Forrest Patten sets the scene for his interview with
one of the most highly respected, and talented, American
composers and arrangers
In the world of music, Neal Hefti has done
it all. As a composer, arranger and conductor, he has contributed
to some of the most memorable musical icons of the twentieth
century. Had Neal only composed "Girl Talk" (from
the film Harlow), the "Batman Theme" (from
the campy 60s action TV series starring Adam West),
or the sauntering theme from the film and television versions
of The Odd Couple, his place in musical history would
have been solidified then and there. But there was so much
more. There were all of those great Basie charts and originals.
There were the Sinatra arrangements. And who can ever forget
the musical accompaniment to Jack Lemmons surprise
when Virna Lisi popped out of a cake in the movie How
To Murder Your Wife? Its one thing to come up
with great melodies; its another to create great arrangements.
Neal Hefti is a master of both.
In June, 2005, ASCAP (the American Society
Of Composers, Authors and Publishers) inducted Neal as an
honorary member of the ASCAP Jazz Wall Of Fame.
Today, Neal enjoys tending to his musical
garden: the care and feeding of over 500 copyrights. On
September 7, 2004, Neal joined us for a very special interview
in Studio City, California as a part of Frank Comstocks
Summit. In his own words (and exclusively for Journal
Into Melody), here is Neals story.
FORREST PATTEN: Neal, musically
speaking, how did it all begin?
NEAL HEFTI: I received a trumpet
for Christmas when I was about 10 years old. My parents
thought was to have all the boys learn a band instrument.
During those days, the high schools were connected with
the R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) who gave
us uniforms. That meant that our cash-strapped family would
not have to buy clothes for the boys. Also, if we were drafted
into the service, we would be in the band and not the infantry.
My mother thought that it might help protect her boys. My
two older brothers played the sax and clarinet. I fell in
love with the trumpet.
I learned the instrument ranges and transpositions
at age 12, when I started trumpet lessons at the local music
store. It had a Conn instrument chart posted on the wall,
showing all the instruments they made and the various ranges
of each, starting with the piccolo and going all the way
down to the tuba.
In high school, I played in the orchestra,
the concert band, the marching band, and what they called,
"the swing band." I started arranging music for
the territorial dance bands of that day for the biggest
Midwestern booking agency, Howard White. I was arranging
for three or four bands. I didnt know quite how to
do it, but I learned with the help of my older brother,
FP: Who were your inspirations in the beginning?
NH: My inspirations really centered on
the orchestras of that time. Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunceford,
Count Basie, Charlie Barnet, Glen Gray, Glenn Miller, Tommy
Dorsey and Artie Shaw. There were also two British bands,
Ambrose and Ray Noble. Ray Noble played a week in Omaha,
at the Orpheum Theater. After attending the show, I said
to myself that if I ever became an orchestra leader, that's
the kind of orchestra, I would want. Besides Duke Ellington,
arrangers included Billy May, Billy Moore, Sy Oliver and
When I was growing up, my favorite bands,
besides the organized ones that would tour, were the ones
I heard on the radio, like The Jack Benny Show and
The Bing Crosby Show. I thought that conductors like
John Scott Trotter were fabulous, fine musicians. Later
I had the privilege to tell them how much I enjoyed their
FP: Neal, tell us about those early recordings
for the Vik, Coral and Epic labels. That all really started
in the 1940's didn't it?
NH: No, it started in the 50s. During
the forties, there were two recording strikes by the American
Federation of Musicians. I recorded during that period mostly
with Woody Herman, when he was with Columbia. While I was
with Woody Herman, I married Woody's singer, Frances Wayne.
Frances and I then concentrated on our own career away from
the band. We settled in New York and soon had two children.
I became a studio conductor. Whatever the studio wanted
me to do, I learned how. I loved conducting, and I loved
the music. So as a studio conductor/ arranger, I went directly
into the recording world. I worked primarily at Decca/Coral,
RCA/Vik and Columbia/ Epic. I did big band, vocal "doo-wahs,"
pop artists and catalog music.
FP: How much composing were you able to
do at that time?
NH: A lot. When I began writing, I started
with my own original instrumentals. Woody Herman recorded
about five or six of them. Later I must have written about
20 pieces for Harry James.
FP: Lets talk about your years with
NH: He was one of the artists I wrote for.
