Holy harmony, Batman! Our theme song's exposed a generation to jazz, and they didn't even know it!

— Robin ("the boy wonder")

Neal Paul Hefti (October 29, 1922 - September 13, 2008)
American jazz trumpeter, arranger and composer.

Neal Hefti was born in Hastings, Nebraska to a very poor family. By age 11, however, he was playing the trumpet in school. While his peers in High School were enjoying their summer vacations, Hefti was playing in local bands around the Omaha, Nebraska area. His wages, although small, were a significant contribution to the impoverished Hefti household.

Hefti's proximity to the concert venues of Omaha enabled him to get to see the jazz greats of the era (or those whose tours included a stop in Omaha, at least). Hefti was especially impressed with trumpeters Harry Edison and Dizzy Gillespie. He also got his first chance to hear the sounds of the Count Basie band. Little did he know that he would one day be Basie's favorite arranger.

Young Neal was already arranging music by his junior year of high school. He took popular melodies and wrote out all the parts for local bands of various sizes. Although his popularity as an arranger was on the rise, Hefti stuck to playing the trumpet, as well. His first national tour (with Dick Barry's band) commenced immediately following his graduation from North High School in Omaha.  He should've stuck to arranging; his poor ability sight-reading music (playing without rehearsal) caused his firing after just two engagements. At one point he ended up broke and stranded in New Jersey. His incredible talent at arranging music saved him.

Arranger of choice: Big Bands

Most arrangers work with a piano. Not Hefti. His ability to sit down and just write-out big band harmonies was impressive, and impressed his musical peers and band leaders alike. Between 1940 and 1944, Hefti worked in New York, staying briefly with bands led by Charlie Barnet, Muggsy Spanier, Charlie Spivak and Earl Hines. One of his first serious big band pieces, "Pin Up Girl," became a hit record for the Horace Heidt organization.  While in high school, Hefti had tried to join Woody Herman's band, Herman's Herd, but was sent home by Herman. He was indeed hired by Herman in 1944, and earned a name for himself as an arranger of swing music. Hefti would comment that his experience with Herman's Herd was what really immersed him in jazz music and culture. Once bitten by the jazz bug, he'd never go back to the big-band "swing" style of music.

By the time he joined Herman, he'd spent plenty of time haunting the jazz joints on New York City's 52nd Street. It was there that he got his first taste of the bebop style of jazz. Hefti took to the innovative new form like a duck to water. His bebop influences remained evident in much of his work for the rest of his life. His fresh, new composing and arranging style set him apart from many of his peers in the business.

He married Frances Wayne, Woody Herman's female vocalist, in the late 1940s. He took her to Hollywood, only to go on tour with Harry James' band a year later. Hefti formed his own band in 1951, with his wife as lead vocalist. The band earned critical praise, but was not a financial success. By 1953, he'd called it quits and settled down, finding security in arranging and recording work.

Hefti worked on an album in the late '40s for Norman Granz's Verve record label called The Jazz Scene. The album featured a big-band accompanied by string arrangements. Hefti's bossa nova tune "Repetition" was a mere middle-of-the-road, somewhat plain arrangement. However, bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker happened to be in the studio while Hefti was recording, and asked to be a soloist. Producer Granz wrote, in the album's liner notes: "Parker actually plays on top of the original arrangement; that it jells (sic) as well as it does is a tribute to both the flexible arrangement of Hefti and the inventive genius of Parker to adapt himself to any musical surrounding."

Neal Hefti and Count Basie

Neal came by, and we had a talk, and he said he'd just like to put something in the book. Then he came back with "Little Pony" and then "Sure Thing," "Why Not?" and "Fancy Meeting You," and we ran them down, and that's how we got married.

— William "Count" Basie, in his autobiography Good Morning Blues

By the mid-1950s Hefti was already famous in jazz circles for his skill and flair at arranging. He finally met up with William "Count" Basie at this time, and the rest is history. He wrote both original compositions as well as arrangements for Basie's small-combo groups; later graduating, with much success, to arranging for Basie's big band. During this period, his pieces "Little Pony," "The Kid from Red Bank," "Splanky," and a Basie signature tune, "Cute" were big hits and have since become jazz standards. Hefti's "Lil' Darlin'," from this period as well, is probably the best-known of his big band pieces.

Hefti would be most well-known in jazz circles for his long collaboration with Basie. Miles Davis commented in 1955 that even Hefti's own band couldn't play Hefti like Basie's organization. The match of Hefti and Basie was one made in Heaven. Their long, successful collaboration is legendary in music circles.

An attempt at jazz-influenced pop, the somewhat cheesy (and very Politically Incorrect) "Girl Talk," was a hit for Bobby Troup.

Hefti organized studio bands and made a number of studio recordings from 1957 into the early '60s. Two of his albums featured the Ray Charles Singers. All of his efforts were very highly regarded critically, and were commercial successes as well.

Neal Hefti and The Chairman Of The Board

The early 1960s found Hefti working as a producer for Frank Sinatra's Reprise record label. After two albums, the easy-going Hefti quit his work with Sinatra, finding the intense pressure of Sinatra's speedy creative process too much for him. The two recordings produced by Hefti's brief relationship with the singer, Sinatra and Swingin' Brass and Sinatra-Basie: An Historic Musical First were both hits for Sinatra.

