It was a musical cocktail born in a marketing meeting: Two parts easy listening, one part jazz, a healthy dollop of conga drums, a sprinkling of bird calls, and a pinch of textless choir. Serve garnished with an alluring woman on the album jacket for best results. Liberty Records co-founder Si Waronker called it Exotica; the soundtrack for a mythical air conditioned Eden, packaged for mid-century, tiki torch-wielding armchair safariers.
In the five years after Exotica—Martin Denny’s 1957 landmark Liberty debut—arrived, hundreds of other ethnographic forgeries washed up in record racks all over the U.S., bearing titles like Sophisticated Savage, Sacred Idol, Chant of the Jungle, Polynesian Paradise, Exotic Paradise, Taboo, Primitiva, Forbidden Island, Afrodesia, Hypnotique, Percussion Exotique, and a barrel’s worth of other portmanteaus. “All of those ica and itiva endings I came up with because I thought I was being cute,” Waronker said. “And I don’t know why, but nobody got wise.”
While Liberty certainly had a first mover advantage, it wasn’t long before the major recording companies began reinventing their aging mood music purveyors as pushers of peregrine percussion. And where the majors went, so too did the rest of the market. Dozens of readings on the genre standards like “Quiet Village,” “Similau,” “Miserlou,” “Caravan,” “Nature Boy,” “Moon of Manakoora,” and “Taboo” appeared on micro-pressed 45s and LPs as hotel lobby combos and restaurant entertainers alike tried their hand at creating regional living room lotus lands while others summoned their own sonic visions of Shangri La, bringing their versions of the Pacific, Africa, and the Orient to the hinterlands America.
“If you can’t come to paradise, I’ll bring paradise to you.”
— Donn Beach
The earliest whispers of this brand of appropriated escapism appeared not in song, but literature. Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection The Jungle Book and William Henry Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions both chronicle the experiences of young protagonists in the jungles of India and Guayana, respectively. Eight years later, Edgar Rice Burroughs blew the naturalist scene wide open with Tarzan of the Apes. These woodland tales inspired English Impressionist Cyril Scott, who in penning “Lotus Land” in 1905 and “Impressions of the Jungle Book” in 1912 unwittingly became the godfather of exotica.
“Exotica was a name I made up,” recalled Waronker, “I never heard that word before.” But the cultural trappings of that word began appearing nearly 25 years before his invention. Born in February 1907, Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt would be the first to “bring paradise”—as he sloganized—to American shores. The 1933 opening of his first Don the Beachcomber’s Cafe offered Los Angelenos a glimpse into island life, its walls adorned with spears, masks, and bamboo, a hose dripping on the corrugated metal roof giving beachniks refuge from a make believe tropical deluge. The fare was simple: Chinese food served in wooden bowls. The drink menu, on the other hand, was transportive: A bootlegger’s trunk of rums mixed with fruit juice and other liqueurs, with terror-glee inspiring name like Cobra’s Fang, Demerara Dry Float, Missionary’s Downfall, and Zombie. As Hollywood rediscovered their love of alcohol following the repeal of prohibition, Gantt—who officially changed his name to Donn Beach—found himself in the middle of a typhoon of cash and franchise opportunities.
The bombing of paradise on December 7, 1941 inadvertently set off the tiki explosion, when Beach and 16 million others joined the war effort. Many servicemen caught their first glimpses of the outriggers, rattan rugs, thatched roofs, wahine waifs, and totems while stationed on Wake Island, the Philippines, and Guam. When the curtain was drawn on the Pacific theater, these suntanned veterans washed up stateside with more than just sand in their boots; they brought tiki culture to the suburbs. Beach faced a rude awakening upon his return; his wife filed for divorce and he lost everything but his name, which he’d take to Waikiki for a reboot.
Lieutenant Commander James A. Michner published his account on the fictional island of Bali Ha’i as [i'Tales of the South Pacific[/i] in 1947. “I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific,” Michener wrote. “The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.”
For America, the wait for exotica’s arrival was almost over.
In 1947, Eden Ahbez was living under the first L of the Hollywood sign. He’d spent the bulk of his 40 trips around the sun as a proto-hippie, living in caves and lean-tos with a group of men affectionately known as “The Nature Boys,” before decamping to Mount Lee with a sleeping bag and his wife. Lyrics for his free-love hymn “Nature Boy” began circulating in 1946, with a tattered copy reaching Nat King Cole via his valet the following year. Hoping to record the song, Cole began seeking out a bearded man who was last seen preaching the wonders of Lebensreform on the streets of Hollywood. The April 1948 release would ultimately hit #1 on the Billboard charts and spawn dozens of cover versions, making “Nature Boy” the first hit in the exotica canon.
