The bare-bones ain't-no-frills yet version of...

: :   e x o t e q u e   m u s i c   : :


Les Baxter Article
Arthur Lyman Discography
Billy Mure Article
Harold Chang Interview
Stereo Action The Story
Robert Drasnin Voodoo Interview
Outer Space Exotica Article

Will the real Drasnin please stand up?



In 1960 the Tops Record Company (always quick to cash in on the latest trend) released an Exotica record by Robert Drasnin entitled "Voodoo." Little did anyone suspect that Robert Drasninís first and only album would soon become one of the most sought after and coveted of all Exotica records. In 1996 the album saw a CD release on Dionysus "Lost Episode" label then later that year on Pickwick. As you will see both CD versions differ completely. Then in 1999 nearly 40 years later with the help of Skip Heller, Duane Schulthess and the Minnesota Contemporary Ensemble, Robert Drasnin conducted and played the first ever live debut of "Voodoo" in its entirety!

"Itís not Stravinsky or Charlie Parker, but it does go nicely with tall, cool drinks and thoughts of a faraway tropical paradise!"

Jeff Chenault: How did the idea for the "Voodoo" album come about?

Robert Drasnin: In 1959 I had just gotten my M.A. in Composition from U.C.L.A. and was working at Tops Records in A&R with Dave Pell. (We had been band-mates in the sax section of Les Brown's Band of Renown before I went into the Army during the Korean War.) Dave wanted to produce an album of exotica music somewhat along the lines of Martin Denny or Arthur Lyman and he chose me to write it.

JC: Where did you draw inspiration for writing it and how long did it take?

RD: My inspiration came from the same place it's always come from: having an assignment, a deadline to meet and sitting down at the piano and starting to work! The fact that Dave allowed me to write 12 original pieces and choose my own instrumentation was also a great incentive. I composed and orchestrated the 12 pieces during the last half of 1959. Of course I was doing a lot of other stuff at the same time.

JC: Were you aware of the "Exotica" movement during the late 50's and were you familiar with the major figures in the field?

RD: I'm sure I must have been aware of it and I knew some of Les Baxter's work, but truthfully Jeff, I was much more interested in jazz and contemporary classical music.

Voodoo album back coverJC: Didn't you also work with Martin Denny on "Latin Village"?

RD: Yes, I wrote half of that album, including the title tune. The other Martin Denny album, for which I wrote all the arrangements and conducted, was "A Taste Of Honey".

JC: When and where was "Voodoo" recorded?

RD: In late 1959 or early 1960 at Radio Recorders on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.

JC: Anything interesting happen during the recording sessions?

RD: The personnel were slightly different on the two sessions. I was only able to use the singer, Sally Terri, on one of the sessions and John Williams (yes, THE John Williams) played piano on the first date. One interesting aspect of the recording was assigning the distribution of all the various percussion sounds in the stereo field--a fairly recent development at the time. Of course, we recorded everything in complete takes--no cutting, splicing or over-dubbing.

JC: How long did it take to record?

RD: I believe it took 8 to 12 hours divided into 2 sessions. My wife, Marlene, remembers our having lunch with John Williams before the first session, which was in the afternoon. The other session was about a week later, at night.

JC: Any tracks left off the album?

RD: No.

Robert Drasnin 7" single coverJC: What was your job at Tops?

RD: My job was to help Dave Pell in A&R. That entailed everything from writing arrangements and playing saxophone, clarinet and flute on some of the dates to creating fictitious names for artists on some of the "sound-alike" albums. At times I would spot-check recordings in the pressing plant for quality control and would also attend mastering sessions.

JC: Was "Voodoo" a particularly good seller and did you ever think about doing a follow-up?

RD: I'm not sure where it stood relative to sales of other Tops records---I doubt that it was ever one of their "biggies". It was re-packaged and released as "Percussion Exotique", however.

Thoughts about a possible "Voodoo II" didn't arise until this amazing and unexpected resurrection of interest nearly 40 years after the fact. Do you think that the devotees of Exotica Lounge Music would welcome a new album or is the fascination with this music somehow related to the era from whence it came? Maybe your readers could shed some light on this. In the last year I've written several new pieces in this genre, including "Moon Over Mankato" which we premiered live in Minneapolis. I'd love to do a "Voodoo II"!

JC: Who designed and photographed the original album cover?

RD: I don't remember the name of the graphic designer who worked for Tops but Dave Pell was the photographer.

JC: Were you surprised by the popularity and highly collectible status of "Voodoo" and its subsequent reissue on CD?

