Switzerland and Midwest Connections: Neal Hefti — Batman with Swiss Roots

Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.

Glarus Ancestors

Neal Paul Hefti was born in 1922 to a music teacher and a traveling salesman in Hastings, Nebraska. His ancestors came from the Canton Glarus, from where Neal’s grandfather emigrated at the end of the 19th Century. The family later moved to Omaha, which had a lively jazz scene, especially after the city’s most popular band, the Original Omaha Night Owls, was launched. Omaha’s jazz scene thrived thanks to the city’s position on the Union Pacific Railroad and the vibrant jazz scene inspired many young musicians. On his tenth birthday, young Neal was given a trumpet and when he was in high school, Hefti earned money for his poor family by playing in area bands. He was able to see Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Gab Calloway, and other jazz bands from New York, which came through Omaha on tour and heavily influenced him.

Musician and Self-Taught Composer

While still in high school, Hefti began writing arrangements for small-time bands. He was almost entirely self-taught, picking up ideas from bands he heard on the radio. After graduation, he toured with various groups before working for Charlie Spivak, Horace Heidt, and Charlie Barnet. In 1944, Hefti joined Woody Herman’s ‘First Herd’, where he was influential in moving that band from its swing roots towards bebop. While a trumpeter with Herman, Hefti crafted bebop hits such as “Caldonia” and “Apple Honey”. By the fall of 1945, Hefti had carved out a new explosive bop sound for the band and in October of that year he married the band’s vocalist, Frances Wayne. The couple eventually left Herman’s band and in late 1946, Neal began freelance arranging, writing charts for Buddy Rich’s band and a few compositions for George Auld’s band. Hefti’s first arrangement for Count Basie was an octet session in 1950 that resulted in “Neal’s Deal,” “Bluebeard Blues,” and others. The following year, Hefti began arranging in earnest for Basie’s big band, which became known as “The New Testament” band. He wrote and arranged compositions such as “Lil’ Darlin,” which was a masterpiece in slow tempo from the Album “The Atomic Mr. Basie”.

Hollywood and Batman

By 1960, Hefti had become an executive and artist for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, helming the notable ‘Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass’. The modern jazz sound that Neal Hefti devised for large ensemble in the course of this production already gave an indication of his future film scores, for example for the Hollywood flick “The Odd Couple”, which was nominated for a Grammy. His biggest hit was the Batman theme song, for which he won the 1967 Grammy Award in the “Best Television Theme Song” category. Batman was the most faithful adaptation of a comic book character to the screen that had been seen at the time. His son Paul recalled: “He told me he tore up more paper on ‘Batman’ than on any other work he ever did, He had to find something that worked with the lowest common denominator, so it would appeal to kids, yet wouldn’t sound stupid. What he came up with was a 12-bar blues with a guitar hook and one word.” The song has been mimicked by dozens of artists and Hefti later joked that he not only wrote the music, but also the lyrics. In addition to writing the theme for The Odd Couple, he composed the scores for two other Neil Simon films, Barefoot in the Park and Last of the Red Hot Lovers. His other film work included Duel at Diablo, A New Leaf, Sex and the Single Girl, Boeing, and How to Murder Your Wife. His 1965 score for the film Harlow included the hit song “Girl Talk”, which was also nominated for a Grammy.

Following his wife’s death in 1978, Hefti gradually withdrew from active music making. In later years, he concentrated on taking care of his copyrights. He died in California on October 11, 2008, just shy of his 86th birthday. The epitaph on his tomb at Forest Lawn in Hollywood reads, “Forever in Tune.” Neal’s son Paul took over ‘Hefti Music’ to continue Neal’s great work. He formed an orchestra dedicated to performing Neal’s compositions and arrangements to keep his music in the public’s eyes and ears. Neal Hefti would have turned 100 Years old on October 29th, 2022. In a tribute to Hefti, the West German Broadcast (WDR) Big Band had a special concert on that day called Atomic Hefti.

The WDR Big Band anniversary concert ‘Atomic Hefti’ can be heard here: https://www1.wdr.de/mediathek/audio/wdr3/konzert/audio-wdr-big-band-atomic-hefti-100.html.

The record cover of Neal Hefti’s famous theme song and other Batman songs.
Neal Hefti (Image courtesy Library of Congress, William Gottlieb, 1946)

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