(left to right) Mike Todd, Alison Smith, Barbara Cane, Allee Willis, Patrice Rushen, Chris Sampson, Mary Jo Mennella and Kathy Spanberger
It was standing room only in the Carson Soundstage at the USC campus in Los Angeles during their recent Family Weekend on Friday October 12th. The reason: 2018 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, Allee Willis, who conducted a wise and witty Master session hosted by USC’s Chair of the Popular Music Program at the Thornton School and hit songwriter in her own right, Patrice Rushen. Willis reunited with Rushen as fellow songwriter contemporaries from the LA music scene as they shared Willis’ rise from the city of Detroit to her recent induction into the Hall of Fame.
Allee spoke of her earliest influences growing up in Detroit, and the pride the entire city shared with the success of Motown. She attributed her initial music industry breakthroughs to Jerry Ragavoy, and Bonnie Raitt, then working at a label’s marketing department copywriting for commercials. When “connecting with a well-connected friend," they helped jumpstart her ongoing collaboration with Verdine and Maurice White in writing the entire EWF album and "the gift that keeps on giving, ‘September’.”
Willis’ talents extend way beyond songwriting as her multimedia success in music, art and pop culture highlight multiple factions of her artistry. Stepping into the realm of creating a Social media network in the pre-MySpace era of the early 90’s, Allee developed an online platform with media mogul and entrepreneur, Mark Cuban.
Allee returned to the spotlight as a writer while collaborating with Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray on the musical The Color Purple. She emphasized (tongue in cheek) that she was ‘not wanting to be the white girl to screw up The Color Purple on Broadway, and described the unique process of writing for the stage through a truly collaborative effort that the medium brings, vs writing for radio. She described her collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys and their laser sharp focus on what they were seeking using “What Have I Done to Deserve This” as having 5 distinct sections that was clearly articulated by the artist. Willis beamed as she recalled being named "one of the most dangerous subversives living in the U.S." by Russian newspaper Pravda because they mistranslated her hit song "Neutron Dance" as a nuclear-themed "Neutron Bomb".
Willis spoke frequently about the challenge of pushing into new media outlets, encouraging the students to practice perseverance and to write distinctive songs. The difference between being a writer in 2018 vs her early years is that writers now need to understand both ends of the industry, using their creative brain and having solid business skills to succeed.
"As a recent 2018 Songwriters Hall of Fame Inductee, Allee Willis shared many of her career experiences with great enthusiasm and candidly mentored the students, not only about the art and craft of songwriting, but the all-important business side of the music industry," said SHOF Board Member and West Coast Chair Mary Jo Mennella. "Her stories about her life experiences made it an entertaining event to remember for both students and their families in attendance. We are truly grateful for our ongoing relationship with USC and this remarkable program."
Patrice Rushen produced a celebratory medley of Willis’ hits performed by the USC students including “September,” “Neutron Dance” (recorded by the Pointer Sisters) and “I’ll Be There for You” (the Theme From the hit TV series Friends). At the conclusion of the Master Class, Rushen presented Willis with a bound copy of her personal arrangement of Willis’ medley of hits, autographed by the very talented students who performed in the ensemble. Proud parents, students and Songwriter Hall of Fame Board and Committee members left celebrating the authenticity and wildly unique contributions of the one and only Allee Willis.
“The students and all in attendance were excited, and Allee’s words were right on time in every way," said USC Chair of the Popular Music Program at the Thornton School's Patrice Rushen. "We loved it.”
The master session was attended by Mary Jo Mennella, Barbara Cane, Kathy Spanberger and Mike Todd from the Songwriters Hall of Fame West Coast Projects Committee. The association forged between USC and the Songwriters Hall of Fame has featured numerous Hall of Fame inductees, Hal David Starlight, Johnny Mercer and/ or Abe Olman Award winners including David Foster, Graham Nash, Bill Withers, Ralph Peer and Donovan, Benny Blanco, Billy Steinberg, Lamont Dozier, Dan Reynolds with Evan Lamberg, Linda Perry, Desmond Child, Carole Bayer Sager and Jason Mraz.