We have two songs for you this weekend at SteynOnline - one for Father's Day by Rodgers & Hammerstein, and this one, which sings of the distaff side:
The death of Adam West, TV's Batman, earlier this month underlined for me just how bored I am with current superhero iterations. All the reboots and reinventions are the same: Out with the breezy guy swinging across the rooftops in long underwear; in with some morose misanthrope hunched on the ledge brooding and riddled with self-doubt. In the Sixties, the Adam West Batman was camp. Then he got dark in the Eighties movie. But then by the Nineties sequels the dark Batman had mysteriously camped up again. So now he's darker than ever: Dark Knight, Darker Knight, Darkest Knight... I think the concept of reinvention could do with reinventing.
Still, at least Spider-Man's original web-swingin' theme song turns up in the occasional reboot, as played by a subway busker and whatnot. The original Batman theme doesn't get a look-in in all this endless Knight stuff. So I thought for this week's Song of the Week we'd spend a little time with the man who wrote it. Neal Hefti was never exactly a household name, but he insinuated his way into the brain of just about everybody on the planet who switched on a television in the Sixties and Seventies. That's to say, he wrote the supergroovy theme for the film and sitcom spin-off The Odd Couple, and he wrote the ingenious theme for the Batman TV show - the one that spawned a thousand jokes: "How does Alfred call Batman in for dinner?" "Dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner Batman!"
That would be more than enough glory for one lifetime, but Hefti was a multi-talent who did a bunch of other stuff brilliantly, too. He was a marvelous film composer and a terrific arranger who played a critical role in the sound of the Count Basie band in the Fifties and Sixties. He scored just two vocal albums, but they're two of the best in the history of recorded sound: Sinatra/Basie and Sinatra And Swingin' Brass, both from 1962. And after that he figured it could only go downhill, so he quit vocal arranging and, despite innumerable offers from all the best singers right up to his death in 2008, never returned to it.
At any rate, that's the way he told it. According to others, he quit because Sinatra wouldn't give him equal billing on the Swingin' Brass album. Apparently, the arranger wanted to call it Hefti Meets The Thin One - a rather lame pun on his name, and the fact that young Frankie, way back when in the bobbysoxer days, had been famously emaciated. Back in the Fifties, there was a whole school of singer/arranger albums so named - Rosemary Clooney records with Nelson Riddle? Hey, why not Rosie Solves The Swingin' Riddle? Still, I can't believe as level-headed a guy as Neal Hefti got so over-invested in a labored contrivance like Hefti Meets The Thin One that he walked out over it. I prefer his reasoning: How could you top those two albums? Best to quit while you're ahead.
The records still sound great. Sinatra And Swingin' Brass is maybe the jazziest album Frank ever made, right from Hefti's jumpin' chart for the all-time great revenge gloatfest number "Goody Goody" through the dissonant brass blast that opens a freewheeling two-chorus "Tangerine" and the ebullient countermelody on "Love Is Just Around The Corner" to the groovily fugue-like "Pick Yourself Up". If you have the CD version, you'll notice that at the end there's a bonus track, an old Sinatra single called "Everybody's Twistin'". It started out 30 years earlier as a minor Fats Waller hit called "Everybody's Truckin'", one of those dance craze things that never quite clues you in on what the dance actually involves. In this case, all we learn is that up in Harlem someone started "truckin'" and next thing you know it's swept the nation. Flash forward to the early Sixties, and at Reprise Records they're figuring out how to cut themselves a piece of the action on a genuine nationwide dance craze - the twist - and someone remembers "Truckin'" and thinks, "Hey, why not update it to 'Twistin'"?"
As an arranger for Woody Herman and Count Basie, it's fair to say Neal Hefti wasn't doing a lot of twisting and no doubt found Chubby Checker as musically engaging as getting clubbed with a two-by-four for three minutes. But he took Rube Bloom's tune for "Truckin'" and oomphed it up with a driving motif that's twist-esque but totally cool. If you want to know where the dinner-dinner-dinner theme for Batman came from, check out that Sinatra single from four years earlier: Frank and Bruce Wayne sound like twins separated at birth.
