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Ex-big band trumpeter, arranger and composer

Neal Hefti, 1922 - 2008

October 15, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Neal Hefti, a former big band trumpeter, arranger and composer who worked with Count Basie and Woody Herman and later composed the memorable themes for the movie "The Odd Couple" and the campy hit TV series "Batman," has died. He was 85.

Hefti died Saturday at his home in Toluca Lake, said his son, Paul. He did not know the cause of death, but said his father had been in good health.

"Everybody in the music business loved Neal Hefti," radio and television personality Gary Owens, a longtime friend, told The Times on Tuesday.

"He was one of the really great arrangers and composers of all time," Owens said. "He worked with all those guys -- Charlie Spivak, Harry James, Woody Herman -- and he made arrangements that were just spectacular."

Described as "one of the most influential big band arrangers of the 1940s and '50s" in "The Encyclopedia of Popular Music," Hefti turned his attention to composing for film and television in the 1960s.

Among his credits as a film composer are "Sex and the Single Girl," "Harlow" (one of his most famous tunes, “Girl Talk,” came out of the score), "How to Murder Your Wife," "Boeing Boeing," "Duel at Diablo," "Barefoot in the Park," "A New Leaf," "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" and “The Odd Couple,” whose theme he reprised for the 1970s TV series.

Hefti also gained wide notice for composing the energetic title theme for “Batman,” the over-the-top 1966-68 superhero series that became an overnight sensation.

It was, Hefti later said, the hardest piece of music he ever wrote.

"I tore up a lot of paper," he told Jon Burlingame, author of "TV's Biggest Hits," a 1996 book on television themes. "It did not come easy to me. . . . I just sweated over that thing, more so than any other single piece of music I ever wrote. I was never satisfied with it."

"Batman," he said, "was not a comedy. This was about unreal people. Batman and Robin were both very, very serious. The bad guys would be chasing them, and they would come to a stop at a red light, you know. They wouldn't break the law even to save their own lives. So there was a grimness and a self-righteousness about all this."

Hefti said it took him "the better part of a month" to come up with the theme.

"I was almost going to call them and say, I can't do it," he said. "But I never walk out on projects, so I sort of forced myself to finish."

Hefti's "musical solution to a combined dramatic and comedic problem," Burlingame wrote in his book, "was perfect: bass guitar, low brass and percussion to create a driving rhythm, while an eight-voice chorus sings 'Batman!' in harmony with the trumpets. It was part serious, part silly: just like the series."

Hefti's "Batman" tune became a Top 40 hit -- for both the Hefti and the Marketts' versions -- and won a 1966 Grammy Award for best instrumental theme.

The son of a traveling salesman, Hefti was born Oct. 29, 1922, in Hastings, Neb. He began playing the trumpet at age 11.

His family was poor, and in high school he started playing in local bands during summer vacation to help his family financially.

Hefti began writing arrangements in high school for local bands, and some of his arrangements also were used by the Earl Hines band.

In 1941, two days before his high school graduation, Hefti was asked to tour with the Dick Barry band, which had lost some of its musicians to the military.

The short-lived job ended in New Jersey. But other band jobs followed, including playing with the Bob Astor, Charlie Barnet, Bobby Byrne, Horace Heidt and Charlie Spivak bands.

Hefti, who was classified 4-F during World War II after being hit by a car in New York and breaking his pelvis, joined Woody Herman's band in 1944.

He did the arrangements for many of the Herman band's popular recordings, including composing and arranging "The Good Earth" and "Wild Root." He also co-arranged, with Ralph Burns, "Caldonia."

In 1945, Hefti married the Herman band's lead female vocalist, Frances Wayne. They remained married until her death in 1978.

Hefti formed his own band in 1951, with his wife as lead vocalist. But after two years of touring, he returned to arranging and studio work.

As a composer and arranger for Basie in the 1950s, Hefti composed numerous tunes that were featured on various Basie albums.

That included the Grammy Award-winning album "Basie," which Hefti produced. Known as "Atomic Basie" because of the atomic explosion pictured on the cover, the album featured 11 songs composed and arranged by Hefti, including "Splanky," "Kid From Red Bank" and "Lil' Darlin," which Hefti wrote for his daughter.

"If it weren't for Neal Hefti," legendary trumpeter Miles Davis said in a 1955 interview, "the Basie band wouldn't sound as good as it does."

As head of A&R (Artists and Repertoire) at Reprise in the early '60s, Hefti arranged and conducted "Sinatra and Basie: A Historical Musical First" and "Sinatra and Swingin' Brass."

Hefti retired in 1976.

In addition to his son Paul, a music composer, Hefti is survived by a brother, Joe; a sister, Pat Wacha; and three grandchildren.

Services will be private.

Instead of flowers, Paul Hefti suggests that donations be made to Boys Town, P.O. Box 145-Memorial, Boys Town, NE 68010, or to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 22718, Oklahoma City, OK 73123. Both Hefti's wife and daughter, Dr. Marguerita Hefti, died of cancer.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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