Allee Willis is a songwriter, artist, graphic designer, party thrower and unabashed Detroit lover. “In the 50s and 60s, Detroit set the style and the soundtrack for the world,” she told a packed audience in Charlevoix.
This outrageous and outrageously talented nonconformist helped create that soundtrack.
She wrote September by Earth, Wind and Fire, Neutron Dance by the Pointer Sisters. She co-authored the musical The Color Purple and the theme song for Friends. She collaborated on tunes and lyrics with everyone from Bob Dylan to Stevie Wonder. Her songs sold over 50 million copies and won many awards. Want to read even more about her amazing life? Wikipedia lists many more of her hits.
Still, she admits, “I can’t play a note.”
At the time she wrote Neutron Dance, her songwriting career was “sinking so low I wasn’t even getting rejection calls.”
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer was looking for a soundtrack for Beverly Hills Cop. He heard Neutron Dance, which Allee considered one of her worst songs. “When he couldn’t find anything he liked better, he put it in the movie.”
Allee was invited to a screening in Bruckheimer’s office.
“In the first scene a big truck careens through a city. I realize it’s Detroit. I thought my career was dead and now I’m in a movie that has to do with Detroit, and it may save my life. Then Eddie Murphy turns up in a Mumford t-shirt. I burst into tears.
“Jerry Bruckheimer says, ‘What’s wrong?’
“I say, ‘I went to Mumford.’
“He says, ‘I did, too.'”
Beverly Hills Cop went on to win a Grammy for best soundtrack.
Allee says record companies want songwriters to create songs they know will sell. “I got bored writing the same song over and over.” And so she switched to painting. She created an alter ego, Bubbles the Artist, who, she says, “paints bad, cheap paintings.” She also opened the Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch onliine. Lily Tomlin became Bubbles biggest patron, buying about 90 paintings. She also became one of Allee’s best friends.
For readers hoping for a Godsign, here goes…
Allee and Lily were talking about growing up in Detroit. Lily said when she was 15, her first job was ushering at the Avalon theater on Linwood. She carried a flashlight and, while seating patrons, made fanciful patterns of light on the floor.
Allee, who gets emotional about her love for the D, started crying again. “I lived in a house a few blocks from the theater. The first horror movie I ever saw was Creature from the Black Lagoon. remember this crazy usher making patterns with her flashlight. It was a show before the show.”
Allee’s talk at the Charlevoix library was sponsored by Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey, MI. Allee was one of several speakers in a blockbuster summer-long program and exhibit about Detroit.
Allee wanted to give something back to the city that shaped her. “As a self-financed artist, I’m always on the brink of financial disaster. I couldn’t afford to give Detroit a big chunk of cash. Not even a teeny chunk of cash.”
Instead, she wrote The D, a love song to Detroit. Though she lives in L.A., she came to the Motor City and threw 50 singalongs. Thousands of Detroiters and dozens of choirs sing “The D” in locations around the city. Performers include Mary Wilson, Lamont Dozier, Martha Reeves and other Motown legends. (Farbman Group arranged for one singalong in the Fisher Building.)
Allee hopes the video will become a film shown at film festivals. The feature length film is “about human spirit as seen through the people of Detroit.” Proceeds from the song and video will go to Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theater and the Heidelberg project. The song and video premiere on Sunday, Sept. 21 at 3pm at United Sound Studios in Detroit.
Recently Allee was watching Pharrell Williams on Oprah. His song Happy from Despicable Me 2 hit No. 1 around the world this year. Oprah asked what songs he listened to for inspiration. His favorite: September.
Allee’s best creative moments come when she is in a creative slump and “I jump off the bridge and see what happens.” She sees Detroit at a similar critical point.
“I’m a champion of the underdog,” she says. “Detroit is a spiritual and soulful place. What happened here will happen to every great city. Detroit is being reimagined by artists. We’re taking back the city. If I can make Pharrell Williams happy, I can make Detroit happy.”
The D is performed by more people than have ever been recorded on one song. Learn more about it at www.WeSingTheD.com.
Allee says, “I say to Detroit: Don’t be afraid. You put the car on the road. Now step on the gas.”
(What Godsigns stories step on the gas for you? I’d love to hear them.)