Hal Willner Getty 2020

Hal Willner: A Tribute To The Wild Card Producer

Working with everyone from Metallica to Sonic Youth, Hal’s influence on alternative music is unmistakable

The American producer, arranger and composer Hal Willner has passed away having contracted symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.

Among his many achievements, Hal was the co-producer of Lulu, the album released in October 2011 by Lou Reed and Metallica.

Metallica were among the many artists paying their respects to the maverick 64 year-old producer, sharing the below message on Instagram:

The entire Metallica family was shocked and saddened to hear of producer, writer, and composer Hal Willner’s passing earlier today. He was a truly inspirational collaborator, someone who through his unique combination of musical knowledge and warm personality, invigorated every project he touched, including co-producing our very own collaboration with Lou Reed, 2011’s Lulu; Hal expertly helped to guide us all to a project we loved, and remain fiercely proud of, to this day.

His breadth and scope within the world of music was incredible. From being the sketch music producer of Saturday Night Live since 1981 to producing albums for Lou, Marianne Faithfull, William S. Burroughs and Laurie Anderson, Hal’s love and appreciation of all styles of cutting-edge music and art made him a man in high demand.”

Drummer Lars Ulrich added his own tribute to the post, stating:

I will always treasure the time I spent with Hal in those most inspiring and collaborative environments. He was such a warm, open, and communicative person, and as Lou’s right-hand man, he was absolutely essential in pushing Lulu forward. I’ll never forget him, and I know I speak for the entire Metallica family when I say he will be greatly missed.” 

In a career that spanned over 45 years, Hal’s musical work cut across genres at will and reflected his deep love of music.

Born in Philadelphia in 1956, he moved to New York at the age of 18 and fell in love with the city’s outsider culture. Initially finding a job in music distribution, Hal soon moved into studio work when he met veteran producer Joel Dorn. Joel soon became his mentor and allowed Hal to assist on sessions by Roberta Flack and Sun Ra.

Musically, Hal embraced the city’s emerging underground punk scene and the work of the beat poets as much as he did the worlds of jazz, classical composition, folk and vintage Disney soundtracks. It was his ability to draw on the common threads of these differing influences that would define so many of the projects he worked on.

As the 1980s dawned, he developed the idea of celebrating the work of musicians he admired by creating a series of tribute albums – the first of which was Amacord Nino Rota, dedicated to Italian soundtrack composer Nino Rota who scored the films of Frederico Fellini and, later, the first two instalments of The Godfather. The album featured Blondie duo Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, as well as the cream of emerging American jazz talent.

Hal’s eclectic musical outlook was further underlined on 1990’s Dead City Radio, the album that he produced for beat poet William S. Burroughs, where the backing was provided by the likes of Sonic Youth, John Cale and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. When he worked with William again six years later on the Spare Ass Annie And Other Tales album, this time he enlisted San Francisco hip-hop agitators The Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy for the project.

1992’s Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus, his tribute to jazz composer Charles Mingus, saw him recruit an even wider cast of collaborators that included Henry Rollins, Chuck D, Keith Richards, Dr John, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, Diamanda Galas and Elvis Costello, among several others.

His musical tributes extended beyond the studio on to the stage, beginning with 1991’s Greetings From Tim Buckley event which he hosted in Brooklyn to commemorate the work of the late American songwriter. It was Hal who invited Tim’s son Jeff Buckley to perform a number of his father’s songs, and who set the then-unknown musician on his own path to stardom.

An exuberant presence on the New York scene, Hal forged a firm friendship with Lou Reed from the mid-’90s onwards, co-producing a number of his albums – Ecstasy, The Raven and 2008’s Berlin: Live At St Ann’s Warehouse among them. 

It was that relationship that led to his work on Lulu – the most controversial and coruscating of Metallica’s recorded output, which itself bore Hal’s unmistakable stamp.

Following his death on the evening of April 7, 2020, Hal was described by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore as a wild card, as wild as the wild ones he rode with”. A fitting tribute to a man who often shunned the limelight but who contributed so much to music itself…

Everyone at Kerrang! sends their hearts out to Hal’s friends, family and loved ones.

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Posted on April 8th 2020, 11:53a.m.
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