John Prine, Hal Willner, Adam Schlesinger: Remembering musicians lost to COVID-19

The death of John Prine last week sent the music world into mourning. We learned of his death just hours after we heard music producer Hal Willner also died of COVID-19. Days earlier, jazz icon Ellis Marsalis died from the virus, as well as 52-year-old musician Adam Schlesinger. We remember these great artists with KCRW DJ Eric J. Lawrence.

John Prine

After serving in the Vietnam War, Prine spent much of his early musical career in Chicago. He worked as a mailman, and considered music to be more of a hobby. There, he was discovered by a young Roger Ebert during the late 1960s. 

“There was apparently one review that Ebert wrote where he went to see a movie. … It was so terrible that he left like midway through and just walked down the street,” Lawrence says. ”And John Prine happened to be playing in a bar that night. … He could tell that that was a much better use of his time.”

After Ebert’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Kris Kristofferson recognized his talent and got him into the studio to make his 1971 self-titled album “John Prine.”

Today, Rolling Stone Magazine deems it one of its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time

Lawrence says vulnerability and empathy are key to what made Prine’s music accessible to the masses. 

“It comes from this idea that he worked as a blue collar worker first or he worked in the army, so he was probably coming at it a little bit later in life,” Lawrence says. “That sort of empathy combined with this is essential a poetic sense and a wit to be able to tell these stories in a musical way is what makes him so unique and so precious.”

Through the course of his career, Prine won two Grammys, as well as the 2020 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award

Hal Willner

As a longtime “Saturday Night Live” staffer, Willner’s official title was producer. But Lawrence says he was more of a conceptualist on the show. 

“His idea was to bring people together oftentimes from very different sort of musical backgrounds to create something new and something unique.” 

Over the course of his career, Wilner created a series of tribute compilations that often reinterpreted the original musical works.

Former “Saturday Night Live” cast members paid tribute to Willner on April 11, and sang Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

KCRW: Eric J. Lawrence remembers acclaimed music producer Hal Willner

Ellis Marsalis Jr.

Marsalis Jr. was a jazz musician, often considered to be a bridge between older and newer forms of the genre. 

He also served as a teacher for musicians such as Harry Connick Jr. and Terence Blanchard. 

He is survived by his four sons, two of which — Branford and Wynton Marsalis — are also jazz musicians. 

Adam Schlesinger

Schlesinger was best known for co-founding the rock band Fountains of Wayne. He won an Emmy Award three times, and was nominated for various Tony Awards. Later in his career, he served as the executive music producer for the CW show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” His song “Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal” won an Emmy last year. 

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson