Celebrating the mad genius of music producer Hal Willner, who has died, likely of COVID-19

Two days ago, we lost a musical mastermind whose name few people outside of the music business may know: Hal Willner. Willner was a musical producer on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s and also produced records for Marianne Faithfull, Lou Reed, Bill Frisell, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Laurie Anderson, and others.

I fell in love with the quirky brilliance of Hal Willner in the late 1980s through the Lorne Michaels' program, Night Music (originally called Sunday Night). Hosted by Jools Holland and David Sanborn, this weekly music variety show immediately stole my heart (and that of many other music nerds) with its laid back, Devil may care style, its eccentric and staggeringly broad line-up of performers, and the epic jams that ended the shows.

Brooklyn Vegan has put together a round-up of 33 of the most epic Night Music episodes and performances. They write:

Having John Zorn, Marianne Faithfull and Aaron Neville in the same hour. Just to have all those emotions make sense together.”

John Zorn, Marianne Faithfull and Aaron Neville was an actual episode, by the way. Sonic Youth made their national television debut on Night Music — on an episode that also featured Diamanda Galas, the Indigo Girls, Daniel Lanois and Evan Lurie and Marc Ribot (covering The Stooges) — and so did Pixies who were on a S2 episode that also featured Sun Ra, singer-songwriter Syd Straw and dance music producer Arthur Baker.

More: Eric Clapton jammed alongside fellow bluesman Robert Cray and Twin Peaks chanteuse Julee Cruise. Lou Reed & John Cale played with Harry Connick Jr and Paul Shaffer. Leonard Cohen joined jazz legend Sonny Rollins, Was (Not Was) and voice-over actor/jazz artist Ken Nordine. Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed Mick Harvey shared the stage with The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Belgian jazz musician Toots Thielemans. The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir joined Warren Zevon, John Lurie, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and avant garde duo Bongwater (Ann Magnuson & Kramer). It goes on. This was Willner’s magic.

I watched and recorded every episode of Sunday Night/Night Music on VHS tape. I can't bear to part with them, even though I haven't had a VCR in over a decade. As Brooklyn Vegan puts it, these shows presented "things you’d never believe actually happened if there wasn’t video of it." Maybe that's why I've been reluctant to let them go.

Thanks for all of the inspiration, Hal Willner. Your eccentric muse will be sorely missed.

Here are a few of the 33 episodes and excerpts of Night Music.

And here is one of my favorite performances they didn't include:

Read the rest on Brooklyn Vegan

Bonus Track: More Hal Willner genius. He talked bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley into recording the Velvet Underground's "White Light, White Heat:"

Image: Screengrab