Hal Willner and the Creation of the Modern Tribute Album




“Sorry,” Hal Willner says, sheepishly.

He has just been complimented — or so this writer intended — for being the father of pop culture’s rampant tributemania. One can draw a straight line from the imaginative multi-artist tribute albums that producer Willner essentially curated in the 1980s, especially for Kurt Weill and songs from Disney films, to current releases both sublime (“Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: A Tribute to the Louvin Brothers”) and bizarre (“The String Tribute to Tool”).

One can also see in the groundbreaking tribute concerts he has produced honoring Harry Smith the blueprint for today’s roots/Americana tribute concerts, such as the “Down From the Mountain” tours and recent “Cold Mountain” music show at UCLA. (Smith was a visual artist and filmmaker whose own curated “Anthology of American Folk Music” albums of the 1950s inspired a post-war generation of young roots musicians.)

But Willner is unsure just how much credit he wants for all this. “I know the albums I made influenced the records that started this trend,” he explains. “Mine didn’t influence the Germs tribute, but they influenced the Neil Young ‘Bridge’ tribute and the ‘Red Hot + Blue’ Cole Porter tribute. But most of the other records since are either all alternative-rock groups, or all famous people. I can’t say I listen to a lot of them.” He’s being modest – 1988’s “Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Disney Films” can lay claim as the best tribute album ever – and one of the best conceptual recordings of any type.

Willner is this year’s artist-in-residence for the UCLA Live performing-arts series. His mission there is to produce shows honoring quintessentially L.A. recording artists. (His “The Harry Smith Project” and Edgar Allan Poe shows previously were at UCLA Live.) The first occurs Jan. 24 at Royce Hall – “Shock and Awe: The Songs of Randy Newman.” It features a Willner-trademark eclectic guest-performer list that includes Vic Chesnutt, E, Jimmy Fallon, Bill Frisell, Ed Harcourt, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin and David Hidalgo, Bob Neuwirth, Stan Ridgway, soul-music rediscovery Howard Tate and Victoria Williams. (Newman himself performs on Jan. 23 at Royce.)

His second production occurs, fittingly, on April Fools Day — “Let’s Eat: Feasting on the Firesign Theatre.” Actors and musicians will interpret the early audio plays — including song segments — of the countercultural comedy troupe. That show’s line-up features John Goodman, Howard Hesseman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tim Meadows, Todd Rundgren and Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, among others.

“Hal Willner is absolutely the quintessential artist-in-residence for our series,” says David Sefton, UCLA Live’s director. “He has the most lateral brain I’ve seen in an artist.” (Elvis Costello and the Kronos Quartet have been past artists-in-residence.)

Tribute-concert production has become something of a cottage industry for record-producer Willner, a kind of alternative form of Broadway musical revue. And Sefton helped him stage one of his earliest and most important – “The Harry Smith Project” – for London’s Meltdown festival when Sefton was director at Royal Festival Hall.

Willner may bring a Leonard Cohen tribute, which he first produced in Brooklyn for the Canadian government, to UCLA in fall. And he’s considering doing a show dedicated to the hipster comedian Lord Buckley. Meanwhile, he says, “Shock and Awe” could subsequently be staged elsewhere or lead to an album. All the while, he continues as music supervisor for “Saturday Night Live,” where he’s in his 23rd season.

“At the end of the day, I’m putting together things that I want to see,” he says of his work. “I’ve been going for subjects I wanted to learn about. I have not been an expert on anything I’ve done. I get to immerse myself in others’ work. With Randy Newman, I now know all hundreds of his songs. I don’t want to sound too self-indulgent about this, but to a certain degree anything worthwhile has to be made a little bit for yourself.

“What’s also interesting to me about approaching Newman is that I don’t really like a lot of interpretations of his stuff. I think it’s hard stuff to take somewhere. So this is not a safe show, even if I have solid people. The worst thing that can happen is it will be something you don’t forget.”

Talking in the backyard of his small bungalow amid the canals of Venice, where he lives when not in New York, he is easy-going and reflective – even as the phone keeps ringing. Willner looks like a survivor from Venice’s long-ago Beatnik days. Bearded, with steel rims and balding brown hair, he is dressed in casual clothes and sits in a low-slung beach chair during this interview.

Surrounding his small home are newer veritable fortresses of fashionable post-modern design. They deprive his yard of some of that healthy California sunshine, but they can’t steal the pleasant, varied sounds – the melodic bird songs, the drone-like airplane roars – that seem to inspire him as he repeatedly closes and rests his eyes.

Born in Philadelphia in 1957, Willner’s musical tastes were formed by FM rock radio of the late 1960s. “You’d hear virtually every type of music within a 24-hour period,” he recalls. “Even though it was a rock-based station, I learned about Coltrane and Orson Welles and Lenny Bruce along with Captain Beefheart. Firesign Theatre was played on the radio once a week at midnight. It’s hard for people to imagine that now. “They were like the Beatles of American comedy.

“At the same time, I was young and still watching a lot of television – Soupy Sales, Ed Sullivan, Smothers Brothers. There were a million variety shows back then. I loved that stuff.”

In retrospect, Willner was influenced as much by the adventurous programming of early FM rock as by its artists. He saw it as both avant-garde, an art form unto itself not unlike contemporary sampling, and a lot of playful fun. It also helped lead him to jazz.

Moving to New York in the 1970s, Willner began informally working for record producer Joel Dorn, a Philadelphian who had been successful with Roberta Flack and Bette Midler for Atlantic Records. But Willner was more fascinated by Dorn’s concurrent work with jazz artists Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef.

“I loved those albums he did with Rahsaan and Yusef – he had a George Martinesque approach to these guys,” Willner says. “He put sound effects on their records and used different rhythm sections. I think Joel appreciated this kid understanding that stuff. He let me hang around him and eventually he let me nose my way into being an assistant.”

With the freedom provided by the security of the “Saturday Night Live” job, Willner began planning his first tribute album – to a subject he was familiar with, the music of Fellini-film composer Nina Rota. Willner originally planned it as a jazz album – jazz had a history of tributes. He even had the musician in mind for it – John Gilmore, tenor saxophonist with Sun Ra.

But Sun Ra nixed it. Then, when talking to Blondie’s Deborah Harry and Chris Stein about it at “Saturday Night Live” offices, they said they wanted to contribute. This was around the time of “The Tide Is High,” and their inclusion on one song meant that “Amarcord Nina Rota” was accorded respect in the rock press. It thus got a lot more publicity than otherwise would have been merited by its jazz contributors – Steve Lacy, Carla Bley, Jaki Byard and a then-unknown Wynton Marsalis.

It also gave Willner entry to the rock crowd. Since then, Willner’s projects have revealed an interest – some call it post-modern, others diehard countercultural – in the terrain where rock, jazz, country, blues, folk and spoken-word all meet. He calls it his “vaudeville approach.”

His 1984 tribute to Thelonius Monk featured NRBQ, Todd Rundgren and Joe Jackson as well as jazz musicians. The 1985 Weill tribute, “Lost in the Stars,” mixed Sting, Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull with jazz musicians Bley, Charlie Haden, Phil Woods and John Zorn.

But 1988’s “Stay Awake” was his definitive project – a joyously avant-gardish approach to a nostalgic and sentimental subject, it lured everyone from the Replacements to Betty Carter, James Taylor to the once-reluctant Sun Ra, as participants. Among its many highlights were Aaron Neville singing “Mickey Mouse March” and Ringo singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” with Herb Alpert on trumpet.

Since then, he has produced records devoted to Charles Mingus, Warner Bros. cartoon music of Carl Stalling and songwriter Harold Arlen. He also has produced albums for individual artists and films, and even released one under his own name, “Whoops, I’m an Indian.”

Willner’s upcoming UCLA Live projects, along with last year’s Cohen concert, represent new territory for him – tributes to living artists. Willner first was approached with the idea for a Newman tribute by an arranger-friend who had talked to a member of the singer-songwriter’s family. UCLA Live’s Sefton then said he’d approve it only if it could be packaged with a Newman concert. “So I called him and he said, ‘Royce Hall is a beautiful place. I’ll do it.’’’

Newman may or may not perform at “Shock and Awe” – other than approving a song list and making some suggestions for guests, he hasn’t been actively involved. That suits Willner, to some degree: “I want to play with it, at the end of the day. As a producer, I don’t write my own songs. I make collages.”

It’s easy when talking to Willner to lapse into Boomer nostalgia – remembering the barrier-crashing glory days of pop music in the 1960s. But he believes the best time for music is now – at least for veteran singer-songwriters like Newman.

“Look at ‘Bad Love,’ (Dylan’s) ‘Love and Theft,’ (Tom Waits’) ‘Alice,’’’ Willner says. “We have artists 30 years into making records who doing the best records of their careers. When did we ever see that? Did it ever happen before? This is the first time at least in decades when the best music is not being made by kids.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

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