Detroit-native Allee Willis comes home to celebrate an extra-awesome year.
“Midnight creeps so slowly into hearts
Of men who need more than they get.”
But chances are, you’ve grooved along on a dance floor — in a club, in your home, in your mind’s eye while driving to work — belting out this prose without giving it a second thought.
These are the lyrics that open “Boogie Wonderland,” one of the most complex and misinterpreted songs of the disco era. Made an icon by Earth, Wind & Fire that went gold in 1979, the year it was released, the song was inspired by the film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, in which Diane Keaton’s lost-soul character lives for the night life while on the brink of destruction.
The song was written by Detroit homegirl Allee Willis.
“‘Boogie Wonderland’ is one of my favorite lyrics ever,” Willis says. “People tell me, ‘That is the happiest song.’ Have you listened to the lyrics? That ain’t a happy song.
“I put lyrics into music like that a lot,” she says. “I think it’s a lot harder to be a great lyricist than a great music writer. You can have a really good song with crappy lyrics; but give it good lyrics, and it’s a great song.
“You can take very serious lyrics — even sad, dirgy lyrics — and get messages across in music that’s bouncy and uplifting,” Willis says. “Even if people are not conscious of what they’re singing, it’s a way for me to get a message across, vibrationally.”
As a songwriter, Willis writes both music and lyrics. Besides “Boogie Wonderland,” she’s penned Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” “I’ll Be There for You” (the theme from Friends and one of the best-selling TV themes of all time), “Lead Me On” by Maxine Nightingale, the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” (the theme song from Beverly Hills Cop), “What Have I Done to Deserve This” by the Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield and more. She’s collaborated with hundreds of artists and composers, including Bob Dylan, Patti LaBelle, Herbie Hancock and Motown legend Lamont Dozier. Her songs have sold more than 60 million records.
Last month she returned from South Africa, where she attended the opening of The Color Purple — the Grammy- and Tony-winning musical she co-wrote and which was produced by Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones and Scott Sanders. Last week, she picked up a distinguished achievement award at the Detroit Music Awards.
And she’s about to be recognized for the work she’s done by her industry peers — Willis will be traveling to New York City to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 14. She adds that honor, held by the likes of Diane Warren, Carole King, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, to her list of awards already won — Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Webby.
Before that, though, Willis will be returning to her hometown. On May 18-19, Willis will perform Allee Willis Loves Detroit!, her one-woman “party performance” show, at Detroit’s City Theatre.
Allee Willis, 70, was into music as long as she can remember. Growing up on Sorrento Street in Detroit, known by her birth name, Alta, Willis never learned to play an instrument. “I’m untrained,” she says. “The only music lessons I had was that on Saturdays I’d have my parents drop me off at the Motown house [on West Grand Boulevard]. I’d sit on the grass and listen to what they were doing inside.
“I’d hear pieces of records,” Willis says. “I had no idea what it was until I heard it on the radio and would recognize the pieces — ‘Ooh, that’s the bass line I heard!’ If I didn’t grow up in Detroit, I probably wouldn’t be a songwriter.
“I loved Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Temptations. When Motown came along, if you weren’t black, I didn’t have time for you, musically. If it came out of Motown, I was all over it. And there were a lot of other labels, too. These songwriters — Ashford & Simpson, Holland-Dozier-Holland,” she says. “There was a disc jockey, Martha Jean ‘The Queen’ on WJLB. During the riots, she stayed on for 48 hours and was credited with calming the city down. She was the first woman to own a radio station. My mom passed away suddenly when I was 15. I had my learner’s permit then. I’d jump in the car and lock myself in. She saved my life.
“I was very aware of Berry Gordy. I wrote him a fan letter when I was 12. I didn’t meet him until Motown the Musical was in town,” she says. “The director went over to him and I could kind of hear them. ‘Do you know who that is?’ ‘She wrote what?’ I thanked him for letting me sit out on the lawn. He said, ‘No. Thank you.’”
After graduating from Mumford High School in 1965, Willis majored in journalism and advertising at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before heading to New York to work as a copywriter for Columbia Records. In 1972, Willis was riding a bus down Columbus Avenue, listening to the song “Alone Again, Naturally” by Gilbert O’Sullivan. “I wrote a whole new lyric to that song,” she says. “I had a friend who played piano, and we wrote it down together.”
She soon had a handful of her own songs, which she showed to her boss — who then took them to the label’s president, Clive Davis. She got a deal and put out her only album, Childstar, which featured the first 10 songs she ever wrote, and which she sang on.
Bette Midler was a fan of the album and rehearsed a song for her own show. Willis happened to meet Bonnie Raitt in a studio, who asked Willis to write a song for her.
“That’s when I realized I liked being in the background,” Willis says. “And that what I really loved was writing.”