"It did not come easy to me," said Hefti of the Batman tune. "I just sweated over that thing, more so than any other single piece of music I ever wrote. I was never satisfied with it." But nobody else seemed to mind. It was one of the most recorded tunes of 1966, and Hefti himself got a hit record out of it. As a composer, he was more than just a TV themesmith. Bart ("Fly Me To The Moon") Howard took one of Hefti's jazz instrumentals, "L'il Darlin'", and turned it into a very swankily sensuous ballad, "Don't Dream Of Anybody But Me". And Bobby Vinton had a big pop smash with "Lonely Girl", which came from the 1965 film Harlow, a biopic of the prematurely deceased Golden Age silver screen platinum blonde siren.
Jean Harlow was one of MGM's biggest stars when she died in 1937, of renal failure at the age of 26. Today she's all but forgotten, and most of the once famous stories about her - always having ice cubes handy to keep her bra-less nipples erect under her gowns, etc - seem to have transferred themselves to that more enduring tragic blonde, Marilyn Monroe. But four decades back Harlow still retained enough luster to merit not one but two Hollywood biographies, both called Harlow, both released in 1965, and both starring Carols in the leading role - Carol Lynley in one, and the more extravagantly lettered Carroll Baker in the other. Hefti scored the Baker version, with Angela Lansbury doing the mother role (though she was only six years older than Miss Baker) and Leslie Nielsen as the Howard Hughes figure. It came out in June 1965. Unfortunately, the other Harlow came out in May 1965. Both flopped. The Lynley version was scored by Nelson Riddle and is hardly his best work. The Baker version, by contrast, is the unlikely source of Neal Hefti's biggest standard song, "Girl Talk". Michael Feinstein, who recorded it a few years back, describes it as "the last great male chauvinist song written in the Sixties". By which he means lines like these:
They like to chat about the dresses they will wear tonight
They chew the fat about their tresses and the neighbors' fight
Inconsequential things that men don't really care to know
Become essential things that women find so apropos
But that's a dame
They're all the same
It's just a game
They call it
By the mid-Sixties, Neal Hefti had somehow become the go-to guy for scoring sex comedies, a thriving genre in those days. Usually they starred Tony Curtis or Jack Lemmon. In Sex And The Single Girl, Curtis plays a tabloid hack attempting to find out whether sexologist Natalie Wood is a virgin. In How To Murder Your Wife, Jack Lemmon wakes up with a helluva hangover and discovers that in the course of his bender he's acquired a spouse. In Boeing Boeing, the definitive air stewardess comedy, Curtis (again) finds himself trying to juggle a hectic schedule of three long-haul trolley dollies. Hefti presumably got these gigs because someone at the studio subscribed to Playboy, noticed the awards for jazz albums and concluded that, if Hugh Hefner's "Playboy lifestyle" equated jazz and sex, Mr and Mrs Moviegoer would, too. Hefti certainly delivered: All three scores swing far more effortlessly than their male protagonists. But, for all that, the music that encapsulates both the era and Hefti's soundtrack to it was actually written for a rather glum period drama. Harlow is set in the Thirties, but nothing about the tune of "Girl Talk" evokes anything other than the swingin' Sixties. Like most of Hefti's best "songs", it's really an incredibly confident, muscular extended vamp, a bluesily seesawing theme of big fat notes. To hear it wailing out on brass and saxes is to enter big band heaven. But even instrumentally it reeks of its time and place. Add the lyric and it's a perfect period piece - "Bewitched", Peyton Place, John Updike's Couples and...
They all meow about the ups and downs of all their friends
The who, the how, the why, they dish the dirt, it never ends...
The lyric is by Bobby Troup, another quintessential figure of the age, both as a Los Angeles nightclub fixture and as the husband to Julie London, after-hours chantoosie of what my old program director used to call "bearskin rug music". Troup was a singer, pianist, composer and lyricist. His best-known song is "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66", but he wrote lots of others, too. They're neat numbers that give the impression of a man who didn't need to compose for a living but was happy to do so if a cute idea caught his fancy. Troup was a self-contained composer-lyricist, but occasionally he put music to another writer's words - as you can hear when Manhattan Transfer's Cheryl Bentyne did his harrowing ballad "The Meaning of the Blues" on a recent live-performance edition of our Song of the Week. And, likewise, once in a while he put words to another man's music: in this case Neal Hefti's tune grabbed him and he wrote it up. Notice how elaborate his rhyme scheme is:
They like to chat about the dresses they will wear tonight
They chew the fat about their tresses and the neighbors' fight...
