Composer Neal Hefti; Jazz Master Penned Theme for 'Batman'

Jazz composer and arranger Neal Hefti, left, is shown in 1961 with Frank Sinatra, for whom he arranged music. Hefti also worked with Count Basie, writing all 11 songs on the 1957 album now known as
Jazz composer and arranger Neal Hefti, left, is shown in 1961 with Frank Sinatra, for whom he arranged music. Hefti also worked with Count Basie, writing all 11 songs on the 1957 album now known as "Atomic Basie." (Courtesy Of Paul Hefti)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Neal Hefti, whose brilliance as a jazz composer and arranger for Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and other entertainers might have been overshadowed by his familiar theme songs for "Batman" and "The Odd Couple," died Oct. 11 at his home in Toluca Lake, Calif.

He was 85 and had either a heart attack or a stroke, his son Paul Hefti said.

Starting in the 1940s, Mr. Hefti built his reputation behind the scenes while working for some of the most renowned musicians of the era, including bandleader Woody Herman, trumpeter Harry James, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and drummer Buddy Rich.

A modestly talented trumpeter, he also led groups with his wife, singer Frances Wayne, but gained his greatest prominence as a composer and arranger for Basie and Sinatra in the 1950s and 1960s.

Later generations who knew nothing of his accomplishments in jazz recognize Mr. Hefti's music from his film and television themes.

In 1968, he composed the bouncy " Odd Couple theme" for the movie version of the Neil Simon play that starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Mr. Hefti's tune was reprised for each episode of the long-running TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

He painstakingly composed the theme music for the " Batman" TV series shortly before the show's premiere in January 1966. After discarding many ideas, Mr. Hefti wrote the theme as a series of repeated two-note bursts, built on a framework of the 12-bar blues.

"Sure, you may say I could have written the theme itself in two minutes -- but it took weeks to work out the arrangement, which is inseparable from the melody," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1966. "It often takes time to write something that sounds like you just turned on a faucet and it flowed out."

Mr. Hefti also inserted a single lyric -- a repeated exclamatory "Batman!" -- which prompted him to joke that his composer's credit should read, "Word and Music by Neal Hefti."

Neal Paul Hefti was born Oct. 29, 1922, in Hastings, Neb., and grew up in Omaha. His family lived in poverty, with "dirt floors and three to four kids in a bed," his son said.

Neal Hefti began playing the trumpet at 11 and showed an early talent for writing arrangements. After graduating from high school in 1941, he joined a touring band but was fired for his poor sight-reading skills. He found himself stranded in New York, his son said, "with a trumpet and five bucks."

He worked with Charlie Barnet's progressive band in 1942 and frequented clubs on 52nd Street, where the penniless Mr. Hefti had to sneak in through the kitchen to hear the new jazz language of bebop being developed by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

In 1944, Mr. Hefti signed on as a trumpeter and arranger with Herman. His compositions "Wild Root," "The Good Earth" and "Apple Honey" were instant sensations, and he wrote fresh arrangements of such Herman standards as "Woodchopper's Ball" and "Blowin' Up a Storm," plus a popular arrangement of "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" for the band's singer, Frances Wayne.

In 1945, while the band was passing through Wayne's hometown of Somerville, Mass., she and Mr. Hefti were married. He had to borrow a suit from Herman because he didn't have one of his own.

The newlyweds quit the band in 1946 and went on the road together between Mr. Hefti's jobs as a freelance arranger in New York for radio and television shows and various musicians.

Among those impressed by his fresh, seemingly simple arrangements was Basie, who was rebuilding his band in the early 1950s and hired Mr. Hefti to arrange occasional tunes. By 1956, the young arranger had given the band a richer, distinctive new sound in the studio by placing a microphone with each musician and putting extra mikes around the drums and bass for added depth.

Mr. Hefti wrote all 11 of the tunes on the 1957 album now known as "Atomic Basie," including "Li'l Darlin'," "Splanky," "Kid From Red Bank," "Whirlybird" and "Midnite Blue." The disc, with its catchy melodies and sinuous, behind-the-beat rhythms, is considered a jazz masterpiece.

The 1958 album, "Basie Plays Hefti," featured another of Mr. Hefti's big-band classics, "Cute." In 1962, Mr. Hefti wrote the arrangements for two well-received recordings with Frank Sinatra, "Sinatra-Basie" and "Sinatra and Swingin' Brass." In the early 1960s, he also composed the slinky hit "Girl Talk" with Bobby Troup.

By 1964, Mr. Hefti was working mostly in television and film and composed the scores for the movies "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964), "How to Murder Your Wife" (1965) and "Barefoot in the Park" (1967).

He did occasional work for Judy Garland, Tony Bennett and other singers and attempted to resurrect a big band before abruptly retiring in 1976 to live off his royalties.

"He never wrote another melody, not one," his son said. "He didn't want to write for anyone but himself and Frances."

His wife died in 1978. A daughter, Dr. Marguerita Christina Heft, an obstetrician and gynecologist, died in 1997.

Survivors include his son of Toluca Lake; a brother; a sister; and three grandchildren.

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