Hal Willner, Music Producer Who Melded Styles, Dies at 64
He was best known for assembling diverse casts of performers to play a slightly off-center body of work, and for obliterating the lines between genres.
By John Leland
April 8, 2020
The record and concert producer Hal Willner at his studio in Manhattan in 2017. “All these styles of music, I thought they were different,” a colleague said. “Hal just saw it all as one thing.”Andrew White for The New York Times
Hal Willner had a dream of connecting musicians who couldn’t possibly work together to play music that didn’t obviously suit them, and he somehow made it all work, creating albums and concerts that obliterated the lines between rock, jazz, country and soul, or between the mainstream and the avant-garde. And then on Tuesday, the experiment came to an end.
Mr. Willner — matchmaker, yenta, fan, longtime music coordinator for the sketches on “Saturday Night Live” — had symptoms consistent with the coronavirus and died in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he lived with his wife, Sheila Rogers, a producer of “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” and their 15-year-old son, Arlo. He was 64.
The death was confirmed by a spokesman, Blake Zidell.
Mr. Willner was best known for assembling diverse casts of performers, including Rufus Wainwright and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, to play a slightly off-center body of work, such as the Disney songbook or the music of Nino Rota, who scored Federico Fellini’s movies. The music found a devoted following, but not breakout success.
Maybe you’ve dreamed of hearing U2 with the horn section from Sun Ra’s Arkestra in a one-time-only performance at the Apollo Theater. If so, Hal Willner made your dream come true.
Or Scarlett Johansson performing with Courtney Love? Ditto.
He was obsessed with Soupy Sales and Laurel and Hardy, with old radio broadcasts, with the Holocaust memories of his father. And he jammed these obsessions into a small Midtown Manhattan recording studio stuffed to the rafters with puppets and memorabilia.
“These were his talismans, his vestments, because his heart was like a reliquary,” said Tom Waits, a friend of 45 years.
Lots of people own Popeye dolls. Mr. Willner’s were a gift from the punk-rock progenitor Richard Hell.
Mr. Willner was born on April 6, 1956, in Philadelphia, to Carl and Etta Willner. His father and his uncle ran a delicatessen called Hymie’s. The brothers were the only members of the family to survive the Holocaust, and their experiences became a part of Hal’s childhood.
“It explains everything,” Mr. Willner said. “I just retreated into television and records, and that was reality for me.”
He moved to New York in 1974 to attend New York University, drawn by the sleazy Times Square milieu of “Midnight Cowboy.” New York did not disappoint.
The jazz scene was evolving, punk rock was just coming together, comedy was becoming more experimental, the city was heading toward fiscal crisis. Mr. Willner wanted all of it.
“The city was rough,” he said. “It had a smell to it.” But it was also, he said, “still an era where most people that you’d meet — what’s the line? The people who didn’t fit in anywhere else would move here.”
For Mr. Willner it was home.
He was apprenticed to the record producer Joel Dorn, left college, drove a taxi and got an idea: What if the jazz musicians he loved recorded the music from Fellini movies?
Steven Bernstein, a jazz trumpeter and arranger, remembered discovering the 1981 album that eventually blossomed, “Amarcord Nino Rota.” “This was everything we loved, all in one place,” Mr. Bernstein said. “All these styles of music, I thought they were different. Hal just saw it all as one thing. It was completely revolutionary.”
Mr. Bernstein became a regular in what Mr. Willner called his “renegade band of broken toys.” As their relationship deepened, Mr. Bernstein said, they talked often about people they had lost: Lou Reed; Levon Helm of the Band; Robert Altman, on whose film “Kansas City” they had collaborated. “He carried a lot of pain with him,” Mr. Bernstein said.
In 1980 Mr. Willner joined “Saturday Night Live,” where his job choosing recorded music for the sketches gave him a steady income and a chance to bring his esoteric enthusiasms to a large audience.
Albums followed, and concerts reimagining the work of Leonard Cohen, Kurt Weill, Bill Withers and Charles Mingus. He worked with the theater director Robert Wilson, including on a 2010 production in Poland on the 30th anniversary of the Solidarity movement. When Lech Walesa, the movement’s leader, walked onstage, an orchestra of Polish musicians played Sun Ra’s “Watusi.”
The actor and musician Tim Robbins remembered that during a low point in his life, Mr. Willner pushed him to get back into music, recording him with a band and then taking him to see some favorites.
“He curated a trip for me at a time I needed it,” Mr. Robbins said. “We went to Lisbon to see Leonard Cohen, then to another part of Portugal to see Lou Reed, and then to Prague to see Tom Waits. He dreams of creating something that hasn’t been seen before.”
Mr. Willner was both producer and close friend to Mr. Reed, who died of liver disease in 2013. In a statement, Laurie Anderson, who was married to Mr. Reed, called Mr. Willner one of her dearest friends — “hilarious, so tender and compassionate,” and “a soulful prince.”
He wanted to see everything, hear everything and he was devoted to his friends, said David Johansen, a friend and frequent collaborator. Usually someone he knew was performing somewhere in town, Mr. Johansen said, and Mr. Willner was there.
When Mr. Johansen performed at the Café Carlyle in January, filmed by Martin Scorsese, Mr. Willner attended every night. “He complained that he wasn’t seated with the beautiful people,” Mr. Johansen joked.
In recent years, Mr. Willner would accompany his concert performances, reading poems and other Willner-type esoterica, such as a letter that Lenny Bruce wrote to his mother, orating with an impossibly dry sense of humor — a soft man with a crusty affect.
“He was an O.G. hipster,” Mr. Johansen said.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Willner is survived by his younger sister, Chari McClary, and his father, who is 95.
He had recently completed work on a tribute album to the British rock star Marc Bolan, featuring a cast of hundreds. He told Mr. Bernstein it was going to be the album that finally made him as a producer.
In his dreams, he still had further to go.