Hal Willner (1956 – April 6, 2020) was an American music producer working in recording, films, TV and live events. He was best known for assembling tribute albums and events featuring a wide variety of artists and musical styles (jazz, classical, rock, Tin Pan Alley). His first tribute album was Amarcord Nino Rota in 1981.
In the late 1970s he worked under record producer Joel Dorn, credited as Associate Producer on Leon Redbone's albums Double Time and Champagne Charlie, and The Neville Brothers' Fiyo on the Bayou. Willner was the sketch music producer of Saturday Night Live since 1981. He was also a producer of the TV program Sunday Night hosted by David Sanborn.
Willner produced albums for Marianne Faithfull, Lou Reed, Bill Frisell, Steven Bernstein, William S. Burroughs, Gavin Friday, Lucinda Williams, Laurie Anderson and Allen Ginsberg, among others. He produced a live tribute concert to Tim Buckley, that ultimately launched the career of Tim's son Jeff. He released one album under his own name: Whoops, I'm an Indian, which featured audio samples from 78 rpm records from the early-mid 20th century.
Following earlier stagings (see list below), in January 2010 Willner produced his pirate-themed concert event Rogue's Gallery for the Sydney Festival. The multinational cast included Marianne Faithfull, Todd Rundgren, Tim Robbins, Gavin Friday, Peter Garrett, Baby Gramps, David Thomas, Sarah Blasko, Katy Steele, Peaches, Glenn Richards, Liam Finn, Camille O'Sullivan, Kami Thompson and Marry Waterson.
Willner died from complications of COVID-19 on April 6, 2020, at age 64.
- Amarcord Nino Rota (1981) Willner's first tribute album salutes Italian composer Nino Rota, and features interpretation of his music for Federico Fellini films by jazz and pop musicians including: Wynton and Branford Marsalis; Carla Bley; Muhal Richard Abrams; Bill Frisell; Steve Lacy; Jaki Byard; and Deborah Harry
- That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk (1984) features musicians ranging from John Zorn to Peter Frampton
- Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (1985) features musicians ranging from Sting to Charlie Haden
- Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films (1988) features performances of songs from Walt Disney movies by a large cast of artists ranging from Sun Ra to Michael Stipe, Ringo Starr, Yma Sumac and Ken Nordine
- Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus (1992) is a tribute to Charles Mingus, featuring instruments designed and built by American composer Harry Partch, on loan from his estate. Performers include Bill Frisell, Vernon Reid, Henry Rollins, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Don Byron, Henry Threadgill, Gary Lucas, Bobby Previte, Robert Quine, Leonard Cohen, Diamanda Galás, Chuck D, Francis Thumm, and Elvis Costello
- September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill (1995) re-creation of the previous Weill tribute as a Canadian TV special directed by Larry Weinstein. A CD was issued including performances by Nick Cave and P J Harvey. The list of performers on this recording is quite different from the list of performers on his previous Weill tribute. Some of those that are on both tributes, such as Lou Reed and Charlie Haden, provide new recordings of the pieces they contributed previously. Many of the songs included are the same, although the new recording tends toward more historical recordings (Lotte Lenya, Bertolt Brecht, and Weill himself), while the previous one tended toward more avant-garde tributes.
- Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen (2003) another Larry Weinstein TV program. The CD includes performances by Rufus Wainwright, Debbie Harry, David Johansen, Eric Mingus and Sandra Bernhard
- Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (2006) soundtrack for Lian Lunson's documentary film about Willner's Leonard Cohen tribute event Came So Far for Beauty
- Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys (2006) 2x double CD includes performers ranging from Bono to Van Dyke Parks.
- The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited (2006). Recorded at Hal Willner's Harry Smith Project events in London (1999), Brooklyn (1999) and LA (2001), plus a DVD documentary.
- Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys (2013) is a compilation album of sea shanties and the follow-up to 2006's Rogue's Gallery.
Live tribute events
- Greetings from Tim Buckley (Brooklyn 1991)
- Nevermore: Poems & Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (Brooklyn 1995), which led to the album Closed on Account of Rabies (1997), then Hal Willner's Halloween Show: Never Bet the Devil your Head (Los Angeles 2002), then Closed on Account of Rabies: Poems and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (Los Angeles 2001)
- Tribute to Allen Ginsberg (Los Angeles)
- Marquis de Sade's writings (New York 1998)
- The Harry Smith Project (London 1999, Los Angeles 2001)
- The Doc Pomus Project (New York City 2001)
- Came So Far for Beauty, An Evening of Songs by Leonard Cohen (Brooklyn 2003, Brighton 2004, Sydney 2005, Dublin 2006)
- Dream Comfort Memory Despair: The Songs of Neil Young (Brooklyn 2004), followed by Hal Willner's Neil Young Project (Vancouver 2010 Olympics)
- Perfect Partners: Nino Rota & Federico Fellini (London 2004)
- Shock and Awe: The Songs of Randy Newman (Los Angeles 2004)
- Let's Eat: Feasting on The Firesign Theatre (Los Angeles 2004)
- Forest of No Return: Hal Willner Presents Vintage Disney Songbook (London 2007), followed by Stay Awake: 20th anniversary of the classic recording of Disney songs (Brooklyn 2008) (Hal Willner's Stay Awake at UCLA was scheduled for October 30, 2008, but was cancelled due to unavailability of some performers)
- Rogue's Gallery (NYC 2007, Dublin 2008, London 2008, Gateshead 2008, Sydney 2010)
- Hal Willner's Bill Withers Project (Brooklyn 2008)
- Begats: Readings of the Work of Burroughs, DeSade & Poe (Brooklyn 2009)
- Gotta Right to Sing the Blues? Music and Readings from A Fine Romance, Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (NYC 2010)
- An Evening with Gavin Friday and Friends (New York, Carnegie Hall, 2009)
- Hal Willner's Freedom Riders Project (Brooklyn 2011)
- Shelebration: The Works of Shel Silverstein (New York 2011)
- Hal Willner’s Amarcord Nino Rota (London, The Barbican, 2013; New York, Lincoln Center, 2018)
- The Bells: A Day Long Celebration of Lou Reed (New York, July 30, 2016)
Spoken word recordings
With the increasing prevalence of tribute albums in the late 1980s (such as Red Hot + Blue), Willner decided to turn his attention to spoken word recordings.
- Dead City Radio (1990) by William Burroughs has musical backing by Sonic Youth, Donald Fagen, John Cale and others.
- Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales (1996) by William Burroughs with music by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy.
- The Lion for Real by Allen Ginsberg features musical accompaniment by Bill Frisell, Philip Glass, Paul McCartney and others.
- Closed on Account of Rabies (1997) consists of readings of Edgar Allan Poe poems and tales by Iggy Pop and others. As Willner's only "spoken word" tribute album, it fits in the context of his other music-based tributes.
- In with the Out Crowd (1998) by poet Bob Holman.
- Let the Buyer Beware (2004) is an authoritative six CD box set of historic recordings by the comedian Lenny Bruce.
Film related projects
A more complete list of Willner's contributions to films and television can be found at www.imdb.com (see external links).
- The Carl Stalling Project: Two CDs of music composed and/or arranged by Carl Stalling for Warner Brothers cartoons. The first CD was released in 1990; "Volume 2" was released in 1995.
- The soundtracks to Robert Altman's films Short Cuts (1993) and Kansas City (1996).
- Music Supervisor or Producer for The Million Dollar Hotel (Dir. Wim Wenders, 2000), Finding Forester (Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2000), Gangs of New York (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2002), Talladega Nights (Dir. Adam McKay, 2006), and others.