some of the productions that starred Vincent Price. Of course, in the early 1970’s the Hammer and AIP studios collaborated on various movies including Vampire Lovers, AIP had already utilised the talents of Scottish born composer Harry Robinson who later worked on Hammer films for their 1969 motion picture The Oblong Box. So maybe Robinson got the job for Vampire Lovers because of his involvement on that movie, going on to score Twins of Evil and Lust for A Vampire in the Karnstein series rather than him being asked to work for AIP because of his work for Hammer as many seem to think.
But it was Les Baxter that AIP invariably turned to for their horror flicks and would also engage Baxter to re-score various movies that they were distributing which were made in Italy. Baxter often re-scoring sword and sandal adventures and some horror films which were thought to have soundtracks that were not fitting for American audiences.
Goliath and The Barbarians (1959) for example, and movies such as Black Sabbath (1963). Baxter also re-scored The Cry of the Banshee (1970), which originally had music by Scottish born composer Wilfred Josephs, the Joseph’s score has sadly never been released, but Baxter’s take on scoring the Vincent Price rural horror was issued in the form of a suite that took up the A side of a Citadel Records long playing record and was subsequently re-issued on compact disc.
Composer, conductor, and arranger Les Baxter was born on March 14, 1922, in Mexia, Texas.He began his love affair with music at an early age when he began to play the piano at five years of age and then later studied at the Detroit Conservatory and at Pepperdine College in Los Angeles, California, and began his career in music as a concert pianist but later joined the “Meltones” in 1945 with singer Mel Torme. Baxter acted as conductor for a handful of radio shows which included The Bob Hope Show. His recording of The Poor People of Paris was a number one hit and sold more single copies than any other recording during the 1950’s reaching the top of the US charts in the March of 1956. Another major hit for Baxter was April in Portugal, which was based on a song by Raúl Ferrão.
It was originally entitled Coimbra taking its name from a City in Portugal. and later introduced in the US as the whispering serenade. But Jimmy Kennedy wrote a new set of lyrics in 1952 for it and it became a huge hit for the composer. Baxter wrote the scores for over 120 motion pictures. He died of heart and kidney failure on January 15, 1996.
Baxter became a hugely popular exotica or lounge/easy listening artist and released numerous albums of this type of music that remain popular today and are readily available on digital platforms.
Albums such as Sacred Idol, which became very hard to get in its original LP edition and compilations such as Rituals of the Savage, and Que Mango! to name but three, one only has to click onto digital platforms such as Spotify to see what a wealth of music that Baxter was involved with. It was probably the reputation he gained from these many releases that showcased his work as composer, conductor, and arranger and brought him to the attention of film studios which in turn led to a successful career as a film music composer.
In many ways Baxter’s career was very much like Henry Mancini, as in he was a composer and arranger of note, writing for film and including his own compositions in the various compilations that he released, he could turn his hand to arranging and adapting evergreen favourites and placing upon them his own unique musical fingerprint. Listening to Baxter’s easy listening albums one does detect a certain richness and haunting style, that oozed a sophistication and a classy air that maybe more contemporary music lacks.
This style and charisma too comes across in the composers work for cinema as in his score for the AIP movie Master of The World (1961) which starred Vincent Price, this is a score that is brimming with a thematic excellence and teeming with vibrant and memorable compositions that are romantic, dramatic, and affecting. And although not in the true sense a Horror movie it did contain scenes of war and destruction, and a rather unhinged central character. I always look upon Baxter’s score for Master of the World in a very similar way to that of Victor Young’s Around the World in Eighty Days, it has that kind of aura and musical persona to it, being lavish, lush, and opulent.
The soundtrack for Master of the World was released on LP record back in 1961 on the Vee Jay label, and the cover art boasted some colourful images.
Baxter’s scores for the horrors at AIP have become slightly dated and cliched in recent years, at times seeming over dramatic and tense, even being overzealous and overshadowing of the action on screen, but we have to remember that the composer worked on the majority of these back in the 1960’s and into the early part of the 1970’s so at that time was taking his cue from those early Universal horror scores and putting his own unique twist upon them. Baxter was in effect re-inventing and at the same time setting the scene or creating the blueprint for the sound of the horror film as envisaged by AIP and also his musical notions would inspire many up-and-coming composers who adopted a similar approach during the sixties and seventies.
