Skins! was the bongo album “that young America has been asking for”

Skins! was the bongo album “that young America has been asking for”

For years, The A.V. Club has delved into cinematic history’s dustbin with Films That Time Forgot, but far more records are released every year than films. If cinema has a dustbin of forgotten films, music has a giant Dumpster. In Albums That Time Forgot, we examine records few people would remember.

Artist: Les Baxter

Album: Skins! Bongo Party With Les Baxter, 1957

Label: Capitol

Wait, who? No stranger to the annals of music history, Les Baxter was one of the progenitors of exotica, a genre that grew popular in the ’50s on a wave of island-life fetishization, and left in its wake thousands of unused tiki bars in finished basements. Exotica incorporated sounds inspired by an imaginary life in the islands, as Baxter explored in his unfortunately named (but era-appropriate) Ritual Of The Savage in 1952. He repeatedly revisited exotica well over his long career, on albums like Tamboo!, Caribbean Moonlight, Ports Of Pleasure, and The Sacred Idol, plus eponymous albums like Les Baxter’s African Jazz and Les Baxter’s Jungle Jazz. Baxter also did a ton of soundtrack work for B-movies, including a dozen Roger Corman flicks. Late in his career, he was reduced to composing for theme parks. (He scored the big bicentennial show for SeaWorld in 1976, for instance.) But Baxter was no joke; he conducted Nat King Cole’s orchestra, toured with Mel Tormé, and at one point, gave David Crosby his start in the wholesome folk group The Les Baxter Balladeers.

Baxter released five albums in 1957 alone, so it’s no surprise that Skins!, a record devoted to bongo music, slipped through the cracks of history (in spite of its awesome cover). The insanely long, maddeningly side-scrolling, multi-part biography on Baxter’s website doesn’t mention the album at all, though Skins! did well upon its release. The April 20, 1957 issue of Billboard included it in its roundup of “pop albums coming up strong.” 

From the liner notes: The back cover proclaims, “Here’s the album that young America has been asking for,” though The A.V. Club has yet to encounter a history of music that mentions bongo-crazy teenagers in the 1950s. The back cover also notes Baxter’s dedication to authenticity: “And each instrument is played by a foreign-born musician. On one of the sessions, the group of Baxter percussionists comprised a Puerto Rican, a Brazilian, a Belgian whose background included drumming in the Belgian Congo, a Cuban and a Venezuelan.” Today, that reads like a whole lot of tokenism—“Lookee, we got ourselves a real-live Puerto Rican!”—but it was clearly meant to show elements of authenticity back when exotica was widely considered fiction. Wikipedia cites a pair of old interviews with Martin Denny—whose 1957 album, Exotica, helped name the genre—where he described his music as “a combination of the South Pacific and the Orient, what a lot of people imagined the islands to be like.” Or, as he said later, “It’s pure fantasy, though.”

Key songs: Exotica is the genre, but the mash of harpsichord in “Brazilian Bash” sounds almost avant-garde in its fleeting atonality. The back-cover notes for “Bustin’ The Bongos” boast its six minutes of solo bongo—finally!—but the percussion is undeniably impressive. The notes also helpfully inform that “‘Shoutin’ Drums’ runs more than five minutes and is ideal material to play along with should your bongos be handy.”

Can easily be distinguished by: The cover photo of a man showing off his bongos to an adoring female companion. Ladies dig membranophones! (Or they did in the ’50s, maybe.)

Sign it was made in 1957: See “can easily be distinguished by.”