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Allee Willis: Creativity Without Boundaries

Posted in MusicWorld on October 16, 2008 by

It’s not every songwriter whose resume includes watching her output help sell over 50 million records, making her Broadway composing debut with the financial blessing of Oprah Winfrey, and keeping an active hand in the worlds of art direction, animation, and performance art, which led People magazine to call her “a multi-threat creativity that itself seems like a Godzilla out to conquer LaLa Land.”

Oh, and did we mention that she also created a prototype for the first social network in the early 1990s, roughly a dozen years before MySpace and Facebook?

In case you hadn’t guessed, not every songwriter is Allee Willis, whose Wikipedia entry identifies her as “an American songwriter, artist, set designer, multimedia artist, writer, and director.”

Not bad for someone who in a recent profile declared, “If you ask me to sit down and even play the intro to any of [my songs], I would have no idea where even the first note was.”

For a career that spans not only writing such enduring hits as Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” the theme song to TV’s Friends, “I’ll Be There for You,” and the Pet Shop Boys/Dusty Springfield duet “What Have I Done to Deserve This,” and also co-authoring Broadway smash The Color Purple, it comes as something of a surprise that Willis never took formal training.

She did, however, grow up in Detroit, and spent a significant amount of time on a lawn near Motown Studios, absorbing the sounds that would sometimes leak out. Moving to New York in 1969, Willis landed a copywriting job at Columbia and Epic Records before beginning to write her own songs. Moving to L.A. in the late ’70s, she secured a publishing deal with A&M that ultimately led to collaborations with everyone from Bob Dylan and James Brown to Herbie Hancock and Patti Labelle.

“[EWF leader] Maurice White heard about me, and then one day I got a phone call: ‘This is Maurice White. I want you to come write the next Earth, Wind & Fire album.’” The resulting collaboration helped cross EWF over to pop audiences, and gave Willis the momentum that’s since shown no signs of slowing down.

By the early ’90s she’d developed willisville, a combination of story-driven virtual world and social network, which in turn led to her helping Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner launch lilytomlin.com.

Willis’s latest multi-media project revolves around Bubbles, an artist who sold over 1,000 paintings and ceramic works before it was revealed in 2007 that she was, in fact, Willis’s alter ego. Now performing as “Bubbles & Cheesecake,” the virtual duo had a YouTube hit with their first music video, “It’s a Woman Thang,” while the current “Editing Is Cool” deconstructs the song- and video-making process.

“I’m way more interested in what it takes to get there than I am in final destinations,” Willis declares.

Which is just as well, as predicting just where Willis will show up next is impossible to guess.