Allee Willis stood at the mic, a white Jewish girl from Detroit fronting a ten-piece soul band dressed in sequined vegetable costumes. The venue was the Ohio State campus cafeteria, and the three people who comprised the audience were chomping hot dogs while a psychology professor conducted a class at a table in the back. Thanks to a deal brokered by a mutual agent, folkie Joni Mitchell held court (and spark) in the college's auditorium while funky Willis got stuck in the lunchroom -- where nobody was listening. So, during the sixth number, she jumped off the front of the stage and effectively abandoned her fledgling career as a rock star right then and there.
That was 1974, and Willis was on tour supporting her one and only solo album, Childstar. An ad from her then record company, Epic, claimed Willis's recording so unique, "critics are torturing their imaginations to describe her."
Tickling might be a more fitting description of Willis's effect on the imagination. Trust me, words like "quirky" and "eccentric" feel cheap when it comes detailing her limitless creativity. And, when it comes to her catalog of upbeat tunes (which have sold more than 50 million copies over the past three decades), there's never torture involved.
You think you don't know Allee Willis, but we all do. The 63-year-old songwriter may have left her touring days behind her, but her songs (most notably, "September," "Boogie Wonderland," and the theme song to the TV show Friends) are pop-culture pop tarts, daily staples we've consumed for years, some with equal parts guilt and pleasure. When she takes the stage at L.A.'s El Portal Theatre October 18 for her first solo performance in 37 years, Willis is betting on the stories behind the music to ease her return to the spotlight.
The inimitable Allee Willis. Photo by Jenny Risher. Courtesy of Allee Willis.
"I'm the least likely person to ever sing with just a piano," Willis tells me on the phone from Willis Wonderland, her home in North Hollywood that was built in 1937 as the party pad for MGM studios (an abode Willis covered in art and made so fab that James Brown urged her to keep collecting "soul kitsch" during a 1985 visit; it now houses much of the physical version of her online Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch). "But," she says of the October 18 event, "Everything will be a sing-along." Allee Willis' Soup To Nuts Party Mix will be a "one-woman show/concert/party. It's an experiment to see if I can get through the night."
Willis, a multimedia artist and onetime set designer for television and music videos by the likes of Debbie Harry and The Cars, isn't really worried about the gig for which she's created full-scale sets and kitschy food and beverages. She just wants everyone to have a good time. It won't be a surprise, either, if her celeb party posse (including Lily Tomlin, RuPaul, Roseanne Barr, and countless others) shows up to crash the stage during "Neutron Dance" or "What Have I Done to Deserve This."
Fresh off recent successes, including an April fundraiser for her alma mater, Detroit's Mumford High School (in which she conducted the marching band's rendition of her biggest hits at the city's fabled Fox Theater) and the three-year Broadway run and subsequent world tours of The Color Purple musical (which she wrote with Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray), Willis is ready for a new phase in her life.
"I'm someone who needs a whole new thing often," Willis says of her immersion into everything from painting to technology. Her "Willisville" online community, a wildly inventive precursor to something like Second Life, was devised with partner Prudence Fenton in the early 1990s -- years before most Americans even had AOL dial-up access or knew what a social network was -- and lauded by Fortune magazine as one of the emerging Internet's most exciting companies. (A Mac devotee, Willis was devastated by the recent death of Apple's Steve Jobs. "I can't think of anyone who has done more for civilization in our lifetime," she says.)
These days, while writing music, making video projects, helming her online Museum of Kitsch, working on upcoming art projects to benefit Detroit, and generally keeping ahead of the mainstream curve, Willis is less worried about her own recognition than the state of the arts. This Grammy winner has already been nominated for everything else (Emmy, Tony, Webby) but still has the desire to make a buck -- and an impact.
"I'm an eternally optimistic person who walks around pessimistic," Willis says of her mindset. "I try to write uplifting songs, because I want to be in a good mood when I write. I don't read, write or play music, but I love it so much. Just put me in front of a mic."
For more information about Allee Willis' Soup to Nuts Party Mix at the El Portal Theatre October 18, click here. For other upcoming Allee Willis events, click here.
www.AWMoK.com Verdine White and Larry Dunn of Earth, Wind & Fire join Luenell and Allee Willis, who wrote September and Boogie Wonderland, at the party for the grand opening of The Allee Willis Museum Of Kitsch at awmok.com that took place at Ghettogloss in LA on September 21, 2009, the date commemorated in the opening line of September, "Do you remember the 21st night of September?".
Mumford graduate, Allee Willis, whose songs have sold over 50000000 copies, conducts her high school marching band through a medley of some of her greatest hits with the cast of her Tony nominated musical, The Color Purple, singing along. Songs include "September", "Boogie Wonderland", "I'll Be There for You (Theme from Friends)"", "Neutron Dance", "Stir It Up", "In The Stone", and "The Color Purple". Mumford High School became famous in the movie, Beverly Hills Cop, when Eddie Murphy wore a Mumford Phys Ed T-shirt throughout the film. Willis received a Grammy for Best Soundtrack for Beverly Hills Cop. The performance took place at the historic Fox Theater in Detroit on April 9, 2011. www.alleewillis.com To donate to Mumford High, go here: store.alleewillis.com
2008 Webby Award Official Honoree Check out Editing Is Cool - www.youtube.com and I Confess - www.youtube.com Bubbles & Cheesecake celebrate their woman thang with their alter-egos, Grammy winning songwriter Allee Willis, whose songs have sold more than 50000000 records and who...
www.alleewillis.com Latest video from Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Webby award winning and nominated songwriter/ artist Allee Willis. Featuring 91 year old female drummer/singer on an oxygen tank, Jerrie Thill. See more at www.alleewillis.com
The latest video from Bubbles & Cheesecake. 2008 W3 Gold Award Winner. See how the song and video came together in Editing Is Cool parts 1 -7. www.alleewillis.com ALWAYS HIT THE 'WATCH IN HIGH QUALITY LINK above the views number. Check out "I Confess" www.youtube.com See the award winning "It's A Woman Thang" www.youtube.com "Editing Is Cool" Allee Willis/ Holly Palmer/ Paul Fox Well I don't know how I can make it through all the junk in my head. When I don't know how I can fake it I crawl right back in my bed. Now I don't like what you been sayin' and I just been letting it ride. It's too big a price I been payin' 'cuz I know I'm dyin' inside. Shake me down now, Shake me, Shake me down now Shake me down now, Shake me, Shake me down now Shake me down now, Shake me, Shake me down now Shake me down now, Shake me, Shake me down I see I smoke, drink and get crazy. I crumble when you're with me. I see... So I know it's obvious I should go, that this is ain't no way to grow I know... On and on we go, On and on Livin' in a 5 story walk up, never catchin my breath. And my credit cards are all locked up My new job bores me to death. My life is too complicated. Some friends aren't ain't really too kind. If I could get extricated everything would be fine. Shake it down now, Shake it, Shake it down now Shake it down now, Shake it, Shake it down Shake it down now, Shake it, Shake it down now Shake it down now, Shake it, Shake it down I see these habits ain't good for me. They never ...
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