RD: "Surprised" is putting it mildly. Remember, the majority of my writing career has been spent behind the scenes, composing scores for TV and Films. "Voodoo" represents the one and only project that gave me the opportunity to write and conduct an entire album of original compositions. I had no idea that so many people appreciated and enjoyed this music until the night of the CD "release" party at the Lava Lounge in Hollywood when people kept asking me to sign their copies of the original record. It blew me away!!

JC: Tell me about the Dionysus release (from vinyl) and the subsequent release of "Exotic Excursion" on Pickwick.

RD: The Dionysus CD came about through the efforts of Skip Heller, one of the most knowledgeable and eclectic musicians I've ever met. His liner notes on the CD tell the story better than I could. At the time, I had no idea if the master tapes still existed, and if so, where they might be. Since Dionysus was anxious to get the project rolling, it was decided to go ahead and make a CD master directly from a virgin vinyl copy, which I had in my collection---so that we did and out it went! Four or five months later I received a call from Bob Ragona of Pickwick Communications in New York informing me that Pickwick owned the master tapes and wished to re-release the album on CD. When I told him that a CD was already out, mastered from a vinyl disc, he could have gotten pretty nasty, but I must say, he was very nice about it and they wanted to proceed, anyway. So they burned a new CD from the original tapes and it came out as "Exotic Excursion". That versionPoster for the live performance of Voodoo contains only 10 songs, rather than the original 12. "Paradise" and "Jardin De La Noche" was left out.

JC: Tell me how the "Voodoo" performance idea originated and why only one performance and that one in Minneapolis.

RD: This is a question best answered by the two people who were instrumental in bringing this amazing feat about: Skip Heller and Duane Schulthess, conductor of the Minnesota Contemporary Ensemble. If not for them, this concert, or even the idea of such a concert, would never have seen the light of day. Somehow I had managed to retain the scores and instrumental parts for all those years, never dreaming that a live performance might be possible.

(I posed this same question to Skip Heller to which he replied...)

SH: I had heard the MCEís disc "180 Degrees From Ordinary", and was impressed by both the musicianship and the stylistic range. I called a number of contemporary music ensembles, but the answer was always no.

Duane Schulthess, the conductor for the MCE, didnít say yes, but did ask to hear the music, so I sent him a disc. He said we would be able to mount a show if I was involved as a performer in some way. I said that would be fine, and we set about making plans for the show.

It was very gratifying to get a performance. Bob is like a father to me, I love him dearly, and by finally getting a performance, I feel like I did as well by him as heís always done by me.

JC: Was this the first and only live performance?

RD: It was definitely the first, and so far, the only one. Some interest has been expressed about performing it elsewhere, but as yet, nothing concrete. The logistics of mounting a live performance of this music are rather formidable. Having the necessary percussion instruments and the players to play them, finding a good harpist, a good singer, a bass flutist--- arranging for a suitable venue and adequate rehearsal time---all adds up to a sizeable amount of work and money. Iím forever indebted to Skip and Duane for making the Minneapolis Concert possible. It was a wonderful experience--one I will never forget. Will it happen again? Who knows? I would love to do it again. Have Flute, Will Travel!!

JC: Why do you think there is such a following for the Exotica music of the past?

RD: That's a good question, Jeff, and I'm not sure I have a definitive answer. Perhaps it has something to do with the cool vibe it elicits. At its best, it's smooth and melodic, warm and exotic, sophisticated, sexy, and won't give you apoplexy! It's not Stravinsky or Charlie Parker, but it does go nicely with tall, cool drinks and thoughts of a faraway tropical paradise!

Ending notes: As of late, Skip Heller has been keeping Bob very busy as a musician. He is all over Skipís "Couch, LA" CD, as well as the upcoming Skip Heller/Jon Gilmore spoken word with noir backgrounds "Laid Bare" CD due out in the fall. "Bob has some great solos on that one." Also look out for the standards record Skip just finished with Spahn Ranch frontman Athan Maroulis (which is called The Blue Dahlia Project), and according to Skip "Bobís solo on "Stardust" is probably his best clarinet playing on record, counting anything heís done, ever.

Also Bob will be a featured soloist on a classical disc Skip is working on now called "The Housatonic at Silverlake: Songs of Mahler and Ives."

If that isnít enough, Bob informed me that for some time now he has been teaching various classes in Film Scoring in the Extension division at UCLA. He also taught classes in 20th Century Harmony and Conducting for a government-sponsored film-training program in Dublin, Ireland. The Irish program may start up again in the year 2000.

All of which meansóBob is, at 72, a vital component of a band that plays and records all the damn time, and heís doing some of his best, most inspired work as a player at an age where a lot of guys are looking at golf as a way of life!