Nearly a year to the day after the release of “Nature Boy,” Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical adaptation of Tales of the South Pacific debuted on Broadway, whetting America's island appetite. Juanita Hall’s quivering mezzo-soprano on “Bali Ha’i” prototyped the coming movement, her character Bloody Mary creating a sultry intrigue with the lyric “Where the sky meets the sea. Here I am your special island. Come to me, come to me.” The Original 1949 Broadway cast LP was the best selling album of the decade, bringing the imagined sounds of Vanuatu into living rooms everywhere.
In Cyril Scott’s 1928 book The Influence of Music on History and Morals he anticipated that “Great floods of melody will be poured forth from the higher planes, to be translated into earthly sound by composers sensitive enough to apprehend them.” His heir apparent was only six at the time of the prediction, but two decades later Les Baxter found himself on the cusp of creating a series of modern classical works that would define an entire genre. Baxter had spent the ’40s banging around west coast jazz combos, including stints with Freddie Slack, Mel Tormé and his own Les Baxter Trio before being tapped by composer Harry Revel to arrange an album around the then-chic theremin. The two Revel collaborations—1947’s Music Out of the Moon and 1948’s Perfume Set To Music—solidified Baxter’s innovative reputation at Capitol Records, who had unusual pairing in mind for his next effort.
“I hadn’t been to South America or Cuba or anyplace when I did my exotic stuff,” Baxter said in a 1995 interview with Peter Huestis. “It just came out of nowhere.” He did, however, have a Peruvian princess in the studio to make up for the lack of stamps in his passport. Yma Sumac arrived in New York in 1946 with her husband/manager Moisés Vivanco, showcasing her her five octave, quasi-operatic talent as Inca Taqui Trio before finally catching Capitol's ear three years later. “We sat with Yma Sumac and listened to her natural incantation, or music, or whatever you might call it, which was totally foreign to anything that we know as Western music or European music, or anything else,” Capitol V.P. Alan Livingston said. “I give Les Baxter credit. He sat with her and managed to isolate certain portions of what she was doing to write and create a background to go with it.”
“After (Voices of the Xtabay) came out, people were very intrigued,” Sumac said. “They had never heard this kind of singing before. They didn’t know how to classify it; whether it was classical or mumbo-jumbo!”
At the half century mark, exotica had found its image via Donn Beach, its sound through the classical musings of Les Baxter, and its voice in Yma Sumac, but it lacked for an anthem. Baxter’s 1951 solo debut The Ritual of the Savage would change that. The back cover described the album as “a tone poem of the sound and the struggle of the jungle...the hue and mood of the interior...the tempo and texture of the bustling seaports and the tropics!” Savage’s signature moment doesn’t appear until the opening of side B, when “Quiet Village” unfurls as a series of ostinatos bathed in percussion and strings. It would be another eight years before the song hit the charts, and even then Baxter’s name could only be found while squinting at the credits.
Martin Denny washed up at Donn Beach’s Dagger Lounge in 1954. The pianist had spent the previous 20 years in and out of casinos and hotels on and off the mainland before forming a trio with vibraphonist Arthur Lyman and bassist John Kramer. A year later, after moving on to the Shell Bar at Hawaiian Village and adding percussionist Augie Colon, inspiration struck Denny: “The Hawaiian Village was a beautiful open-air tropical setting. There was a pond with some very large bullfrogs right next to the bandstand. One night we were playing a certain song and I could hear the frogs going ‘Rivet! Rivet! Rivet!’ When we stopped playing, the frogs stopped croaking. A little while later I said, ‘Let’s repeat that tune,’ and sure enough the frogs started croaking again. And as a gag, some of the guys spontaneously started doing these bird calls. The following day one of the guests came up and said, ‘Mr. Denny, you know that song you did with the birds and the frogs? Can you do that again?’ At the next rehearsal I said, ‘Okay, fellas, how about if each one of you does a different bird call? We must have played that tune thirty times. It turned out to be ‘Quiet Village.’”
Word of Denny’s schtick spread east to Liberty Records’ Los Angeles office, leading Si Waronker to take a $850 gamble and put Denny & Co. in the studio. The result was 1957’s Exotica, a slow burner that wouldn’t find the charts for nearly two years, but would ultimately be the genus for an entire subspecies of music. Baxter’s song would be covered vigorously in the coming years, working its way into every lounge set from Maui to Miami, replete with bird calls and piped in shorebreaks and tradewinds. Was it jazz? Was it classical? Was it world music? Could it be mumbo-jumbo?
