Courtesy of Paul Hefti
In addition to composing film and TV soundtracks, Neal Hefti (pictured left) arranged music for stars such as Frank Sinatra.
Neal Hefti reached a wide audience through the theme songs he composed for TV's Batman and The Odd Couple. But he was also a talented jazz arranger who got his start with the Charlie Barnett and Woody Herman big bands.
Hefti died Saturday at his home in California, just shy of his 86th birthday. He was born on Oct. 29, 1922, in Hastings, Neb. His mother was a music teacher, so her son learned music theory early. He got a trumpet when he was 11 and began writing arrangements when he was in high school, picking up ideas from the music he heard on the radio.
Arrangers are the people who take all of those little black dots on the sheet music and turn them into parts for saxophones, trumpets and strings. But it was Hefti's trumpet that got him into Charlie Barnett's big band in New York in 1942. Two years later, he joined Woody Herman's trumpet section and began writing tunes and arrangements. He wrote "The Good Earth" for the band and co-wrote "Wild Root" with Herman. Hefti wound up marrying Herman's singer, Frances Wayne.
Hefti went on to write large group arrangements for two pioneers of the new music called bebop: Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown. But it was with another big band that Hefti really made his mark.
In the early 1950s, he began a 10-year relationship writing and arranging for Count Basie that produced some of Basie's most memorable music, including the Hefti original that became a jazz standard, "Li'l Darlin'." Hefti's deceptively simple arrangements were a perfect fit for the Basie band, and helped extend its popularity through most of the decade.
Basie recorded two albums of Hefti's compositions in the late '50s. Then, Hefti wrote arrangements for two acclaimed Frank Sinatra albums, Sinatra-Basie and Sinatra and Swingin' Brass.
Hefti also arranged for Tony Bennett and Judy Garland, among many others. But he began to devote most of his time to writing for film and television. He composed the scores for film versions of two Neil Simon plays, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. His score for the 1965 movie Harlow produced one of his most popular tunes, "Girl Talk."
The Odd Couple theme became ubiquitous after the play-turned-movie made the transition to the small screen. But Hefti had already infected TV viewers with his theme to Batman. It became a Top 40 hit in 1966.
In 1976, Neal Hefti decided to stop writing music. His wife, Frances, died in 1978. He retired on ample royalties, mostly from his film and television work, and he spent his last years managing his many song copyrights.