The opening theme for the majority of Baxter’s horror scores are highly dramatic and effectively struck a chord or even a discord of terror and jagged jolts into the watching audiences. The racing strings and the urgent brass flourishes of the opening to The Fall of the House of Usher for example initially and instantly create a sense of foreboding, a mood of chaos and a aura of darkness, but this soon melts away as we are treated to a glorious sounding core theme, performed by the string section, Baxter had a knack of writing music for film that was very supportive of the storyline and the images on screen but even though it was at times shadowy and malevolent and filled with suspense and apprehension it still remained melodic.
His score for The Raven is masterful as it not only remains sinister and suitably chilling but also has to it a real sense of comedy and irony, which perfectly compliments and underlines the scenarios on screen as they unfold and develop.
Black Sabbath is among my top five favourite Baxter soundtracks, it is a jagged and somewhat raw sounding work, but also does have interludes that act as a more tuneful and melodious respite, the film which was directed by Mario Bava starred Boris Karloff and was originally scored in Rome by Italian Maestro Roberto Nicolosi.
The score by Nicolosi was not a awful one in fact it is probably as good if not better than Baxter’s re-score, but AIP just did not think that the Italian score would be welcomed by American audiences. The movie is an anthology of three tales of horror, that focus upon A woman terrorized in her own apartment by phone calls from an escaped prisoner from her past. A Russian count in the early 1800s who stumbles upon a family in the countryside trying to destroy a particularly vicious line of vampires; and an early twentieth century nurse who makes a fateful decision concerning a ring while preparing the corpse of one of her patients an elderly medium who died during a seance.
The same happened with the 1960 movie Black Sunday, (Mask of the Demon) again directed by Bava with an Italian release scored by Nicolosi, the film which is often confused with Black Sabbath starred the Queen of horror Barbara Steele.
Set in the seventeenth century, in Maldavia, Princess Asa Vajda (Steele) and her lover Javutich portrayed by Arturo Dominici are killed by the local population, accused of witchcraft. A mask of Satan is attached to their faces, well hammered into their faces to be more precise. Princess Asa curses her brother, promising revenge to his descendants. The body of Javutich is buried outside the cemetery, and the coffin of Princess Asa is placed in the family’s tomb with a cross over it for protection. Two hundred years later, Professor Thomas Kruvajan and his assistant, Dr. Andre Gorobec, are going to a conference in Russia and they accidentally find the tomb. Dr. Thomas breaks the cross, releasing the evil witch. When they are leaving the place, Dr. Andre meets Princess Katia Vajda, descendant of Princess Asa, and falls in love with her. Meanwhile, Katia is threatened by the witch, who has designs of entering her body so that she may live again and take her revenge.
The re-scoring schedule of Baxter was not just for Horrors, and I have already mentioned Sword and Sorcery and Sword and Sandal (Peplums), Goliath and the Barbarians originally being scored by Carlo Innocenzi, and the Italian made epic Marco Polo which had been scored in Rome by Italian Maestro Angelo Francesco Lavagnino in 1962. Baxter also re-scored a quirky spy spoof in 1966, which was also helmed by Bava and starred Vincent Price, the original title was Le Spie Vengono dal Semifreddo, which had a good soundtrack written by Italian composer, arranger Lallo Gori.
When the movie was released in the USA it was re-titled Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs and given a new score that leaned towards a more pop sounding approach penned by Baxter who also included a number of songs on the soundtrack. The movie was actually a sequel to the USA production Dr.Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) which also starred Price but was directed by Norman Taurog and scored by Baxter. The composer was also credited as conductor on the 1965 TV movie The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot, directed by Mel Ferber. Baxter also worked on a 1972 movie Blood Sabbath, under the alias of Bax, the movie was directed by Brianne Murphy and focused upon a coven of witches who capture a young man traveling through the woods.
Who then becomes involved in a deadly power struggle between a young witch and the evil Queen who is the head of the coven. Baxter is also known for his pulsating and inventive score for The Dunwich Horror. Released in 1970 and based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.
I thought this was a good movie, even if it did have the look of a TV film rather than a feature. It starred Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee, and Ed Begley. Stockwell’s character is a descendant of a powerful wizard. So, I suppose this puts him in a good position to be a weirdo that frequents altars and shrines and other such eerie places keeping company with some rather strange beings and characters.
The score is certainly a highlight of the production, Baxter incorporating upbeat near pop slanted compositions with dramatic and quirky sounding pieces, the composer also employing electronic sounds within the score. I would go as far as to say that at times the music outshines the action that is being acted out on screen. So that is a basic look at Les Baxter, but please investigate further his varied and alluring musical world, I think that you will be pleasantly surprised.