Thursday, October 16, 2008

Compser Neal Hefti Passes On

Composer Neal Hefti, best know for the theme to the TV series Batman, passed Saturday at the age of 85.

Hefti was born October 29, 1922 in Hastings, Nebraska. He started playing trumpet while at age eleven in school. By the time he was he was a teenager he was playing in a variety of local bands during the summers. Living near Omaha, Nebraska, he had the chance to see such artists as Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. Hefti was only a junior in high school when he broke into the music industry, writing arrangements for local bands. It was only two days before he graduated high school that he received an offer from the Dick Barry band to tour with them. He only worked with them for a short time before being fired. He made his way back from New Jersey to Nebraska where he joined the Bob Astor's band. He remained with the Astor band for a few years before an injury forced him to leave.

Staying in New York, Hefti starting playing with Bobby Byrne and later saxophonist Charlie Barnet, for whom he wrote the arrangement of "Skyliner." He would eventually leave New York to play with the Les Lieber rhumba band in Cuba. Upon returning from Cuba, he joined the Charlie Spivak band. It was when the Spivak band was touring California that he left the band to remain in the state.

It was in Los Angeles in 1944 that Hefti joined up with clarinetist, alto and soprano saxophonist, and band leader Woody Herman's First Herd. The First Herd was more jazz oriented than most swing bands and was among the first to embrace bebop. It was while Hefti was with the First Herd that he started writing bebop influenced ensembles. For the First Herd he composed "Wild Root" and "The Good Earth." Hefti would leave the First Herd in 1946. He wrote for a time Buddy Rich and later Billy Butterfield. He also did arrangements for Henry James's bands. In 1961 he performed with Frank Sinatra on the album Sinatra and Swingin' Brass. He received credit as the album's arranger and conductor.

It would be in 1950 that he started arranging for Count Basie. Eventually Basie would release an album of nothing but Hefti compositions, called Basie: E=MC²=Count Basie Orchestra+Neal Hefti Arrangements or better known as Atomic Basie. While still working with Basie in the Fifites, Hefti also led big bands of his own. He also began to work in Hollywood, composing the score for the movie Jamboree, released in 1957. In 1960 he was the orchestra leader on The Kate Smith Show.

Hefti would be the musical director and composer on the film Sex and the Single Girl, released in 1964. He was also the composer on the Jack Lemmon comedy How to Murder Your Wife. The height of his success may well have come with a TV show that was a national phenomenon from the moment it debuted. Hefti was the musical director on the TV show Batman, which debuted in 1966, and composed its famous themes song. The Batman theme has appeared on lists of the greatest TV show theme songs ever since. Neal Hefti composed the soundtracka for the movies Barefoot in the Park, released in 1967, and The Odd Couple, released in 1968. He would later work upon the TV shows based upon the movies as well. Hefti served as the musical director on the TV series The Fred Astaire Show which debuted in 1968. He would go on to compose music for the movies A New Leaf, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The 500 Pound Jerk, Conspiracy of Terror, and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood. Well into the Seventies Hefti would perform with various big bands.

Throughout his career Neal Hefti performed with some of the biggest names in the music business, including Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Mel Torme, and, as mentioned previously, Frank Sinatra. Despite this, Hefti said that his most satisfying work was for the cinema and television.

Neal Hefti was arguably one of the greatest arrangers and composers in the genres of swing and jazz. He had a profound influence on big bands, having moved the First Herd from swing more towards bebop. He also wrote several well known jazz tunes, including "Wild Root," "Apple Honey," and "Little Pony." He also wrote the Bobby Vinton hit "Lonely Girl." That having been said, his greatest legacy may be the Batman theme. Simple, yet undeniably catchy, it is one of the most famous TV theme songs of all time and is often found on lists of the greatest TV theme songs of all time. To this day, even after several movies, the theme song is identified with the Dark Knight. It is Neal Hefti that people hear when they think of Batman, not Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer. This may well be the greatest testament to Hefti's skill as a composer and arranger.

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