Album Spotlight focuses on a specific (usually vintage) album. Album Spotlights will pop-up randomly. There might be another Spotlight next month or six months from now. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects the Album Spotlight!
Space Escapade, Les Baxter: Capitol Records, ST-968, Stereo, 1958
The first Album Spotlight was The Golddiggers’ We Need a Little Christmas LP from1969. This edition goes in a completely different direction and turns the spotlight on Les Baxter’s Space Escapade from 1958, a classic space age pop album. And be sure to read all the way through to the fun contest at the end.
Space Escapade may not have been the first album in the unique space age music genre, but without a doubt it had the best cover. It depicted what your average, mid-century bachelor envisioned when fantasizing about visiting a faraway planet…enjoying a dry ice-based adult beverage with attractive, brightly-colored female aliens with springs on their heads (note the silhouette of a phallic-like rocket in the background). I’m not sure why the aliens didn’t use memory foam on their heads instead of springs. Incidentally, if you look closely at the jovial astronaut in the green suit, it looks like he has his own rocket in his pocket! How fortunate the astronauts were to have generous openings in their fish bowl helmets to be able to savor the foreign concoctions prepared in their honor. The album cover alone has made this record quite desirable amongst collectors.
One Small Step For Man
It was probably no coincidence that Space Escapade was released a year after Russia’s Sputnik satellite launch in 1957. Another decade would pass before an astronaut stepped foot on the moon. Like the front cover, Baxter’s compositions paint an overall positive landscape of outer space. But before we get ahead of ourselves by going into deep space exploration on Space Escapade, let’s first explore the man behind the music.
Leslie Thompson Baxter was born in Mexia, Texas in 1922, 100 years ago this month. He started playing piano at age 5. He took courses at the Detroit Conservatory and Pepperdine University. In 1945 he joined the Mel-Tones, Mel Torme’s singing group. He eventually quit the group to work for NBC Radio, conducting music for the Abbott and Costello and Bob Hope radio programs. In 1950, Baxter left radio behind to arrange and conduct music at Capitol Records for recordings by Nat King Cole, Margaret Whiting, and Frank Sinatra. Not a bad gig.
Baxter turned to crafting music for films in 1962, scoring at least 8 movies (some cite as many as 100) for American International Pictures, including The Pit and the Pendulum and Beach Blanket Bingo. Some websites claim he composed music for over 250 films in total.
Music Out of The Moon, Baxter’s first album, launched (if you will pardon the pun) the space age music genre. According to wrti.org, astronaut Neil Armstrong actually brought a cassette recording of the album with him on Apollo 11 in 1969! The record featured a choir, a rhythm section, a cello, a French horn, and a theremin. That’s it. For 1947 it truly was out of this world and is quite probably the best-selling theremin album ever.
A year later, Baxter’s Ritual of The Savage brought us back down to earth…to the jungle to be more specific. The music incorporated bird calls and assorted jungle sounds. As his Music Out of The Moon ushered in space age music, Ritual gave birth to the exotica genre.
The composer was not without hits. Unchained Melody and The Poor People of Paris each sold over a million copies, the former earning gold record status. He also composed Quiet Village which became a huge hit for Martin Denny in 1959.
Baxter died from a massive heart attack on January 15, 1996 in Newport Beach, CA at the age of 73. He has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
With about 70 titles in his discography, I was spoiled for choice when it came to picking a Baxter album for this Album Spotlight. Yet from the very start there was never any doubt in my mind that my focus would be on Space Escapade. Allmusic.com called the album “a definitive slice of lounge/bachelor pad music” containing compositions that “shows off Baxter’s chops as a big-band leader.”
Space Escapade is rated 4.5 stars on Amazon with one reviewer calling the album, “an American classic, to be revered and cherished. Thank goodness that we have the recordings of the wonderful Les Baxter for letting us explore his, and our, musical dreamscapes.” Another fan wrote, “All of a sudden that sound really fascinated me. It sounds so pretty and so fresh today, it shows how Les Baxter fifties’ songs were ahead of time.”
YouTube has equally favorable comments. “I am one of those who remember my parent’s Friday and/or Saturday nights, full of this music”, one person wrote. “Mostly at the beach house, sometimes in the rec. room. It mostly served as background music. Never danced too, but played to impress. Who had the best stereo. Listening again, eavesdropping on the stairs, I’m a seven year old kid again.” Another Space Escapade owner wrote, “My co-workers can only guess why I smile on a Monday morning at the computer with my ear buds in. Pure ear candy. If that first cut doesn’t put a smile on your face, check for a pulse!”
What Is This “Stereo” Thing?
Turning the Spotlight back to the classic front cover, there were actually four variants of the cover. One might expect slightly different covers to indicate mono and stereo, but the stereo recording alone had 3 versions of the front cover. All three have white bands at the top of varying sizes promoting stereo, but one cover adds a round color Capitol logo in the photo, an inexcusable distraction from the artwork.
