On October 11th, Grammy-winning arranger and bandleader Neal Hefti passed away at 85 at his home in Toluca Lake, California. Born to a poor family in Hastings, Nebraska, Hefti picked up the trumpet at age 11 and shortly began playing in dance bands in order to help out his family. He also learned arranging early, and sold charts to such luminaries as Earl Hines while still in his teens. After playing trumpet in a round of popular swing bands and being classified as "4-F" owing to injury, Hefti joined Woody Herman's "First Herd." Along with Ralph Burns, Hefti retooled Herman's entire band book and added the hit "Wild Root" to it, establishing a reputation as a fellow who could fix what might be wrong with a big band.
After the war, the band business went "boom!," and Hefti moved into freelance arranging which, luckily, proved lucrative. In 1957, Hefti worked as the chief musical director in a series of sessions with Count Basie that resulted in the Roulette LP generally referred to as "Atomic Basie," which helped revive the venerable bandleader's stalled career. Based on this and other successes, Frank Sinatra picked Hefti to join the A&R staff at his Reprise label in when it was founded in the early 1960s, but as the 60s rolled on, Hefti was drawn more to film and television work. The Batman series came his way in 1966, and its famous theme - the simplest thing Neal Hefti ever wrote - was called by him the most difficult assignment he ever had. It became a Top 40 hit, and earned Hefti his only Grammy Award. Hefti's other most famous theme, The Odd Couple, was written for the 1968 film version, but it was through it's use in the television series that it became known to everyone; even if you didn't watch the episode that followed, you still hung around to listen to that catchy tune. Hefti described it's secret once - the lazy, laid back trumpet melody represents Oscar Madison, and the nervous harpsichord figure that answers is Felix...
Through many of these years, Hefti kept his own big band going, playing to a diminishing audience; in 1976, he decided to retire from music altogether. He handed over control of the group to drummer Frank Capp, and it survives yet today as the Frank Capp Juggernaut. For most listeners, Neal Hefti will always be the composer of the "Batman Theme," but his greatest achievement was in keeping the big band medium fresh, vital and contemporary sounding even as its very future, outside of its value as nostalgia, was in grave doubt.
Woody Herman: Wild Root
Count Basie: Splanky
Neal Hefti: Batman Theme
Neal Hefti: Mr. Freeze from "Batman"
Neal Hefti: Theme from "The Odd Couple"
Frank Capp Juggernaut: Flight of the Foo Birds