Neal Hefti is interviewed by Forrest Patten
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 60’s 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 Lemmon’s surprise when Virna Lisi popped out of a cake in the movie How To Murder Your Wife? It’s one thing to come up with great melodies; it’s 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 Comstock’s Summit. In his own words (and exclusively for Journal Into Melody), here is Neal’s 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 didn’t know quite how to do it, but I learned with the help of my older brother, John.
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 Axel Stordahl.
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 music.
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 50’s. 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: Let’s talk about your years with Count Basie.
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 shows.
FP: Let's talk about your music for The Odd Couple.
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 nominations.)
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 like Neal."
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 Features.
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 Sinatra’s 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 your opinion?
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, Keb’Mo, Diana Krall, KD Lang, Rod Stewart, Sting and Steve Tyrell.
FP: What about today’s 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 and beyond.
FP: If students or other musicians would like to study your scores, do you have plans to make them available?
NH: Most scores of mine are at Paramount, in their music library. I don’t know what their studio policy is for students studying their scores, scripts and so forth.
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, "That’s 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. It’s our small contribution to the world.
FP: Neal, what a career. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Author’s Note: I’d like to personally thank Neal Hefti and his assistant, Dawn Thomas, for their editorial assistance in preparation of this interview. I’d also like to thank Frank Comstock for his part in arranging "Frank’s Summit." Additionally, I’d 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