Hal Willner has died from complications with coronavirus, as Variety reports. He was 64. He has been Saturday Night Live’s sketch music producer since 1980 and was also well-known for the star-studded tribute compilations and events that he put together over the years.
His first such compilation came in 1981, Amarcord Nino Rota, a tribute to the Italian composer Nino Rota, who made music for Fellini and included contributions from Wynton Marsalis and Debbie Harry. In 1988, he put out a tribute to music from vintage Disney films featured contributions from Ringo Starr, Michael Stipe, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, the Replacements, Sinéad O’Connor, and many more. Other compilations would follow through the years, all with big names attached, from Leonard Cohen to Chuck D to Elvis Costello to Henry Rollins.
Over the years, he also produced albums for Marianne Faithfull (who was diagnosed with COVID-19 herself last week), Lou Reed (Ecstasy, which recently turned 20), Laurie Anderson, and Lucinda Williams.
In 2017, Willner was profiled in The New York Times, where he mentioned that he was putting together a T. Rex tribute album with contributions from U2, Kesha, and more, though that has not been released yet.
In that profile, Willner talked a little bit about his producing philosophy: “You create a strong framework, and you let people do what they do inside the framework, and watch over it. If it sounds good, let it go. A lot of producers don’t do that.” He also reflected on his long career supporting some all-time greats: “In a weird way,” he said, “I did do everything that I set out to do moving to New York. That’s incredible. So what can I possibly complain about?”