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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Hal Willner--An appreciation

"Saturday Night Live"s tribute to Hal Willner

Most popular music producers necessarily take a backseat to the artists they produce, with but a few—Phil Spector, George Martin, Quincy Jones come to mind—establishing themselves and their names as artists in their own right.

Producer Hal Wilner, who died April 7 from the coronavirus, was such an artist, though he differed from the rest, whose work, if not hit-driven, was hit-laden. Rather, Willner was motivated by eclectic concept, mainstream success be damned.

But his fresh, signature interpretations of music from the likes of Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk, Walt Disney and cartoon composer Carl Stalling in fact attracted supremely commercial artists like Ringo Starr, Sting, Keith Richards and Bonnie Raitt, critics’ choices including Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Lou Reed, and revered veterans including NRBQ, David Johansen and Sandra Bernhard.

Willner extended his focus on highest music quality over sales-chart quantity into the realm of concert event production, assembling similar multi-artist programs in honoring such varied artists as Randy Newman, Tim Buckley, Bill Withers, Shel Silverstein, Nino Rota, Doc Pomus, and the Freedom Riders.

And he was the beloved, longtime music coordinator for Saturday Night Live, which closed Saturday night’s show with past and present cast members sharing anecdotes and singing Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” in a memorial tribute—Reed having been not only a good friend but a frequent collaborator on Willner compilations, as well as his own albums.

Willner’s death quickly brought forth thousands of tweets and Facebook posts, many from artists he worked with or affected, among them Richard Lewis, Sean Ono Lennon, Adam Sandler, Van Dyke Parks, Ben Stiller, Michael Stipe, Joan Jett and Judd Apatow. As an instantly established Hal Willner Appreciation Society Facebook page (“for all those who appreciate the genius of the late, great music producer”) stated, he was one of the “most eclectic and original producers in contemporary music, helming a series of wildly ambitious concept albums and live shows which tapped the talents of artists running the gamut from pop to jazz to the avant-garde.”

Elvis Costello sings "Lost in the Stars" backed by the Brodsky Quartet, from Hal Willner's "September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill"

On his website, Elvis Costello was particularly poignant.

“Words are a very poor carriage for the way I am feeling today at the sudden passing of my dear friend, Hal Willner,” Costello wrote, adding that “nobody could put themselves to the front of a line” of Willner’s many friends.

“Listeners are sometimes confused by the role of a record producer, as many of the most successful or infamous producers apply their own vision to the music like a veneer or lens through which the original intentions may be only dimly perceived,” Costello continued.

“Hal’s approach better resembled the beautiful chaos of a childhood chemistry set, in which all of the substances and elements were mixed with joyous but determined abandon to render colored smoke, a delightful explosion, or something of unlikely and uncommon beauty.”

Costello further noted that the music collaborations that Willner produced for the late-1980s television show Night Music were the template for his own late-2000s series Spectacle: Elvis Costello with.... He marveled over a recent visit to Willner’s studio (where he listened to his copy of an obscure Motown album by English actor Albert Finney), and vividly likened the studio to “a living collage of his love of music, art and other fascinations: Record albums, artwork, puppets [and] tiny books of arcane facts once owned by Stan Laurel were among his wonders.”

By email, a similarly grief-stricken Terry Adams of NRBQ said that Willner just last week had sent him a homemade video he’d put together, which showed that even in the midst of the globally spreading virus, he retained his fun sense of humor: He employed his Three Stooges puppets in acting out NRBQ’s “Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard”--which is based on the Stooges’ classic 1934 Men in Black short film routine--and suggested that the hilarious antics of Doctors Larry Fine and Moe and Curly Howard are what the world needs now.

“Excuse me for saying this,” said Adams, “but I don’t want to live in a world without Hal Willner in it.”

NRBQ's "Whistle While You Work," from Hal Willner's "Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films"



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