Lewis Merenstein, producer on Van Morrison's classic Astral Weeks and Moondance LPs, died Tuesday from complications due to pneumonia. He was 81. Merenstein's daughter Ilene confirmed his death to Rolling Stone.
An associate of famed Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson, Merenstein worked largely with jazz musicians until he was approached by Morrison's label Warner Bros. in 1968 to work on the Irish singer's new LP.
"Warner Bros. had contacted Bob Schwaid [Morrison's manager at the time], and he contacted me. And they had sent some producers, and they didn't know what he was talking about; people went up expecting to hear 'Brown Eyed Girl,' because the year before he had had 'Brown Eyed Girl' on Bang Records and that's what he was last known for," Merenstein told Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches in 2009.
"And I went up and it was at Ace Recording Studio at 1 Boylston Place, and there was Van Morrison, very timidly sitting on a stool and I came in very timidly sitting on a stool and he played!," Merenstein added. "And the first tune he played was 'Astral Weeks.' Thirty seconds into it, my whole being was vibrating, because having spent all that time with jazz players, when he was playing, I could hear—the lyric I got right away; I knew he was being reborn. I heard 30 seconds, a minute and it went right through me, and I got the poetry of it. It was just stunning, and I knew I wanted to work with him at that moment."
Thanks to his jazz background, Merenstein is also credited with assembling and surrounding Morrison with the expert backing band – bassist Richard Davis (who Merenstein called "the soul of the album"), guitarist Jay Berliner, percussionist Warren Smith Jr. and drummer Connie Kay – that gave Astral Weeks its distinctive, ethereal sound.
"It was just beautiful, just beautiful," Merenstein said of the Astral Weeks sessions. "I forget if we did one take, two takes, how many times I may have interrupted it and asked the band to soften it up a little bit and maybe move the tempo a little bit. Van had nothing to say. He just went and sang the song. That's primarily the way the album preceded."
Although not a commercial success at the time of its release – it took 33 years for the album to go gold – Astral Weeks has since been recognized as one of the greatest artistic statements in music, landing on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums along with its 1970 follow-up Moondance, with Merenstein serving as executive producer on that LP.
Merenstein is also credited as producer on albums like John Cale's Vintage Violence, Spencer Davis Group's Funky and Cass Elliot's 1972 self-titled LP.
Merenstein is survived by his brother Noel, daughters Ilene and Emma Terese, grandchildren Kyle and Devyn and son-in-law Linkoy.