At the time, he had a six piece band - three rhythm and
three horns. I was working on some music for Columbia/ Epic
at the time and I was approached by George Avakian to do
four sides for Basie. I wrote two standards that Basie chose,
plus two originals. Then Basie went with Norman Granz/ Verve
Records, and re-organized his big band. I was asked to do
four to five originals a year for him. Norman was mainly
responsible for promoting and recording the new Count Basie
big band. He also managed Ella Fitzgerald at that time.
It was late 1957 that I did The Atomic
Basie album. Up to that time, I think he recorded maybe
25 of my originals. I also recorded a lot of my tunes with
my own band, as well as with Frances. There were about seven
bandleaders that the record companies tried to promote at
the time. I was one of them, along with The Elgart Brothers,
Ralph Flanagan, Richard Maltby, Ralph Marterie, Billy May
and Sauter-Finnigan. The idea in building these studio bands
was to promote the idea of bringing the big bands back.
In my estimation, the big band era was over after WWII.
FP: Neal, when you were working for multiple
labels at one time, did you ever have to write under a pseudonym
for contractual reasons?
NH: I did one time. I was conducting for
a Patti Andrews recording. I was on Coral and she was on
the parent company, Decca, so they came up with the name
"Paul Nielsen." Paul is actually my middle name. After that,
they didn't care if my name bounced from one in-house label
to the other.
FP: From your vast repertoire, do you have
a favorite personal recording?
NH: We always remember our very first.
The first was the best for me. It was called Coral Reef.
It was a minor hit or what they called a turntable hit.
A lot of disc jockeys used it as a theme song to open their
FP: Let's talk about your music for The
NH: We moved to California in the mid-sixties
to compose film music. Most of the films that I did were
at Paramount. They gave me a couple of Neil Simon films
to work on. The first was Barefoot in the Park. It
was a huge success and broke records. The next one they
gave me was The Odd Couple, which broke the previous
record. For The Odd Couple, I wrote this sort
of forlorn piece for the movie. Every time it was heard,
Jack Lemmon was trying to "end it all," because
of his divorce. (The soundtrack album received two Grammy
FP: It certainly is a well known theme.
It started in film, then TV, and more recently, it's been
used as a background for various commercial spots. How did
you ever come up with that melody?
NH: You have to work on melodies. I don't
have to work that hard on the orchestration. But melodies
are something else. Sometimes I'd compose music in bed and
Frances would tell me to stop playing piano on her back.
I guess I write most of the tunes while lying down. And
I don't really feel that I've finished it until I personally
like it and can hum it to myself. In most cases, I know
what harmonies I'm going to use. I'll then go to the piano
and try to improve on the chords and so forth. But the more
you write, the more naturally you can hear the harmonies.
The melodies, though, take a lot of time.
FP: Over the years, I've heard "the
Neal Hefti format" to a number of pieces, especially
those that were written during the Basie years. It usually
starts with a musical phrase, then goes into a percussive
break and returns to the melody again. I've heard this style
imitated by a number of composers.
NH: Basie told me himself that when he
had people writing for his band, he'd tell them to "write
FP: The Hefti standard, Girl Talk,
from the film Harlow. Tell us about that one.
NH: That was the name of the scene in the
film. Harlow was making the transition from "silents" to
"talkies" and was barnstorming around the country taking
questions from the press. I wrote the piece simply for that
scene. When we did the soundtrack album, the disc jockeys
started playing Girl Talk, more than the main theme.
(My instrumental from the soundtrack album also received
two Grammy nominations)
FP: And, of course, there was the theme
music from the TV series, Batman.
NH: That one came very hard to me. It took
me a couple of months to write. I had seen some footage
and I knew how outrageous it had to be. So I needed to write
a piece of music that was equally so. Well, when I first
took the theme in to demonstrate it for Lionel Newman and
the series producer at Twentieth Century Fox, I had to sing
it and play it on the piano. Well, I'm no singer, and I'm
no pianist. But I had Lionel and the producer, Bill Dozier,
listening to me. My first thought was that they were going
to throw me out, very quickly, but as I was going through
it, I heard them both reacting with statements like, "Oh,
that's kicky. That will be good in the car chase." My father,
(a salesman) once told me, "If they say okay, get out
of there before they change their mind." When I saw
Bill smiling, then I knew we had it.
