Hal Willner, who died at the age of 64 this week of complications brought on by COVID-19, had the kind of career you don’t sum up in a single sentence.
Willner’s steadiest gig over the years was with Saturday Night Live, where he oversaw music for the show’s sketches. He also produced albums for a certain type of artist: Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Marianne Faithfull, Lucinda Williams, like that. And from 1988-90 he was the music coordinator for Night Music, a program that brought musicians like Sun Ra and Sonic Youth to network television and orchestrated match-ups like Sonny Rollins performing with Leonard Cohen.
But Willner’s greatest legacy may be the invention of the modern multi-artist tribute album—though few of the executive producers who followed his lead paired artists as imaginatively with material as he did. Released in 1988, the best known of these tributes is Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films, and Willner’s passing gives us a good excuse to post the Replacements staggering high-handedly through the theme song for the 101 Dalmatians villainess “Cruella de Vil.”
(There's also this, uh, looser live version, which Paul Westerberg intros as coming from "this fuckin' Disney record we totally got tricked into doing.")
Even better than the Disney tribute, however, were two of its predecessors. In 1984, Willner assembled That’s The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk, in which rockers like Donald Fagen, jazz performers like Steve Lacy, and experimentalists like John Zorn all honored the genius. And a year later, on Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, a roster of artists including Sting and Lou Reed adapted Brecht-Weill for post-war sensibilities. Willner understood that a tribute isn’t simply about paying your respects to an artist—it’s about encouraging performers to discover new aspects of the material by embracing their own style.
It was on the Weill tribute that Willner first worked with Marianne Faithfull (who, incidentally, is also currently hospitalized with the virus), and he went on to produce two of the finest albums of her career. On Strange Weather (1987), he helped the singer establish the persona of weathered art-song chanteuse, with songs by Leadbelly and Tom Waits, and revisited the Stones song that first brought her into the public eye, “As Tears Go By.” Willner and Faithfull reunited for the brilliant Easy Come Easy Go in 2009, with material from the Decemberists and Dolly Parton.
At the time of his death, Willner was reportedly finishing up a tribute to T. Rex that I hope we get to hear. But regardless of the project he was working on, Hal Willner’s greatest gift was for gathering musicians together in new and interesting ways. At a time when it’s harder to gather together than ever, that’s a gift worth cultivating.