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Sandy Warner: Exotica King Martin Denny's Cover Girl

Culture | September 27, 2019

Sandy Warner on the covers of 'Exotica' and 'Primitiva,' albums by exotica musician Martin Denny. Source: Flickr

You’ve seen Sandra "Sandy" Warner on Martin Denny's album covers, even if you're not sure who Martin Denny is. The albums had titles like Exotica, Primitiva, Quiet Village, Afro-Desia, and The Enchanted Sea, and the music Martin Denny played was in the very dated genre known as exotica. Sandy Warner was an actress and singer, but will always be most famous as the face of exotica.

It's fair to say Sandy Warner is the second-most famous album cover model of the vinyl era, behind Dolores Erickson, Herb Alpert's "whipped cream girl."

Sandy Warner's Covers Remain Appealing. The Music? Not So Much

Sandy Warner on the cover of Martin Denny's 'Hypnotique' (1959). Source: Flickr

Sometimes she has her long brown hair pulled back, sometimes she’s bleach-blonde and positioned against a wall with African idols, but she’s always tempting the listener with those almond-shaped eyes to escape modern American life and take a trip with her to somewhere exotic. Warner appeared on 16 Martin Denny LP covers, and while she had a minor career beyond her appearances as a tiki icon, it's these photos that defined her career and created a cult following that still exists today. 

Though it's rare to hear exotica albums today, you'll see these records in collections and vinyl shops simply because of their visual appeal. 

A Word About 'Exotica'

Sandy Warner featured on 'Quiet Village' (1959). Source: Flickr

The genre known as exotica was a cultural phenomenon with ties to tiki bars and World War II. The gist of it is that Americans serving in the Pacific theater, deployed to places like Guam and the Philippines, fell in love with rattan and bamboo poles and thatched-roof architecture; with volcano goddesses and powerful masks; with palm trees and bongo drums. They brought home an obsession with Southeast Asian and Pacific Island culture -- not the authentic culture, but their interpretation of it. 

The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific reflected the same fascination, and Thor Heyerdahl's sea voyages and writings about Easter Island fanned the flames. The increased prominence of Hawaii, the territory that got the U.S. into the war with Japan and the soon-to-be state, was another major part of the formula. By the 1950s, suburban America wanted to have backyard luaus with tiki torches while wearing Hawaiian shirts and sipping fruity rum cocktails. Was this how they did it in Polynesia? Well, no, not really.

Exotica Had Two Musical Standard-Bearers. But Just One Face.

Sandy Warner on the cover of Martin Denny's first album, 'Exotica' (1957). Source: Flickr

In 1951, Les Baxter, a moderately successful American jazz composer, released the first exotica album, Ritual of the Savage (yes, some of the mentality behind exotica is what we now call "problematic"). It was jazz with an exotic veneer, and it became popular. Baxter invented exotica, but Martin Denny perfected it. Denny added bird calls, croaking frogs, and even the distant roaring of lions and tigers to his tracks. This was music to transport middle-class Americans to exotic ports of call, and it worked. Denny's single "Quiet Village" (written by Les Baxter) went to #2 on the pop chart in 1959, and the album on which it appeared, Exotica, went to #1.

Travel The World With Sandy Warner

A blonde Sandy Warner on the cover of 'Afro-Desia' (1959). Source: Flickr

The sound wasn't the only thing that appealed to record buyers and propelled Exotica to the top -- Sandy Warner's face had a little something to do with it as well. The exotica genre evolved, coming to include faux-African music and faux-Latin music. These intrepid white musicians could transport the listener to any faraway port of call, it seemed, and every trip featured your hostess, Sandy Warner, with a hairstyle, props or outfit that fit the mood perfectly.

Before She Was A Model, She Had A Nightclub Act

Sandy Warner on the cover of Martin Denny's 'Primitiva' (1958). Source: pinterest

There’s not a wealth of information about Warner available, but stories about her life claim that she started her entertainment career at a young age when she and her twin sister, Sonia, formed a vocal duo when they were only five-years-old. When they were old enough to tour their singing act took them on the nightclub circuit where they opened for entertainers like Danny Kaye. The Warner twins never recorded an album and it’s not clear why they stopped touring, but this wouldn’t be the last time Sandy sang into a microphone, she just had to take a detour into the world of exotica before getting back in the studio. 

The Exotica Girl

Sandy Warner on the cover of Martin Denny's 'Exotica Volume II' (1958). Source: pinterest

In 1957 Warner became the face of exotica, first appearing on Denny's first album. Exotica, and her look defined the genre for the next decade.

Warner’s sensual face and penchant for changing her look to fit the mood of any of the 16 albums she appeared on earned her the nickname “The Exotica Girl.” Despite their symbiotic nature, Denny and Warner never met face to face until after their heyday. Denny recalls:

I'm playing the piano, and right on the edge of the stage, there's a young couple sitting there, a very attractive gal. I finish the show, and she motions to me to come over to her table, so I did. She says hello, I say hello, and she says 'You know. we have a lot in common.' I say, 'How come'?' And she says, 'Well, I'm the girl on the cover of Exotica.' I looked at her and by God she was! She was on her honeymoon with her new husband. She was a model on at least ten of my albums, and on each one she has a different characterization, a different look and everything. A very stunning girl.

Warner Returned To Music And Modeled On The Cover Of Her Own Album

Sandy Warner's solo album. Source: Flickr

One year after hitting it big on the cover of “Exotica,” Warner attempted to relaunch her singing career with the help of TV host and piano player Steve Allen. The LP, Steve Allen Presents Sandy Warner: Fair & Warner is more of a throwback to her time as a jazz singer rather than an attempt to break new ground in the world of exotica. Even though she’s clearly establishing her own identity on the album, Warner still posed for the cover of the record and even had Martin Denny write the liner notes. The LP insert read in part:

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.

Sandy Warner Had A Decent TV Acting Career

Left: Sandy Warner and David Janssen in 'The Fugitive.' Right: Warner with Fess Parker in a publicity shot for 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' Sources: IMDB; Wikimedia Commons

Warner wasn’t content to be a model and singer, she had her eyes set on Hollywood. While she never had a starring role in a big picture, she did appear in numerous beloved television shows, including The Fugitive and The Twilight Zone. Her most substantial credit is her 23-episode run on the TV series Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which she played Mrs. Smith, wife of the title character, played by Fess Parker.

Warner Got To Play Marilyn Monroe For A Day

Tony Curtis, Sandy Warner, and Jack Lemmon in a photo session for 'Some Like It Hot.' Source: FamousFix

 One of her strangest credits is for Some Like It Hot. There’s some debate about whether or not she appears in the film (she supposedly appears uncredited as “Emily”), but she definitely appears in its publicity stills - as Marilyn Monroe’s body double. Monroe was pregnant at the time, and refused to be photographed, so Warner posed with Monroe's co-stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Afterward, Marilyn Monroe’s face was reportedly superimposed over the photos. This was the closest Warner came to a career in major motion pictures.

She Left The Spotlight In The ‘60s

'The Enchanted Sea' (1960). Source: Flickr

As quickly as her career began it came to an end. No one knows exactly what happened to Warner, Martin Denny says that she introduced him to her husband the one time they met, but aside from that her life after her 16 album covers is a mystery. When he was asked about her in one of his final interviews Denny said, “I haven't the slightest idea. But a lot of people write me fan mail letters, asking where they can contact her. She's a grandmother by now.”

We’ll never know whether Warner tired of the spotlight, or felt that she’d been passed over, but what we do know is that she defined a style with her seemingly effortless grace and exotic cool. 

Tags: Exotica | Martin Denny | Sandy Warner

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.