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Neal Paul Hefti was born October 29, 1922, to a poor family in Hastings, Nebraska. His father was a traveling salesman, and his mother was a music teacher. Together with his three brothers and two sisters, he received lessons in piano and basic musical theory from an early age. When Hefti was about 10 years old, he received a trumpet for Christmas, and started studying the trumpet when he was 11.
When he was in high school, Hefti earned money for his family by playing in area bands. He was also able to see Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Gab Calloway, and other jazz bands from New York that came through Omaha on tour and was heavily influenced by them. 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 name orchestras such as Charlie Barnet, Charlie Spivak, Horace Heidt, and Woody Herman.
In 1941, Hefti moved to New York, where he played trumpet in the bands of Charlie Barnet and Charlie Spivak. In 1943, Hefti traveled with the latter to Hollywood to appear in the film Pin Up Girl and stayed on when the band returned to New York. After playing for a while in Los Angeles with Horace Heidt’s band, Hefti joined the Woody Herman trumpet section. In 1944, on the recommendation of bassist Chubby Jackson, Hefti joined Herman’s First Herd. He was influential in moving that band from its swing roots in the direction of bebop. While a trumpeter with Herman, Hefti crafted hits such as “Caledonia” and “Apple Honey,” which were among the earliest big-band uses of bebop concepts. “Caledonia” was his first hit arrangement for Herman in early 1945. By the fall, Hefti had carved out a new explosive bop sound for the band with “The Good Earth,” “Black Orchid,” “Wild Root,” and “Blowin’ Up a Storm.”
In October 1945, Hefti married Herman’s vocalist, Frances Wayne. The Heftis finally left Herman’s band in late 1946, and Neal began freelance arranging. He wrote charts for Buddy Rich’s band and the ill-fated Billy Butterfield band. He wrote a few arrangements and 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 “Little Pony,” “Plymouth Rock,” “Cherry Point,” “Cute,” “Coral Reef,” “Splanky,” and others. “Lil’ Darlin” was his most significant composition, followed closely by “Cute.”
By 1960, Hefti had become an executive and artist for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, helming the notable Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass (Reprise, 1962) and several of his own albums (Themes From TV’s Top 12, 1961, and Jazz Pops, 1962). Starting in the 1960s, Hefti found great success writing television and film scores. In 1960, Hefti wrote the Batman theme song, for which he won his only Grammy Award®. In addition to writing the theme for The Odd Couple (1968), he composed the scores for two other Neil Simon films, Barefoot in the Park (1967) and Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972). His other film work included Duel at Diablo (1966), A New Leaf (1971), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), Boeing Boeing (1965), and How to Murder Your Wife (1965). His 1965 score for Harlow included the hit song “Girl Talk.” He earned his Grammy Award® for his theme to the Batman television series in 1966.
Following his wife’s death in 1978, Hefti gradually withdrew from active musicmaking. In later years, he concentrated on taking care of his copyrights. Hefti died at the age of 85, on October 11, 2008, in Toluca Lake, California. The epitaph on his tomb at Forest Lawn in Hollywood reads, “Forever in Tune.”