Sandy Warner: the face of Exotica

Sandy Warner looking totally gorgeous on the cover of Primitiva (1958)

Agent Triple P is currently working on his second, and long delayed, piece on the Pan Am clipper flying boat service to Hawaii before WW2. Given that there is only so much Hawaiian music one can listen to (about two tracks is enough for us) we needed something else to accompany our efforts (other than the glass of Fitou we are currently drinking).

Sandy on Hypnotique (1959)

Somewhat anachronistically, therefore, we are listening to a selection of tracks from the "exotica" movement, which flourished in the US from the early fifties until the mid sixties. Ths also gives us an excuse to showcase the lovely Sandy Warner; record cover girl from that period. Picking up on the tiki culture that thrived in the post-war US, largely as a result of US armed forces personnel experiences of the South Seas, exotica as a musical genre was really created by American composer and arranger Les Baxter (1922-1996) with his album Ritual of the Savage (1951).

Tiki heaven!

Sadly, most of Agent Triple P' friends fail to appreciate exotica and only B will listen to it but the Germans have always had a penchant for "easy listening" music!

Les Baxter

Baxter was born in Texas but had studied at the Detroit Conservatory before moving to Los Angeles and continuing his studies at Pepperdine College, a private university then located in South Central Los Angeles (now in Malibu). Upon finishing his studies, however, he abondoned a potentially promising career as a concert pianist and became a singer; joining Mel Tormé's group The Mel-Tones in 1945.

By 1947 he was working as a composer and arranger for Capitol Records. His triple 78 rpm album Music Out of the Moon (1947) introduced "space-age" pop and was notable for its use of the theremin and it is, perhaps not surprisingly, still the best selling theremin album of all time. It became the template for much of the fifties and sixties "space" music from science fiction soundtracks for films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Telstar by The Tornados. Some tracks presage his exotica music, particularly Mist O' the Moon with its soaring wordless vocals and underlying irregular percussion. Other key exotica albums by Baxter included Tamboo (1956) and The Sacred Idol (1960) but it was Ritual of the Savage that set the template for everything that would follow with its lush strings and exotic percussion.

Sandy on Afro-Desia (1959)

The next key figure in the exotica movement was Martin Denny (1911-2005) a New Yorker who moved to Los Angeles and studied classical piano. In his twenties he toured South America for four and a half years with the Don Dean orchestra. It was here that he became fascinated with Latin music and also started to collect exotic intruments which later appeared in his recordings.

Sandy on Exotica Volume II (1958)

After war service he returned to Los Angeles in 1945 where he studied composition and piano at the Los Angeles Conservatory.

Don the Beachcomber's original Waikiki restaurant

In 1954 Don the Beachcomber (real name Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (1907-1989)), the inventor of tiki restaurants and bars brought Denny to Waikiki to play in his bar. Denny stayed, formed his own group and performed under contract at the Shell Bar in Kaiser Hawaiian Village complex (now the Hilton Hawaiian Village).

Sandy on Exotica Vol III (1959)

The Shell Bar was located next to a pool and one evening Denny noticed that every time the band played the frogs in the pool croaked. His bandmates added fake bird calls to the real frogs as a joke but the next evening the customers asked for the frog and bird call song and he realised the sound had a future. He recorded a version of Les Baxter's Quiet Village with added bird calls and "frog" sounds and the record sold over a million copies.

Sandy on Exotica (1957)

The resultant album Exotica (1957), though, didn't do that well. However, in 1959 to celebrate Hawaii attaining statehood his record company got Denny to re-record Exotica in stereo and it became a huge hit reaching number 4 in the charts. Once his contract at the Shell Bar expired he had extended bookings at the Flamingo and Sands hotels in Las Vegas.

Martin Denny in his nineties

He lived to see the revival of interest in his work in the nineties and gave his last perfomance just three weeks before he died at the age of 93. Denny produced 38 albums and sold over 4 million records.

Sandy on The Enchanted Sea (1960)

The record company used a model and actress called Sandy Warner on the cover of Exotica and then hired her for the next 11 Martin Denny albums as well. In total she appeared on the cover of 16 Martin Denny records with the photographers constantly changing her looks. Warner was a twin and, often with her sister Sonia, had and would continue to make, a number of appearances in films and TV.

