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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Allee Willis--An appreciation

An Allee Willis featurette

The unexpected death of multi-talented songwriter Allee Willis Tuesday (Dec. 24) left the many who knew and loved her—and the countless others who were deeply affected by her music--stunned and saddened.

“What a talent, what a character, what a loss,” tweeted fellow Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Diane Warren. “Rest in musical power.”

Recalled the Hall’s president/CEO Linda Moran, “Allee Willis was a true renaissance woman, talented in so many areas. Her induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018 was a highlight of her career. She reiterated numerous times to me how it changed her life and brought attention to her as a songwriter in a way that she never could have ever imagined. Her acceptance remarks were funny, witty, blunt and outrageous and will remain as a favorite to veteran attendees for years to come.”

The colorful writer or co-writer of varied hits including the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” (with Dusty Springfield), and most notably, the Friends TV theme song, the music from the Tony-winning Broadway musical The Color Purple, and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” and “September,” Willis was “a monumental talent,” noted her friend Randy Poe, president of Leiber & Stoller Music Publishing, and “one of the most interesting and talented characters in the music business.”

“Allee had multiple personalities, but in a good way,” Poe added. “In addition to being a songwriter, she was a performer, an artist, and the absolute Queen of Kitsch. She always made me laugh--a lot. In all honestly, her passing came so quickly and as such a shock that I still can’t imagine a world without her.”

Another friend, music industry veteran Tom Vickers, was similarly bereft.

“Her soul mate/companion [animator/producer] Prudence Fenton is my wife’s aunt, so any family gathering where Allee and I converged were blessed events where she would regale me with stories about her kitsch collection, her love of all things Detroit, and the ups and downs in her career as a performance artist.”

Vickers referred to Motown-influenced Detroit native Willis’s well-known passions for collecting kitsch (which she cataloged at her online Museum of Kitsch), creating art, developing an early and substantial internet presence and social network, and throwing memorable and well-attended parties. But she had humble career beginnings after majoring in journalism and moving to New York following graduation in 1969 from the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

“She started as a secretary and then copy writer at Columbia Records,” said Vickers. “She wrote ad copy for artists including Barbara Streisand and Janis Joplin, and Laura Nyro's Eli and the Thirteenth Confession album, and then went on to record a solo album herself--as well as write countless hit songs for a myriad of artists.”

Music archivist Gregg Geller remembers Willis from his own stint at Columbia.

“Nobody’s an overnight sensation, of course, but the brilliance of some songwriters, like Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello, gets recognized pretty much from the start of their careers,” said Geller, noting the immediate accolades for the 1970s album debuts from those artists.

“For others, the reception is not so positive. In the middle years of that same decade, Epic Records released first albums by a couple of songwriters that vanished without leaving much of a trace. Allee Willis and John Hiatt were those songwriters. I lost track of Allee after the failure of that album and her departure from CBS, where she wrote ad copy, until her name started appearing regularly in the parentheses beneath the song titles of some of my favorite records. And today she’s in The Songwriters Hall of Fame. So, talent will out.”

But Willis, clearly, was more than a talent.

“Allee was an inspiration: always creating, coming up with new ideas, always willing to take chances and be completely herself,” said Lisa Loeb. “She had a great sense of humor and always told it like it is. Most of all, she was one of a kind—and a dear friend. Her music is everywhere, so I will think of her everywhere, from weddings to Trader Joe’s to tap class and in the car. She brought so much joy to everyone.”

For Ena McLaughlin, who sang in wildly successful Midwest show bands (often as Ena Anka), “September” remains “the best song ever.”

“It’s my go-to song for much of life,” she said on Facebook. “You cannot not dance when that song is on. You also cannot feel down while it’s playing. I’ve gotten dead parties started by putting it on.”

On Instagram, meanwhile, Desmond Child, also a Songwriters Hall of Famer, expressed profound sadness over the loss of “my dearest friend of over 40 years.”

Child lovingly remembered regularly playing with his band Desmond Child & Rouge in 1976 at New York’s famed Reno Sweeney cabaret club, where Willis was the coat check girl at night while writing Columbia ad copy by day.

“The night she drove off to L.A. in her beat-up car packed with all her worldly belongings and a bag full of candy bars, we gathered around her in front of Reno’s and I waved one of our stage props--a giant magic wand with silver glitter that sprinkled over her head--and made the wish that she’d make it really big and become one of the most successful artists and songwriters in the world for all time--and she did.”

But Child noted that Willis also “did good for the world with her timeless fun EW&F music, Theme Song from Friends and her heartbreaking Color Purple songs and so many more. She raised huge money to rebuild her hometown Detroit. She painted and sculpted cool art—threw cool performance art pajama parties for the Who’s Who and Who Was. She designed one of the first commercial web sites back in the late ’80s called Willisville, where you could wander with your ‘mouse’ up and down Main Street and go into stores, click through options and buy clothes and stuff.”

Willis, Child added, “was a cutting-edge visionary and had a sharp wacky wit to go along with her bigger-than-life generous heart.”

Concluded Vickers, “Allee touched so many lives with her music and love of life. The world feels emptier today without her in it.”



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