October 15, 2008
TV Music Greats Lloyd Thaxton and Neal Hefti Dead
Series host and jazz composer both helped to define small screen music of the '60s by Jon Burlingame
Two icons of 1960s television music – one a popular host whose face was familiar to millions, the other a composer whose themes are universally known but whose face was not – have died.
Lloyd Thaxton, whose Lloyd Thaxton Show was a daily afternoon TV destination for American teenagers, died Oct. 5 at his Studio City, Calif., home. He was 81. Neal Hefti, whose themes for Batman and The Odd Couple rank high on the list of recognizable TV signatures, died Oct. 11 at his home in Toluca Lake, Calif. He was 85.
Thaxton's widely syndicated teen dance show (seen nationally from 1964 to 1968) was a high-rated hour in many markets. No American Bandstand ripoff, The Lloyd Thaxton Show one-upped the Dick Clark concept by adding humor to the mix of music performers – including Sonny & Cher, James Brown and The Byrds – and dance segments.
Thaxton's goofy shtick ranged from pretending to play piano or other instruments to lip-syncing the hits, sometimes even having his painted thumb do the honors. His lighthearted take on popular culture, and his self-deprecating signoff ("My name is Lloyd Thaxton," to which the visiting teens invariably responded, "So what?!"), immortalized him among the baby boomer generation.
Born in Memphis, Tenn., he grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and began his career in live television. Moving to Los Angeles in the late 1950s, he became an announcer and radio host, which eventually turned into a stint on KCOP doing Lloyd Thaxton's Record Shop (later Thaxton's Hop) that went national in 1964.
He hosted game shows and talent shows on ABC and NBC but went behind the cameras in the 1970s, ultimately earning five Emmys as producer and director of the nationally syndicated consumer-advocacy show Fight Back! With David Horowitz, which continued into the early 1990s. He also produced for NBC's Today and, in 2003, co-wrote a book, Stuff Happens! (and then you fix it).
In recent years, Thaxton authored a smart and clever blog and made several guest appearances as a lecturer in this writer's USC class, "Music, Television and American Culture." It was impossible to believe he was in his 80s; he looked about 60 and acted like he was 30. Warm, funny and invariably entertaining, he regularly won over students who were one-fourth his age.
Neal Hefti was the composer of the themes for Batman and The Odd Couple, which would be enough to earn him a place in the pantheon of modern media composers. But jazz fans knew him as the composer of such standards as "Li'l Darling" and "Cute," and as a longtime arranger for such jazz greats as Woody Herman in the 1940s and Count Basie in the 1950s.
He was born in Hastings, Nebraska, and – like many top arrangers of his generation – was mostly self-taught. He played trumpet for Charlie Barnet, Horace Heidt and Herman; later did string arrangements for Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown; worked extensively with his vocalist wife Frances Wayne; and arranged and produced two 1960s albums with Frank Sinatra.
Hefti became in demand for comedy scores in Hollywood, doing such Jack Lemmon vehicles as How to Murder Your Wife (1965) and The Odd Couple (1968), Sex and the Single Girl (1964) with Tony Curtis and Boeing Boeing (1965) with Jerry Lewis. He scored three Neil Simon vehicles: In addition to The Odd Couple, he wrote the music for Barefoot in the Park (1967) and Last of the Red-Hot Lovers (1972). He also composed for Elaine May's A New Leaf (1971).
His standard "Girl Talk" emerged from the score of Carroll Baker's Harlow (1965), one of a handful of dramatic pictures he did during his film-score period (others included the 1965 drug-addiction story Synanon, the 1966 Western Duel at Diablo and the 1968 private-eye tale P.J.).
He achieved lasting fame for his offbeat theme for TV's camp classic Batman (1966) – which won him his only Grammy – and his more upbeat version of The Odd Couple for the longrunning Tony Randall-Jack Klugman sitcom (for which he also wrote all the incidental music). He received an Emmy nomination for conducting a 1968 Fred Astaire special. Seven of his eight Grammy nominations were for films or TV (including two for "Girl Talk," three for Batman and two for The Odd Couple soundtrack).
Hefti was somewhat reclusive in recent years, although when giving a rare interview or encountered at an ASCAP or arrangers' society event, he was invariably engaging and talkative. The 1995 Frank Capp Juggernaut big-band album In a Hefti Bag, featuring all Hefti compositions and arrangements, is a modern classic.
©2008 Jon Burlingame