Although Hefti was asked by Reprise to conduct some studio recordings with Sinatra, which he did with pleasure, he never arranged music for a vocalist again.

Hollywood!

Neal Hefti was now an established "name" arranger, and was in great demand as a composer and arranger for movies and television. Among his movie work are the scores for "Barefoot in the Park," "Synanon," "Boeing Boeing," "Harlow," "Duel at Diablo," "Sex and the Single Girl," and "How to Murder Your Wife."

In 1965, 20th Century Fox Studios' Television Productions was developing an innovative series based on the popular "Batman" comic strip. Although famed writer/arranger Nelson Riddle was hired to do the musical scores for each episode, the Fox brass hired Hefti to compose the series theme song. He realized that he had an awesome task on his hands after he watched a few hours of footage from the series, and realized that this was a brilliant, campy parody of comic strips -- and certainly much better than most of the programs airing at the time. The production values were excellent for the day; the writing was superb. Further, the producers had managed to nab a star-studded cast to play villains opposite Adam West's Batman and Burt Ward's Boy Wonder. Notables included Victor Buono, Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Ethel Merman and others.

"(It was the) hardest piece I ever wrote," Hefti commented in retrospect. Try as he might, for six weeks he couldn't find a tune catchy enough. He never had an inspirational moment. When he finally brought the score to the show's producers, he said he went into the meeting "... reluctantly, apologetically, shuffling my feet and looking like Tom Sawyer. I thought they would throw it back in my face."

Hefti's fears were unfounded. The pulsating, powerful "go-go" style big band piece was a hit with the producers. Even better, the song won the Grammy award for Best Instrumental Song in 1966. "The Batman Theme" was a Billboard Magazine top-10 instrumental hit for the Marketts, and later for Hefti and his band, as well. Hefti's own album Batman and Hefti in Gotham City are important, popular examples of the sub-genre of jazz called "now sounds" (also sometimes referred to as "Space Age Pop"). Since its composition, "The Batman Theme" has been covered by no less than twenty groups, as diverse as Al Hirt and The Kinks. Hefti wrote a tune called "Batman and Robin" especially for rapper Snoop Dog.

Hefti's theme music for the movie "The Odd Couple" was later carried over to the smash 1970s television show of the same name. The distinctive, rambling theme and incidental music earned two Grammy nominations for Hefti.

Throughout the 1970s, Hefti continued to organize bands for show dates and studio recordings. He is currently retired in Hollywood, California.

Neal Hefti's musical legacy is multifaceted. His work for Hollywood and television will probably be the most popularly memorable. Attention should be paid, however, to the distinctive mark that Hefti's bebop-influenced style made on myriad jazz bands, as well.

UPDATE: Hefti died at his home on September 13, 2008. He was 84.

AWARDS AND RECOGNITION:

  • Emmy Award for "Theme from Batman"
  • Grammy nomination for Jazz Pops, as artist
  • Two Grammy awards for Atomic Basie, as composer
  • Two Grammy nominations for "Girl Talk," from the movie "Harlow."
  • Three Grammy nominations and one award for the Batman television theme, as composer
  • Two Grammy nominations for The Odd Couple television score, as composer

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY:

Coral Reef, Coral CRL-56083
The Hollywood Song Book, Coral CRL-57241
Music, U.S.A., Coral CRL-757256
A Salute to the Instruments, Coral CRL-757286
The Young at Bop, Emarcy 26001
Leisurely Loveliness, Movietone 72006
Presenting Neal Hefti and his Orchestra, Vik LX-1039
Concert Miniatures, Vik LX-1092
Light and Right, Columbia CS 8316
Hefti Hot 'n' Hearty, Epic LN-3187
Singing Instrumentals, Epic LN-3113
Pardon My Doo-Wah, Epic LN-3210
Themes from TV's Top 12, Reprise LP
Jazz Pops, Reprise R9-6039
Definitely Hefti, United Artists UAS 6573
Hefti in Gotham City, RCA Victor LSP-3621

SOUNDTRACK RECORDINGS:

Barefoot in the Park, Dot DLP 25803
Boeing Boeing, RCA Victor LSO-1121
O Dad, Poor Dad, Mom's Locked You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, RCA Victor LSP-3750
How to Murder Your Wife, United Artists UAS 5119
Lord Love a Duck, United Artists UAS 5137
Duel at Diablo, United Artist UAS 5139
Sex and the Single Girl, Warner Brothers WBS-1572
Harlow, Warner Brothers WBS-1599
Synanon, Liberty LST-7413
The Odd Couple, Dot DLP-25862

SOURCES:

  • http://www.rfsoc.org.uk/jim38.shtml
  • www.imdb.com
  • http://www.vervemusicgroup.com/artist.aspx?ob=per&src=prd&aid=4851
  • http://www.spaceagepop.com/hefti.htm
  • Gitler, Ira: Swing to Bop. Oxford University Press, New York, 1985.
  • www.ascap.com
  • www.bmi.com

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