Sandy for Mickey Katz (1959)

Her success as the Denny cover model led to other album cover commissions including comedian Mickey Katz (who was the father of Joel (Cabaret) Grey and grandfather of Jennifer (Dirty Dancing) Gray.

Sandy for Bob Thompson (1960)

Sandy on the cover of her own album!

She also had a nightclub act and eventually produced a record of her own: Steve Allen Presents Fair and Warner. Martin Denny contributed the liner note:

In the person of Sandy Warner you will find a versatile and unusual combination of beauty and talent. She has graced the covers of all my "LIBERTY" albums as the "EXOTICA" girl. In fact, it was a standing gag among most D-J's that they were unaware there was a record in the album-liner until some time later. Sandra is a lot of woman and to top that has a warm and gracious personality. Her background in show business is most impressive. Not only has she appeared in several top Motion Picture Productions, but she is considered one of our top models and is also a talented dancer. For some time, she toured the nightclub circuit extensively with her twin sister -- Sonia. The girls toured with such notables as Danny Kaye, plus many other famous TV and Picture personalities.

Now, at last, Sandra emerges as a vocalist. When I was asked if I would write these liner notes for her album I thought it was a fitting switch. In this album Miss "EXOTICA" herself emerges as a talented performer whose voice and personality merit the attention her lovely face has attracted heretofore.

Settle back, relax and listen to the "EXOTIC" Sandy Warner

Sandy for Artur Romero from the same shoot as her Primitiva cover

Sandy for Lord Russell's Bongo Percussionists

Sandy for Ethel Azama from the same shoot as Hypnotique

The final member of the exotica triumvirate was Arthur Lyman who was actually born in Hawaii. His father gave him a marimba as a child and by the age of 14 he was good enough to turn professional.

Arthur Lyman and his group

Whilst working as a clerk at the Halekulani hotel in 1954 he met Martin Denny who, after hearing him play, offered him a job in his band. It was Lyman, he claimed, who started the bird calls at the Shell bar which started the whole craze. Lyman left Denny's group and formed his own, going on to record 30 albums. His most successful album was Taboo (1958) which sold over 2 million copies. Most of Lyman's recordings (and some of Denny's) were recorded in the Kaiser Hawaiian Village's geodesic dome.

The Kaiser geodesic dome at Hawaiian Village. It was demolished in 1999

The Kaiser Hawaiian Village resort was the brainchild of industrialist Henry J Kaiser who founded the Kaiser Shipyard which built many of WW2's Liberty ships and pioneered mass production and pre-fabrication techniques for shipbilding; resulting in one Liberty ship being completed in four days.

The dome under construction

He also set up Kaiser Steel and Kaiser Aluminium and was part of the consortium that built the Hoover Dam. Kaiser wanted an auditorium at the Hawaiian Village so bought the licence to build Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes. His aluminium plant built the components and shipped them to Hawaii. Kaiser eagerly flew out to the site to watch construction in the spring of 1957 only to find, when he arrived, that the whole 146' diameter structure was complete: it had taken less than 22 hours to build.

Sandy on Quiet Village (1959)

The dome turned out to have wonderful acoustics but Lyman's recordings were boosted by a specially constructed one-off 3 1/2 inch tape recorder built by his engineer which gave stunningly clear recordings which are demonstration quality even today. When the recordings were re-mastered for CD in the nineties the quality of the recordings were such that a simple transfer without any digital tweaking was all that was needed. Lyman recorded live with no overdubbing after midnight to avoid background traffic noise but sometimes in his recordings you can hear the sound of the cooling dome creaking as it settles.

Sandy on Romantica (1961)

So of the three who should you sample? Baxter's orchestra is larger giving it a big-band sound the others don't have. Despite the charms of Miss Warner, Denny's music often strays over into the oriental and can be a little too wacky with its exotic bird calls and what have you. For sheer quality of recording and performance it is Arthur Lyman that Triple P prefers, but a mixture of all three makes for a very satisfying 143 track playlist on our iPod.

Sandy on Exotic Sounds Visit Broadway (1960)

Sandy on Forbidden Island (1958)

So, mix a Mai-Tai put on some music by Baxter, Lyman or Denny and gaze at the lovely face of Sandy Warner because truly you are in paradise!

Sandy on Exotic Sounds from the Silver Screen (1960)
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