Van Morrison Producer Lewis Merenstein Dies

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Decades after its release, MOJO ranked Astral Weeks as the 2nd best album of all time

Lewis Merenstein, best known as the producer behind Van Morrison’s landmark 1968 album Astral Weeks, has died from complications of pneumonia. His death was reported by several news outlets and confirmed by Merenstein’s daughter. He was 81 and was also known for producing John Cale’s 1970 Vintage Violence, as well as recordings by Spencer Davis, Miriam Makeba, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Charlie Daniels and others.

Originally from Baltimore, Merenstein became a recording engineer, spending most of his time on jazz. Warner Bros. Records, Morrison’s new label after extricating himself from a contract with the Bang! label, asked Merenstein to meet with the singer and try to come up with a new direction for him. The first number that Morrison played for Merenstein was the title track from Astral Weeks.

“Thirty seconds into it,” Merenstein said in an interview with journalist Hank Shteamer for the latter’s “Dark Forces Swing” blog, “my whole being was vibrating…I knew he was being reborn…It was just stunning, and I knew I wanted to work with him at that moment.”

Related: Van Morrison’s Street Choir album deluxe reissue

Astral Weeks, much of which was improvised in a stream-of-consciousness, jazz-like fashion, was not embraced by the record-buying public upon its release—it didn’t even make the Billboard albums chart. Critical reviews were mixed and Morrison’s career languished until 197, when he returned with Moondance, a more accessible work. Decades later, its standing improved markedly, with England’s MOJO listing it as the second best album of all time and Rolling Stone giving it a #19 rating. The album was finally certified gold in the U.S. in 2001.

Merenstein remained active as a producer into the ’70s, his wildly diverse credits also including albums by the Association, George Burns, jazz singer Phyllis Hyman, soul great Curtis Mayfield and bluesman Charlie Musselwhite.

Watch Van Morrison perform “Astral Weeks” live at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008

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