Allee Willis poses in front of a mural of herself, painted by a fan.
Allee Willis poses in front of a mural of herself, painted by a fan.

Detroit Native and award-winning songwriter Allee Willis credited her songwriting legacy to Detroit, her “favorite city in the world.”

Photos courtesy of Allee Willis

Allee Willis, award-winning songwriter and Detroit native, died Dec. 24, 2019, in Los Angeles at age 72 of cardiac arrest.

Willis, who gained inspiration from Motown for her own work, wrote such well-known songs as “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” in collaboration with Earth, Wind & Fire; she won two Grammy Awards for her work on Beverly Hills Cop and the Tony-nominated Broadway musical The Color Purple, which she co-wrote. She is also remembered for “I’ll be There for You,” the theme song for the TV show Friends, and many more songs.

A graduate of Mumford High School, Willis returned to Detroit from Los Angeles more than 30 times in recent years to celebrate her hometown by filming 70 or so “sing-alongs” in different Detroit locations, including Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, with citizens and celebrities singing “The D,” a song she wrote as the city’s “unofficial, official theme song.” She then threw a party at the Detroit Institute of Arts in September 2017 to debut the video made from all the sing-alongs.

“I love Detroit. It’s my favorite city in the world,” the 1965 Mumford graduate told the JN in 2017.

Several times, she joined Detroit expats in returning to the city for the annual Detroit Homecoming event. One year, she was a presenting performer.

Growing up on Sorrento Street in Detroit, she was known by her birth name, Alta. Though she dropped out of Hebrew school, her grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi in Detroit named Solomon Shulman. And, she said in a May 10, 2018, JN cover story, “I can understand some things in Yiddish. I feel Jewish. I talk about being Jewish. It’s part of who I am.”

In that story, she also defended Detroit. “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.’ 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.”

Temple Israel was the only location that wasn’t in Detroit proper. There, according to the JN story, she recorded some of her Jewish friends from Mumford singing her Detroit song; they included longtime friend Sherry (Erman) Stewart, Joanne (Parr) Kraft, Karen and David Disner, Marsha (Diem) Fischer and Marcy Feldman.

Sherry Stewart of Bloomfield Hills met Willis at Mumford when they were 15 or 16.

“She was always an adventurous, creative person, great in sports and up for anything,” Stewart recalled. “She had a real love for Detroit and when she came back to do projects, we would always see one another. She’d keep me up to date on what she was doing … I talked to her a couple of weeks ago.

Allee Willis with Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire — and already rocking her trademark hairdo.
Willis with Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind & Fire — and already rocking her trademark hairdo.

“She was a people person with a great personality. People were attracted to her all the time. When she came here, she embraced the people she met here, even people who didn’t have a connection to her past. I would kid her that she had a lot of groupies; but that was the way she was — a very inclusive person.

“I’ll miss her,” Stewart said. “She was always bigger than life; even as a young person, she’d come up with these ideas and, down the road, they all happened. As a good friend, I told her I felt like I’m her mother with so many things to celebrate with pride, things of her own doing.”

Willis never studied music. “I’m untrained,” she said in the 2018 JN cover story. “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. If I didn’t grow up in Detroit, I probably wouldn’t be a songwriter.”

She told the New York Times, “I, very thankfully, have a few songs that will not go away, but they’re schlepping along 900 others.”

In 2018, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But songwriting was far from her only passion, according to a New York Times story. She was well known as a collector of kitsch, and her pink 1937 Los Angeles home housed her collection of candy-colored ephemera, cataloged online at her Museum of Kitsch.

The back of Childstar, the only album Allee Willis ever released.
The back of Childstar, the only album Willis ever released.

Willis herself was a work of art, easily recognized because of her signature haircut — long on one side and much shorter on the other — and for her colorful outfits.

Her passions also included making art (the walls of her home are lined with works by Bubbles the Artist, her alter ego), the internet (in the ’90s she developed her own social network of sorts, called Willisville) and hosting wild parties that drew a fascinating cross section of Hollywood, the story said.

“I met Allee in the early 1980s through another fellow Detroiter, Jim Budman,” said Southfield native Stan Zimmerman, a TV producer in L.A. “He got me invited to one of Allee’s famous parties. Allee was always the life of any party, and the best party hostess in Hollywood. Her gatherings were legendary, from her famous all-girl (except me filming) pajama parties to her backyard party supporting Detroit Mosaic Theatre.

“One of my favorite memories of her, was our trip together back to Detroit. She took me to her old house that she had grown up in. She loved everything about Detroit, she was the city’s biggest fan!

Allee Willis

“The light in my life will certainly be dimmer without Allee in it,” Zimmerman said. “But, lucky for all of us, her music and, more importantly, her spirit will live on forever.”

While Willis continued writing songs and music, in recent years she focused on performing one-woman shows and curating her museum-home, known as Willis Wonderland. But she never lost her curiosity and ambition to do as much as possible, the Times story said.

“I want to do more things that involve everything I do: the music, the art, the technology, the social aspect of things,” she told the Times last year. “Life is too short, and I am too tired!”

Willis is survived by Prudence Fenton, her “partner and soulmate,” brother, Kent Willis, and sister, Marlen Frost; and niece, Mandy Becker.

JN contributing writers Lynne Konstantin, Julie Yolles and Esther Allweiss Ingber added to this report. 

Read more: Allee Willis Debuts Record-Breaking Video