Hal Willner — the respected producer who worked with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull, was a long-time Saturday Night Live staffer and compiled a series of eccentric all-star tribute albums — died Monday at the age of 64. A rep for Willner confirmed the producer’s death to Rolling Stone. While a cause of death has yet to be announced, a source close to Willner tells Rolling Stone he was suffering from symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.
Born in Philadelphia in 1956, Willner arrived in New York in 1974 and soon began working for producer Joel Dorn on albums by Bette Midler and Roberta Flack. In 1980, he had the idea of producing an album of jazz covers of music from Fellini films. Soon enough, he had recruited Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, along with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, for the album, called Amarcord Nino Rota.
That acclaimed project would be the first of many. For similar tribute albums to Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and the music from Disney films, Willner recruited the likes of Keith Richards, Sting, Tom Waits, Ringo Starr, Elvis Costello, the Replacements, and Iggy Pop.
Since 1980, Willner had chosen the music for skits on Saturday Night Live, and he also produced or co-produced albums by Lou Reed (Ecstasy, The Raven and Lulu) and Marianne Faithfull (Before the Poison among them). Willner and Reed were especially close, and Willner oversaw a box set of Reed’s solo albums released after Reed’s death. “We were kind of best friends,” Willner said in 2017. “He didn’t like to be alone. There was not a night that he didn’t go out. He knew all about restaurants and plays, bands. He’d be at any club. He did not accept that he was going to die. Bowie did. Leonard [Cohen] did. Lou just ranted. He just loved being alive.”
Willner also played a pivotal role in the career of Jeff Buckley, when he invited Buckley to a 1991 tribute concert in New York for Buckley’s father Tim — an event that introduced the younger Buckley to the New York music community and effectively launched his career.
Willner, who had an impish charm and was beloved by many in the business, had most recently produced a tribute album honoring Marc Bolan and T. Rex that included contributions from Nick Cave, Kesha, Father John Misty, Lucinda Williams, and Joan Jett. He lived in New York and was partnered with former Rolling Stone writer Sheila Rogers.
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