STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In the days when more people kept track of phone numbers on little cards on their desks, people called Hal Willner, the man with the golden Rolodex. He was a music producer, and he could call Elvis Costello or Bono and bring them into a project on a moment's notice. Willner was a music coordinator for "Saturday Night Live." He was the creative force behind tribute albums and concerts. He died from COVID-19 this past April while working on his final project, which has just been released. Allyson McCabe reports.
ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: Hal Willner was a shy, quirky kid from Philadelphia, the son of a Holocaust survivor who turned to music and popular culture to take him to a happier place.
CHRIS STEIN: His knowledge was tremendous of culture and of music and of art - old TV commercials and "The Three Stooges" and just weird old stuff that he was fond of.
MCCABE: That's Chris Stein, who co-founded the new wave band Blondie. Willner had arrived in New York at 18 and fell in love with the city's gritty glamour. By the time he met Stein around 1980, he was already cooking up his first dream project, a tribute to Nino Rota, who composed the music for Federico Fellini's films.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHARON FREEMAN AND DEBORAH HARRY SONG, "LA DOLCE VITA SUITE")
MCCABE: For a suite from "La Dolce Vita," Willner paired such jazz notables as Sharon Freeman and Muhal Richard Abrams with Stein and Debbie Harry.
DEBBIE HARRY: Oh, no, no, no, no. He proposed it, and it happened to be one of my favorites.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA DOLCE VITA SUITE")
MCCABE: Seamlessly blending disparate musical styles and personalities became Willner's trademark. He produced the tribute album to Disney music that paired the Sun Ra Arkestra...
(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY NILSSON AND SUN RA AND THE ARKESTRA'S "MEDLEY FIVE (TECHNICOLOR PACHYDERMS)")
MCCABE: ...With Harry Nilsson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEDLEY FIVE (TECHNICOLOR PACHYDERMS)")
HARRY NILSSON: (Singing) Zippity doo-dah. Zippity-ay (ph).
MCCABE: Willner's Thelonious Monk album cast jazz saxophonist Gary Windo with rock musician Todd Rundgren.
(SOUNDBITE OF TODD RUNDGREN AND GARY WINDO SONG, "CALL FROM THE GRAVE")
MCCABE: The producer's eclectic tastes were grounded in his childhood memories, as Willner told NPR in 1988.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
HAL WILLNER: I was born in 1956. So when I was growing up listening to music, my tastes changed all the time. When I was a kid, it was rock 'n' roll. Then it was jazz. Then it was folk. Then it was classical.
MCCABE: Willner's approach was always about experimentation, says Todd Rundgren.
TODD RUNDGREN: The idea was just don't do what you would normally do. Don't ape the original. Think as revolutionary in a way as you possibly can.
MCCABE: Rundgren is on Willner's final project, "Angelheaded Hipster," a tribute to the late Marc Bolan. Rundgren collaborated with Steely Dan's Donald Fagen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLANET QUEEN")
TODD RUNDGREN AND DONALD FAGEN: (Singing) The planet queen, perchance to dream. She used my head like an exploder, the planet queen. The world's the same. I am to blame. She used my head like a revolver.
MCCABE: Hal Willner's longtime manager Rachel Fox, who supervised the completion of the album, says Willner approached each project almost as though he were casting a film or theater production.
RACHEL FOX: With the live shows, with the albums, he always talked about casting. Yes, there was the - who are we going to get to do this song? And, of course, the label is going to say, we want this super famous person and that super famous person. But he saw it as a story to tell, and the cast would always involve different characters.
MCCABE: One of the artists Willner called for the "Angelheaded Hipster" project was Helga Davis, who has primarily worked in avant-garde theater. Willner encouraged her to approach Bolan as a poet, not the glam rocker best known for "Bang A Gong."
HELGA DAVIS: The thing that is so dope is the lyrics. We make feasties of the beasties, but the beasties just live in the wild. You know that you're slower now, and you were faster when you were a child.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORGAN BLUES")
DAVIS: (Singing) You know you're slower now, and you were faster when you were a child.
MCCABE: The album was slated for release this past May to coincide with Marc Bolan's induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but the ceremony was postponed by the pandemic. And by late March, Willner had already been diagnosed with COVID-19. He died on April 7, one day after his 64th birthday. Todd Rundgren says he lost more than a longtime collaborator.
RUNDGREN: We would spend holidays together. He was at my wedding. I remember being in different parts of the world with him (laughter), you know, just hanging out. Yeah, it was, for me, the loss of a family member. It was worse than even losing a friend.
MCCABE: Everyone wanted to talk about Willner - the way he always made artists feel like they were doing him a favor, realizing after he died that it was the other way around. Beth Orton, like many musicians, worked with Willner for over two decades.
BETH ORTON: He seemed to understand everyone he worked with better than they understood themselves, possibly. He always pulled out the best in people, or he allowed people to be who they were.
MCCABE: Hal Willner may have been the man with the golden Rolodex, but everyone says he was also a mensch with a golden imagination and a heart to match.
For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIPPY GUMBO")
ORTON: (Singing) Met a man...
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