Grammy-winning record producer and 40-year Saturday Night Live veteran Hal Willner has died one day after his 64th birthday. While his official cause of death has yet to be announced, sources close to Willner have confirmed to both Rolling Stone and Variety that he passed away due to coronavirus complications.
The news comes just four days after it was reported that one of Willner’s closest and most frequent collaborators, chanteuse Marianne Faithfull, is in a London hospital after testing positive for COVID-19, and nine days after Willner’s last tweet, in which he sent well-wishes to singer-songwriter John Prine, who also died today due to COVID-19. In his previous post on March 28, Willner alluded to a possible positive COVID-19 diagnosis, tweeting a U.S. map of coronavirus outbreaks with the New York area highlighted in red. “In bed on Upper West Side,” he tweeted. “I always wanted to have a number one, but not this.”
Willner was one of the most eclectic and inventive producers in modern music, working with artists like Faithfull, Laurie Anderson, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, Henry Rollins, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, as well as being instrumental in launching Jeff Buckley’s career. He was renowned for helming many all-star tribute projects, including Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music From Vintage Disney Films (which featured Harry Nilsson, Sinead O’Connor, Bonnie Raitt, the Replacements, Ringo Starr, Michael Stipe, Yma Sumac, and Sun Ra); That's The Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk (featuring Peter Frampton and John Zorn); Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (featuring Sting and Charlie Haden); and Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus (featuring Chuck D, Leonard Cohen, Dr. John, and Elvis Costello).
Willner also oversaw live tribute albums honoring Tim Buckley, Randy Newman, Shel Silverstein, Bill Withers, and Neil Young. At the time of his death, he was reportedly working on a T. Rex tribute compilation featuring U2 and other artists to be announced.
In 1980, Willner joined Saturday Night Live as the series’ music supervisor; his Twitter bio jokingly read, “So-called music producer & Saturday Night Live sketch music guy since Raging Bull debuted, ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ [was] a hit & Kim Kardashian was born. Oy vey.”
As news of Willner’s passing broke Tuesday afternoon, luminaries of both the music and comedy worlds took to social media to express their grief and pay their respects.
The amazingly talented, innovative, eclectic & visionary music producer Hal Willner passed today. A true artist, a lover of music, a devoted father, a good friend & an angel in my life when I really needed one. Hal helped me find the light in the darkness. Devastated by this news
— Tim Robbins (@TimRobbins1) April 7, 2020
Hal Willner Dead: ‘SNL’ Music Mainstay, Record Producer Had COVID-19 – Variety. - so sad. Some people are such a gift to the world. They just put good stuff out there and make our lives better. https://t.co/W07Y1efJgi
— Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) April 7, 2020
Absolutely devastated to get this news about my weird and lovely pal, Hal. We are heartbroken. Love, love, love to Sheila and Arlohttps://t.co/p2cf9CRIrP
— Julia Louis-Dreyfus (@OfficialJLD) April 7, 2020
Hal was a part of so much of the music and pop culture comedy we have all enjoyed for years. He was kind and extremely cool. So sorry to hear this. Sending love to his family. https://t.co/UdecryPuEx
— Ben Stiller (@RedHourBen) April 7, 2020
The effervescent Hal Willner will be missed. Here, entrepreneur David Sefton (for whom Hal produced the multi-artist “Harry Smith” project) and I flank beloved Hal. pic.twitter.com/FbHNugAD5k
— Van Dyke Parks (@thevandykeparks) April 7, 2020
My friend Hal passed away due to the coronavirus. He was a mad genius. He loved everything weird. He always made me feel good in an environment where it was sometimes hard to feel good about yourself. I really love him. I love you Hal. https://t.co/y1ocQIKo6Q
— Taran Killam (@TaranKillam) April 7, 2020
Hal Willner R.I.P. All I can say is thanks for everything. Will miss you friend. https://t.co/iV9RtSwfN1
— Sean Ono Lennon (@seanonolennon) April 7, 2020
Adam, I’m so terribly sorry for your loss. For OUR loss! Hal Willner was one of a small handful of the great archivers, & contextualizers of REAL Americana. Out Where The Buses Don’t Run & the train tracks end. Where sharecroppers & shtetl immigrants, & chain gang escapees JAM. https://t.co/dSxTvqG2G1
— Vernon Reid (@vurnt22) April 7, 2020
One of the most amazing, hilarious, bizarre, creative men I have ever met, Mr. Hal Willner passed today from the virus. He was a great friend and such an inspiring person. He will be missed something awful by all who knew him. #SNL #Hal pic.twitter.com/YdEXoJe7Pj
— Jorma Taccone (@jormataccone) April 7, 2020
I loved Hal. I truly, truly loved that man. He was such a huge part of my time at SNL, and is such an enormous part of the show in general. (To say the VERY least.) He was kind, generous, insanely positive, and so, so talented. Im lucky I got to know him.https://t.co/UYL8uBTJP2
— Chris Kelly (@imchriskelly) April 7, 2020
Hal Willner was one a kind. None there are none of that kind. RIP, Hal.
— Michael McKean (@MJMcKean) April 7, 2020
I loved you, hipster. A truly unheralded genius. https://t.co/RiLR7qtIif
— Richard Lewis (@TheRichardLewis) April 7, 2020
Losing Hal Willner today was the loss of a tireless advocate for good music of every type. We should revel in what he left us. https://t.co/okW8pLcotb
— Peter Holsapple (@PeterHolsapple) April 7, 2020
At SNL you would rush in a panic to Hal Willner's booth to go through a music cue & then not want to leave. Too much fun, too many great stories & the only calm person in the building. He also treasured originality & embodied the spirit of the original SNLhttps://t.co/Cuz5uKE3Am
— Triumph® ᴛʜᴇ ɪɴsᴜʟᴛ ᴄᴏᴍɪᴄ ᴅᴏɢ™ Headquarters💩 (@TriumphICDHQ) April 7, 2020
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