Why release a record in both mono and stereo? Actually, this wasn’t unusual for 1958 when stereo recordings were new to the consumer. Many people still owned monophonic hi-fi systems, bought mono records, and listened to mono AM radio at home and in their car. Stereo was so new that Capitol felt the need to dedicate one side of the record’s inner paper sleeve to educate the record owner about two-channel stereo. Example: “What is a stereo record? This stereo record recreates the needed perspective. Sounds are recorded from two points of view and, ultimately, engraved one on each side of the groove. Thus, the stereo record, when properly played, gives a realistic ‘display’ of sound.” I cannot imagine experiencing Space Escapade any other way. My stereo copy of Space Escapade came with the original paper sleeve in excellent condition, which I find amazing considering the album is over 60 years old.
Ranking right up there with the Hindenburg disaster, Jack the Ripper, and the Roswell UFO crash, is the equally stubborn question worthy of a Robert Stack voice over– Whom created Space Escapade’s incredible front cover? With my detective’s fedora positioned at a jaunty angle, I tracked down singer/songwriter/guitarist/composer/producer/band leader (whew!) and Les Baxter protégé and friend, Skip Heller, in an attempt to solve this enduring riddle. “Prior to their move to the Tower” (the 13-story building made to resemble a stack of records), Heller wrote me in an email, “Capitol [Records] didn’t maintain a full-time art and design department, so outside illustrators and designers did the covers, and they were very often credited. In Les’ case, William George — known for pulp paperback covers in the fifties — did the art for Ritual Of The Savage and Tamboo. But from 1957 on, Capitol had everything but pressing generated from the Tower, including all the art stuff, and rarely if ever with a note on who did the art or who posed for it. When I asked Les about album covers”, Heller continued, “he didn’t really remember anything about it, unless he himself was in the photo. He did mention to me once he thought that the cover of Space Escapade was very amusing, but that maybe it distracted people from some of his better writing on that record, especially The City and Moonscape. I had the pleasure of hearing him play each of those solo, at the piano.”
Despite my best efforts it would seem the mystery of whomever was responsible for Space Escapade’s orgasmic front cover will remain unsolved. Apologies to the late Robert Stack.
Flipping the cover around reveals Disney animator J.P. Miller’s illustrations. The romantic liner notes below and to the right of the images tease the listener: “We can close our eyes and dream of the future, wondering whether a starlit planet might soon replace a tropical island, the Riviera, or a distant mountain lodge as the ideal spot for a romantic holiday. Or, with the aid of this stereo recording, we can drift into the future’s lovemist with Les Baxter and make a spaceliner escapade by earthlight…” My bags are packed.
In addition to the notes and Miller’s monochrome sketches, the back cover includes delightful descriptions of each track, as if they were excerpts lifted from a space travel brochure. “On our first visit to a planet, we arrive in the midst of Martian Gras”, begins the description of Mr. Robot. I guess that explains the front cover. The Commuter provides a glimpse into the future of morning rush hour…”Jetmobiles roar through early Solar City traffic. Their frenzied speed gives rise to vertigo, until we realize that crashes are now extinct, with electric fields keeping travelers safely at arm’s length.” Hmmm…Baxter predicted blind spot and lane departure warnings sixty years before they were invented.
Some of Baxter’s music has found its way into recent major motion pictures and TV. In the Oscar-winning Matt Damon film, Ford vs. Ferrari, the first track off of Space Escapade, Shooting Star, is featured. Lunar Rhapsody from Music Out of The Moon is featured in First Man, a movie about Neil Armstrong. Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel features Baxter’s #1 hit Unchained Melody in season 3, episode 18.
No doubt Baxter would be tickled pink as an alien with a spring on his head to know that a whole new generation of music lovers are discovering his body of work and taking Space Escapade for repeated round trip listens. Fuel up your turntable, buckle yourself into your BarcaLounger, and prepare for liftoff. The female aliens with springs on their heads anxiously await your arrival.
Trivia: In 1954, Les Baxter composed the theme song to the TV show “Lassie”. In the latter years of his career he composed music for theme parks like Sea World.
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ALBUM CAPTION CONTEST!
The Space Escapade Caption Contest yielded some interesting entries such as:
What happens in space, stays in space.
Astronauts Do It in Space!
I told NASA we crash-landed on an uninhabited planet and we can’t get back.
I call it my ‘Rocket Enlarger’.
Are you still upset with me for packing the ship full of Viagra instead of Tang?
Here’s to successful inner spring transplants. You ladies can now plunk your magic twangers.
I hereby claim this planet and all its riches in the name of Hugh Hefner. Now, where to plant my flag?
We’re going where no man has gone before.
In the end, I chose the entry from Micheal Z. of Talent, Oregon: TRAVEL TIP: Always seek out the local watering holes on Alpha Centauri. The natives are welcoming, Happy Hour lasts a month, and gravity is so low, you won’t hurt yourself when you pass out.
The runner up caption was: This will be the second big bang!
Congrats to Michael and thanks to everyone who entered! And a big thanks again to thinksound.com for donating the IN20 earbuds which are on their way to the winner.