FP: RCA Victor released the TV soundtrack
music from Batman. Not too long after, they released
a follow-up album called Hefti in Gotham City. The
lead track from that album is one of my favorite, Neal Hefti
compositions titled, Gotham City Municipal Swing Band.
For many years, that piece was used as a theme for a popular
San Francisco, Saturday night TV movie program, called Creature
NH: I sort of like that tune. I'm happy
with my Batman collection. As I said, the theme was
hard to come by. Originally, RCA released a single with
Batman Theme on one side and Batman Chase
on the other. They called and said, "Neal, this record is
doing really well, (it won a Grammy that year) we've got
to come out with an album right away." So over a weekend,
I had to come up with ten more tunes. They already had an
album cover and liner notes in progress. They had the musicians
and the studio booked. Because I had already written the
first one (agonizing over it for months), writing the ten
follow-up tunes, turned out to be easier. The first album
did very well on the charts. So RCA said we had to come
up with a sequel. For Hefti in Gotham City, I had
to write twelve more pieces. That included our mutual favorite,
Gotham City Municipal Swing Band.
FP: Neal, you've accompanied a number of
singers over the years. Do you have a favorite?
NH: Frances. When we got married and left
Woody Herman's band, I wish I could have written for just
the two of us. We couldn't seem to connect however, either
together or alone. I tell people that our number one, major
cardinal unforgivable sin, was that neither one of us ever
made a million selling record. That would have changed everything.
FP: Any comments about Frank Sinatra?
NH: He was the last singer that I wrote
for. After that I wrote for movies. When I was with Frank
Sinatras company, Reprise, I was their first producer.
Truthfully, I had never really been a producer, and they
knew that. I told them that I would stay in that position
until they found somebody. It took about two years until
Sonny Burke joined - he was exactly what they needed. I
really liked working for Reprise and Frank. He was such
a good singer and there were never any problems. Besides
myself, he had also recorded with Axel Stordahl, Nelson
Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May, Johnny Mandel, Sy Oliver,
Don Costa, Quincy Jones, Pat Williams and Robert Farnon.
If Sinatra chose you to conduct, you'd consider it quite
an honor. It was just beautiful working with him.
FP: You've mentioned quite a few important
conductors and arrangers here. Does anyone stand out in
NH: I did an interview with Peter Levinson,
for a book he was writing in which I told him that I felt
that Nelson Riddle should be considered, "conductor emeritus"
for Frank Sinatra. I included myself in there, too. Nelson,
however, was a part of what I called, "The Trinity." That
included him, Capitol Records, and From Here to Eternity.
They all happened in about the same year. Those three things
in succession launched Frank into orbit. And nothing would
shoot him down from that point on.
FP: In looking at today's artists, whom
do you favor?
NH: Of the newcomers, I like Chris Botti,
Natalie Cole, Laura Fygi, Norah Jones, KebMo, Diana
Krall, KD Lang, Rod Stewart, Sting and Steve Tyrell.
FP: What about todays film composers?
NH: Johnny Williams. I think he's as good
as they come.
FP: So Neal, what are you up to today?
NH: Taking care of my catalog. I started
doing this about 18 years ago. Frances passed and I raised
the children and put them through school. With all of that
going on, I decided to concentrate on family and take care
of my copyrights starting back when I recorded with Woody
Herman and going all the way through The Odd Couple
FP: If students or other musicians would
like to study your scores, do you have plans to make them
NH: Most scores of mine are at Paramount,
in their music library. I dont know what their studio
policy is for students studying their scores, scripts and
FP: Neal, do you have a personal message
that you'd like to convey to Robert Farnon?
NH: Robert Farnon, you have an impeccable
reputation here in the States. I first heard of you from
a friend of mine in New York. Marion Evans. He had your
albums and would tell me, "Thats the man!" I
think as a fellow composer, arranger, conductor and trumpeter,
we share the same passionate search; to create, tell a story
and communicate emotion with our music. Its our small
contribution to the world.
FP: Neal, what a career. Thanks for taking
the time to talk with us.
Authors Note: Id like to personally
thank Neal Hefti and his assistant, Dawn Thomas, for their
editorial assistance in preparation of this interview. Id
also like to thank Frank Comstock for his part in arranging
"Franks Summit." Additionally, Id
like to express my thanks and appreciation to my wife Nancy
who assisted me in all aspects in this series of interviews.
Copyright Neal Hefti and Forrest Patten 2006: published
in Journal Into Melody March 2006