Harold “Hal” Willner, a record producer best known for his unorthodox approach to tribute compilations and as the longtime music director for “Saturday Night Live,” died April 7 from complications related to COVID-19. He was 64.
Willner was born in Philadelphia to Etta and Carl Willner in 1956. Around that time, Willner’s father teamed up with his brother — both Auschwitz survivors — to buy a floundering Merion Station deli.
The deli was Hymie’s.
And while they sold it in 1976, the intervening years saw the restaurant become a landmark of this area’s secular Jewish culture.
That in and of itself likely would have been sufficient to merit an obituary — for two decades, Willner was the scion to an empire of cured meat and smoked fish. But the life he went on to lead and the public and poignant outpouring of sorrow and tribute that followed his death have earned at-length treatment from every major national outlet.
And yet, outside of entertainment circles, where he was lauded as a visionary and sometimes even a genius, Willner wasn’t that widely known.
Growing up in Bala Cynwyd, he worked at Hymie’s, attended Lower Merion High School and got his first taste of just how idiosyncratic his music sensibility would become by listening to the free-form programming of Philadelphia’s WDAS-FM radio.
After moving to New York City to attend New York University in the mid-’70s, he landed his first legit music gig working for former WDAS personality Joel Dorn, who by then was climbing the ladder at Atlantic Records as a producer. Under Dorn, Willner worked on records by Roberta Flack and Bette Midler; in Dorn, Willner found a mentor and someone with shared sensibilities, artistic and otherwise.
When Dorn died in 2007, his son, the bass player and vocalist Adam Dorn, told NPR a story of the time Willner introduced Dorn to his cinematic idol, the Italian director Federico Fellini.
Dorn asked Fellini for his autograph but didn’t have anything suitable close at hand for Fellini to sign, so he just pulled the first thing he could from his pocket and handed it over. Fellini ended up signing a certified letter from the IRS to Dorn indicating that he owed back taxes.
According to Dorn’s son, the autograph remained a prized possession and the back taxes were never paid.
Friends and colleagues say that story illustrated Willner’s signature style of making musical matches: he took disparate things he liked, situated them in an arena outside of their respective comfort zones and then hit record.
His tastes were far-reaching and esoteric, avant-garde and populist, and like few others he attempted to reconcile the perceived distance between high-brow and low-brow and deconstruct what he saw as the contrivance of genre almost by sheer force of will.
He paired Leonard Cohen, the “Godfather of Gloom” with Sonny Rollins, the ebullient hard-bop tenor saxophonist and managed to convince some of the biggest rock stars in the world, Bono and Sting, to sing old seafaring ballads.
Somehow, musicians trusted him implicitly.
“He gets musicians together who wouldn’t work together,” pianist Terry Adams of fusionists NRBQ told The New York Times in 2017. “And it always works.”
Always may be a stretch.
Some of Willner’s productions are sublime: Steely Dan’s Donald Fagan with jazz guitarist Steve Khan playing on Willner’s Thelonious Monk tribute album and Wynton and Branford Marsalis playing jazz arrangements of Nino Rota’s Fellini film scores. With others, it’s tempting to view Willner as a musical Dr. Frankenstein — for example, Tom Waits’ take on “Heigh-Ho” from Willner’s notoriously disorienting Disney tribute album.
But the respect musicians had for Willner, who wasn’t himself an instrumentalist, is extraordinary.
“He was a genius and a great cat who loved music, jazz in particular,” said the venerable saxophonist George Young, who first met Willner in the mid-’70s when “SNL” hired him to accompany Steve Martin and the Blues Brothers. “He had the most uncanny way to find and include the perfect ‘file music’ to accompany the various period sketches the cast would do, always nailing it.”
Current “SNL” cast member Kate McKinnon affirmed Young’s take, saying that Willner’s music selection was often the difference between a joke that landed and one that didn’t.
McKinnon’s message was one of several delivered by cast members past and present that aired during an extended tribute to Willner at the end of last weekend’s remotely produced episode.
The tribute’s piece de resistance came when a who’s who of former cast members including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon sang a rendition of “Perfect Day,” a song by one of Willner’s closest friends, Lou Reed.
Willner worked on “Saturday Night Live” for 40 years; he worked the final in-studio show on March 7 before production was shut down due to the coronavirus.
He is survived by his wife Sheila Rogers, a producer of “The Late Late Show with James Corden”; their 15-year old son Arlo; sister Chari Willner McClary; and father Carl Willner.
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