She moved to L.A., wrote some songs for Patti LaBelle, worked with Herbie Hancock, which then led to Earth, Wind & Fire. “I had a friend who was sleeping with one of the members of the band,” she says.
“Then the whole thing exploded. In the beginning of 1978, I was on food stamps and by the end I’d sold 10 million records,” she says. “I was still on food stamps because the money hadn’t actually come in yet. But it feels very different being on food stamps knowing you’ve sold 10 million records.
“It all happened very fast for me,” Willis says. “And I began to feel like I was writing the same song over and over.
“I really do feel it’s up to you to make the life you want to live, given you have your health,” she says. “If you want to change it, get up off your a— and change it.”
To express other aspects of her multi-leveled creativity, Willis began to paint, create sets, even direct videos. She had begun collecting discarded furniture years earlier, which eventually transformed her Valley Village, Calif., home into what’s become known as the Museum of Kitsch — a brightly colored palace containing an explosion of items she thinks an artist created with a vision, but might not have been appreciated by others, like a transistor radio in the shape of an owl, Farrah Fawcett Shampoo, a Mr. T bobblehead and unopened Afro combs.
It also includes Jewish memorabilia — though she dropped out of Hebrew school, her grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi in Detroit, named Solomon Shulman. And, she says, “I can understand some things in Yiddish. I feel Jewish. I talk about being Jewish. It’s part of who I am.”
Willis spent years, pre-Facebook and eBay, working to build an online social-media community with online stores, with then-CEO of her prototype, Mark Cuban.
And she began to throw parties.
David Cassidy, Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens, Buck Henry and longtime friend Lesley Ann Warren were regulars. James Brown sang an impromptu tribute to her dog, Orbit.
“Throwing parties is what I consider my No. 1 skill,” Willis says. “I’m a multi-media artist — I use all areas of art. And the only place I can express them all in one space is a party. It became a means of expression.
“I’d design invitations, build sets. I’d be on the mic the whole time, narrating one conversation for people on the other side of the room. I’d tell people they are entering Willis Wonderland.”
But Detroit still had hold of her heart.
“I was so sick of hearing what people were saying about Detroit. I’d tell them that’s where I’m from, and I’d get a groan, or a ‘That’s so sad,’” she says. “But that’s not how I felt. I felt like I was descended from royalty. I thought it was the most soulful population in the world.”
Willis would talk about this with her friend Lily Tomlin, also a former Detroiter. They’d try to think up a project they could do together to celebrate Detroit, like a Hall of Fame.
“But Lily’s always working,” Willis says. “I thought, what can I do that I can do on my own, but she can be involved in. I know two things: I can write music, and I can throw a party.”
So she embarked on creating, and self-funding, “The D,” along with composer Andrae Alexander. Between 2013 and 2015, Willis recorded 70 singalongs around Detroit of a song she wrote, a love song to the city that ended up featuring 5,000 vocalists and musicians — Tomlin, Martha Reeves, Ricki Lake, Lamont Dozier and Mary Wilson among them. From there, she created a video which debuted last year at the DIA.
She’s not done with Detroit, though. After all these years behind the scenes, she’s feeling the urge to be in the spotlight. So she’s bringing her one-woman show, Allee Willis Loves Detroit! to town this month.
It’s another love letter to Detroit. It’s a walk through her own life. It’s a chance for singalongs to her — and our — favorite hits.
“My favorite songwriters were the ones writing about their life and real things,” Willis says. “That’s what I’ve always done. And this is another version of what I do.
“I write very specific performances for where I am. So this Detroit show — I’ve had a lot of my experiences there. It’s very funny; there’s lots of calamity. I call my shows ‘party performances,’” she says. “It’s like me trying to throw a party on the stage. I do an auction. I do as much comedy as music, and Andrae [Alexander] stands at the keyboard the whole time. I try to make it feel like being in my living room.
“It should be pandemonium. I can’t wait.”
She also has her favorite chef “in the whole world” on stage with her. Chef Greg, owner of Chef Greg’s Soul ’N’ the Wall on Curtis Street in Detroit, bought his restaurant from former owner Eddie Kendrix of the Temptations, who would hang out there.
“I was driving down the street one day, and he’s got this enormous mural of himself on the outside wall. I stopped to take a photo of it and Chef Greg ran out and said, ‘Take a picture of the real thing, fool!’” she says. “He’d just seen a documentary on Earth, Wind & Fire, and he recognized me. Now it’s my office away from home. He named a sandwich after me, the Boogaloo Wonderland.”
Despite the acclaim, the records sold, the success in most everything she touches — Allee Willis is not a household name. But this has been a big year for Willis. More awards, more acclaim, taking what she loves doing to yet another level.
“I always say I’m the world’s best-kept secret,” Willis says. “But I feel like this year I might get discovered.”
Allee Willis performs Allee Willis Loves Detroit! May 18-19 at the City Theatre in Detroit. $45. (800) 745-3000; 313presents.com.