Just as Si Waronker wrung every nickel out of Ross Bagdasarian’s Chipmunks, he would apply the same level of force in getting the most out of his new invention. Thirteen Martin Denny albums were pushed through the system over the course of five years alongside cash-ins by the likes of Russ Garcia, Leo Arnaud, Jack Costanzo, Ethel Azama, John Buzon, Augie Colon, Chick Floyd and Rene Paulo. Many of these shared more than just a flair for Polynesian pop, they used the same team of photographers, and quite often the same woman for their album covers.
The team of Murray Garrett and Gene Howard had only a few credits under their belts when a portrait of a bejeweled Sandy Warner peering through a beaded doorway was optioned by Liberty Records for use on Denny’s debut. An aspiring model and actress, the buxom Warner appeared on 16 Denny jackets wearing little more than the wind, and many of the other Liberty exotica titles. Blonde or brunette, half naked or clothed, in nature or in studio, Warner’s striking look earned her the title of “Exotica Girl” on the way to a career that included body doubling for Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and guesting on The Twilight Zone. “A lot of people bought the album on the strength of her pictures,” Denny reflected.
“She came to Hawaii and sat in the audience right in front of the stage. After my performance, she sort of waved at me to come over. I walked over to her table, and it turned out that she was on her honeymoon. But I didn't know who she was. Then she said ‘You and I have a lot in common.’ And I said ‘Oh, really? What's that?’ She said, ‘Well, I'm the girl on your album covers!’ I looked at her and said, ‘My God, you're right!’”
Warner took her celebrity status one step too far with 1959’s Fair & Warner
album, exotic in cover only, and even then just barely. She’d hardly be the last struggling actor to go looking for paradise in a Hollywood recording studio; Martha Raye, Aki Aleong, and Darla Hood
all donned sonic loincloths on their climb up Mount Lee. Even Les Baxter succumbed to the pressure of Tinseltown and recut his own version of South Pacific
, adding—as described on the back cover—”a new dimension of color and momentum...to the already legendary music of Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
By the time Hawaii entered the union in August 1959, the Exotica movement was febrile. Hawaiian shirts and floral muu muus became de rigueur. Backyard pools were ringed with torches and rattan furniture. The Outrigger Lounge in Rochester, Minnesota, The Mainlander in St. Louis, Missouri, Tiki Cove in Fairbanks, Alaska, Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio, and Judges’ Beyond The Reef in Brookfield, Wisconsin, proved that the phenomena was no longer coastal. Walt Disney even got into the fray, breaking ground on his million dollar Enchanted Tiki Room at the turn of the decade, promising to combine “entertainment magic and the wonders of space-age electronics...starring a cast of more than 200 birds, flowers and tropical Tikis…all brought to life through the wonders of AUDIO ANIMATRONICS!”
The arrival of the Beatles and their British brethren in 1964 wiped out this lush, easy-listening movement almost entirely. Sinatra or Martin might be able to squeeze “Blue Hawaii” into a set at the Sands, but for the turned-on boomers gripping with the Kennedy assassination and the Civil Rights Movement, a bit more substance was required. A few outliers would slip through here and there, but America’s fascination with the tropics was largely over. Martin Denny’s 1969 album Exotic Moog
was a fitting nail in the coffin. “The company aimed this at what was then called the ‘underground’ market. This was when the hippie thing had started happening in San Francisco,” Denny said. “But the record never sold, so that was the end of that
A quarter century later, a new generation of space age bachelors and bachelorettes rediscovered the sound, nestling Esquivel and Chaino LPs between their mid-century hi-fi systems and Libbey cocktail glassware. Capitol Records—the repository for both the Les Baxter and Liberty catalogs—rolled out nearly 50 volumes of Ultra Lounge
, compact disc compilations aimed squarely at hipsters and boomer nostalgists alike. Fittingly, much of the renaissance focused on the more established names in the field, ignoring—or just completely unaware of—the indie contributions to the field.
is proof that Denny, Sumac, and Baxter were just islets poking through the sea, and that Exotica’s larger ecosystem of reefs, lagoons, and sandbars are worthy of equal attention and conservation. Be it mosquito-bitten torch singers, landlocked surf quartets, fad-chasing jazz combos, mad genius band leaders, wannabe actors, or a middle aged loner programming bird calls into a Hammond, Exotica was always more concerned with what geography might sound like over who was conducting. Bill Bradway of the Gospel Hawaiianaires
never even made it to the 50th state, but his homemade three-necked pedal steel is far more exotic than the Xaphoon or Chinese Bell Tree.
Technicolor Paradise is where one makes it, after all.
The Sensitive Touch
Jungle Ungle Um Bai