As a composer himself, Troup understood that the melodic theme is so weighty you'd be underserving it if you simply waited till the end of the line to rhyme. One consequence is that the lyric winds up both far more detailed in its imagery - "the neighbors' fight" - and far more vivid in its vernacular - "they all meow", "chew the fat", "dish the dirt", etc. In 1965, Tony Bennett and Jack Jones and everybody else did it with nary a thought. When I was a kid, I was rummaging through my dad's record collection and came across an old Buddy Greco single, with "L-O-V-E" on one side and "Girl Talk" on the other. And it so tickled me I took to slipping it in among the caterwauling rockers when I had chums over. The girls would listen in horror, aghast that there was ever a time when it would have been acceptable to express such sentiments. The more they objected, the fonder I grew of the number. If you have my cat album Feline Groovy, you'll notice there's a track on there called "The Cats Meow". It's Rossini's "Cats' Duet", which our arranger Kevin Amos felt ought to be included on any CD of cat songs. However, I balked at singing opera, and was still mulling it over when I chanced to hear the original Hefti recording of "Girl Talk" on the radio, and something deep in the orchestration reminded me of the first movement of the Rossini. So in the end we decided to move Rossini into the lounge era - with the third movement as a samba, the second as a jazz waltz, and the first movement as "Girl Talk" sideways. In fact, we even slipped in a line of Hefti's tune plus a single solitary word of Bobby Troup's lyric:
They all meow about the ups and downs of all their friends...
A few years back, I had a vague idea for an album called Songs For Swingin' Sexists, comprised mostly of tunes from the "Girl Talk" era - such as Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Wives And Lovers", which poor old Elvis Costello, in order to justify the pleasure he gets from the song, feels obliged to pretend is "ironic". The unironically inclined musicologist Will Friedwald dismisses "Girl Talk" as "a patronizing and chauvinistic lyric", so, if you happen to enjoy it, you generally have to do what Michael Feinstein did and pre-emptively apologize. I saw Buddy Greco sing it in New York in the Nineties and, even though he was more or less oblivious to the sensibilities of the delicate, he felt obliged to add over the intro that "the last time I did this song, three women walked out. Swear to God."
In fact, women seem far more relaxed about it than either sensitive new men of the Feinstein generation or retro swingers like Buddy. Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter sang "Girl Talk" back when it was first written, and today so do the younger canaries. Dee Dee Bridgewater does a very striking bilingual version, with a French lyric by Claude Nougaro, and Vanessa Rubin just does Troup's "sexist" "politically incorrect" original in a rueful manner, on the assumption that there may just be a bit of truth in it. And as The Washington Post reported of one of her concerts, "The women in the audience let loose long tones of agreement, knowing full well what girls talk about, especially after the age of 40."
Which is just as well, because that slinky, insinuating Neal Hefti tune is too good to lose. "Girl Talk" is a song of the Sixties that waned in the Seventies and then began a long slow climb back into the repertoire. It can be goofy, cocky, patronizing, sexist, and hopelessly dated, but, if you do it right, those last lines are wonderfully warm and intimate and tender:
So baby, stay
And gab away
But hear me say
Talk to me.
When the last baby boomer dies and the Batman theme eventually fades away, I hope someone somewhere will still be singing "Girl Talk". I wonder if Eartha Kitt's Catwoman ever purred it to Bruce Wayne...
~Last month we launched The Mark Steyn Club. Membership isn't for everybody, and it doesn't affect access to Song of the Week and our other familiar content, but one thing it does give you is the right to gambol and frolic across our comments section. So, if you're a Club member and you have strong views on Batman themes or sexist songs, then feel free to lob a comment away below. For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.