Hal Willner Appreciation: Producer and ‘SNL’ Veteran Kept Music Weird, and Very Cool

Stars ranging from Adam Sandler and Judd Apatow to Michael Stipe and Sean Lennon also pay tribute to the producer known for wonderfully eclectic albums and shows

Hal Willner
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Music producer Hal Willner, who died in New York of complications from the coronavirus, may be best known for the decades he spent working on music behind the scenes at “Saturday Night Live.” But he also accomplished something singular in his lengthy career: He made the tribute album cool. And weird.

Tribute albums, in which a bevy of acolytes and admirers do new versions of songs by a favorite artist, tend to be dull, reverent affairs, in which everybody’s too fond of the songs they’re performing to mess with them much. But Willner would have none of that, and his passion, intelligence and voracious eclecticism led to a string of extraordinary moments.

They started with “Amarcord Nino Rota,” a 1981 album that paid tribute to Rota’s music for Federico Fellini’s films, and which handed those compositions to an adventurous company that ranged from jazz pioneer Carla Bley to Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein.

Then there was “Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus,” with a title track that dropped Elvis Costello into an avant-jazz landscape of music written by Charles Mingus and played on instruments invented by experimental composer Harry Partch, and another song, “Gunslinging Bird or If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats,” that features Public Enemy’s Chuck D reading passages from an unpublished section of Mingus’ autobiography.

And Willner’s two Kurt Weill albums, with Marianne Faithfull, Charlie Haden, Sting, Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey and two versions of “September Song” by Lou Reed, the second even longer, slower and more epochally doomy than the first.

And “Stay Awake,” a tribute to the music of Disney movies that manages to include both Tom Waits croaking his way through a noisy version of the Seven Dwarfs marching song (“Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go”) and an angelic, straight-faced rendition of the Mickey Mouse theme (“now it’s time to say goodbye to all our company”) by Aaron Neville.

And “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” a soundtrack album recorded at a Willner-staged show that included the transgender singer Antony’s staggering version of Cohen’s gentle prayer “If It Be Your Will.”

And the two volumes of “Rogue’s Gallery,” pirate songs and sea chanteys by a huge group of musical rogues, among them Tom Waits and Keith Richards collaborating on a monumental version of “Shenandoah” — the most beautiful melody ever sung by two of the least beautiful voices and transcending any typical definition of beauty in the process.

That’s what Willner did on his albums and in his epic live shows: He threw stuff together that shouldn’t go together — and again and again, it worked brilliantly. You can put all of Willner’s tribute albums into a massive playlist, hit shuffle and you’d have no idea what is coming next, except that it’ll probably be weird and wonderful. (I’m doing just that as I write, and the musical whiplash is invigorating.)

One of his live events, a tribute to Tim Buckley at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn in 1991, launched the career of Buckley’s son, Jeff. Another, “Nevermore: Poems & Stories of Edgar Allan Poe,” led to an album (go listen to Iggy Pop reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Christopher Walken reciting “The Raven!”) and two Halloween shows in Los Angeles.

Another, “The Harry Smith Project” at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus in 2001, started at 8:30 p.m., went on for almost five hours and included three dozen performers, including Costello, Faithfull, Beck, Steve Earle, Phillip Glass, Todd Rundgren and Gavin Friday, all singing strange old folk and blues songs — and when it ended past 1 a.m. with the Band’s keyboardist, Garth Hudson, serenading everyone with an organ solo, a good chunk of the audience could have stuck around for more.

After news of Willner’s death spread on Tuesday afternoon, Twitter was filled with tributes from musicians like R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Joan Jett, Sean Ono Lennon, Van Dyke Parks, Peter Holsapple, Vernon Reid and Petra Haden, as well as just about everybody who crossed his path at “Saturday Night Live,” including Adam Sandler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Judd Apatow and Ben Stiller.

“Some people are such a gift to the world,” Apatow wrote. “They just put good stuff out there and make our lives better.”

“Weird isn’t in right now,” Willner told the New York Times in 2017. But weird was always in in his world, and he did his damnedest to make sure it’ll remain so in ours.

See more tributes to Willner below: