The SHOF was saddened to learn of the passing yesterday of 2018 inductee Allee Willis.
A Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Webby award-winning and nominated songwriter/performer, Allee Willis’s credits include Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield’s “What Have I Done to Deserve This” and The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You (Theme from Friends).” She has collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan, James Brown, Patti LaBelle, Deniece Williams, Herbie Hancock and Motown great Lamont Dozier, and co-authored (with Brenda Russell, Steve Bray and Marsha Norman) the 2005 Oprah Winfrey-produced Tony- and Grammy-winning Broadway musical The Color Purple (it ran through 2008 and was revived to even more acclaim in 2015); in 2006, she had seven of her hits featured in the Earth, Wind & Fire-themed musical Hot Feet, thus becoming the first woman--and fifth person ever--to have written music for two shows opening on Broadway in the same season.
“I’m someone that absolutely loves writing very joyful music,” she told Songfacts in 2008. “And with everything else I’ve ever written, [“September” is] still that song that when people found out I’d written that, they just go, ‘Oh my God,’ and then tell me in some form how happy that song makes them every time they hear it."
The prolific and versatile songstress, whose compositions have sold over 60 million records, also won a Best Soundtrack Grammy in 1985 for Beverly Hills Cop. She credits her Detroit hometown—and Motown Records—for creative inspiration, and after earning a journalism degree at the University of Wisconsin, moved to New York in 1969 and worked at Columbia and Epic Records in a copywriting position prior to turning to music and songwriting in 1972. Her 1974 Epic album Childstar made a fan of Bonnie Raitt, who became the first artist to cover her songs.
After moving to Los Angeles, Willis secured a publishing deal at A&M in 1977—and has written songs since that have sold over 50 million records. But she is also a renowned performer, visual and multimedia artist, director, collector, social artist and party host, and even managed to apply her journalism background in 1987 in a column for Details magazine in which she introduced her discovery, The Del Rubio Triplets—then in their sixties and a prime example of another Willis specialty, kitsch. Indeed, Willis had assembled one of the world’s biggest collections of kitsch—tacky popular art—and she became famous for showing it at the parties she threw at her architecturally historic home in L.A. known as “Willis Wonderland” after her hit “Boogie Wonderland.”
In 2009, she began curating The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch website. Meanwhile, her own artwork—paintings, ceramics, motorized sculptures and furniture--are themselves highly collectible, with her sculptures also named after her hits. Her work in art direction, set design and animation was recognized in 2008 by both the Webby Awards and the W3 Awards for her Allee Willis Presents Bubbles & Cheesecake music video collaboration with singer-songwriter Holly Palmer. A cyber pioneer, she designed lilytomlin.com as an online tour of LilyTomlin’s life, and has consulted and created content for numerous entertainment and technology companies.
In 1997, Willis addressed the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property on behalf of 3 million BMI songwriters regarding artist rights relating to cyberspace. She keynoted the first Digital World conference in 1992 with AOL founder Steve Case and Intel founder Andy Groves, lectured at Harvard University on interactive journalism and delivered TED talks on artists and self-expression in cyberspace.
She returned to live performing after a long absence in 2010, conducting the University of Wisconsin marching band in a medley of her hits during the Homecoming football game halftime. The following year she launched Allee Willis Marches on Detroit as an ongoing series of events and fundraisers also employing a marching band to support her hometown. In 2017 she premiered The D—a recording and documentary of over 70 singalongs she produced all over Detroit and featuring 5,000 vocalists. She also continued her multimedia live shows and was a regular headliner at L.A.’s hip comedy revue Uncabaret.
Willis passed away at the age of 72, and is survived by a brother, Kent Willis, and sister, Marlin Frost; and niece, Mandy Becker.