The Most Prolific Detroit-born Songwriter You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
DIA to debut video from Allee Willis
Allee Willis bounds down the white marble steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts en route to lunch. When her table is ready, the hostess should have no trouble picking her out of the crowd.
She is adorned in bright gold high-top shoes, red-green-yellow-and-black striped pants, and an unbuttoned red flowered shirt covering a red T-shirt. The shirt depicts an African-American man and woman with Jheri curls around the logo “Soul Glo,” a salute to the hair care product celebrated in the 1988 Eddie Murphy film Coming to America.
In other words, her daytime attire.
“For probably every kid who grew up in Detroit, these steps [at the DIA] were a big deal,” says Willis, who grew up in Detroit, relocated to Los Angeles, and became a big deal herself.
Willis wrote a song that appeared in Coming to America (“Transparent,” performed by Nona Hendryx). She also composed mega-hits for Earth, Wind & Fire: “Boogie Wonderland” and “September.”
And “Neutron Dance” for the Pointer Sisters. And “You’re the Best” from The Karate Kid.
And the theme song for Friends, “I’ll Be There for You.” And co-wrote the music and lyrics to The Color Purple the Musical, coming to the Fisher Theatre Nov. 7-12.
With Grammy, Emmy, Tony, Webby, and Outer Critics Circle awards and nominations to her credit and more than 60 million copies of her songs sold, Willis is the most prolific and successful Detroit-born songwriter you’ve probably never heard of.
That is likely to change when the DIA hosts the Sept. 28 premiere of Willis’ ultimate love song to her hometown: her “micro-documentary,” original recording and history-making singalong, “The D.”
Five years in the making, “The D” is a music video showcasing the vocal skills of 5,000 (yes, that’s right) Detroiters, believed to be the most people ever recorded on a single song. She envisions transforming the DIA’s Josephine F. & Walter B. Ford II Great Hall into a huge, kitsch-and-music-heavy bazaar to welcome the participants and their friends.
“They have pretty much given me free rein, so I can choose wherever in the museum I want,” Willis says. “But it won’t be a multi-stage event. Just a citywide party.”
And one the DIA is delighted to throw.
“Allee is one of Detroit’s biggest boosters, and ‘The D’ includes dozens of organizations and thousands of people that represent the heart of Detroit,” says museum director Salvador Salort-Pons. “We’re excited she chose to unveil her ‘love song to the city’ at the DIA where, like in her tribute, everyone is welcome.”
A graduate of Mumford High School, Willis spoke at her alma mater in 2011, which got her nostalgic juices bubbling. “I was always emotionally attached to the school, but all of a sudden I knew people there and that makes a difference,” she says.
“I was so sick of people saying horrible things about Detroit, going ‘Awww, that’s so sad’ if you said you were from here. I grew up here in the ’50s and ’60s, and that was the greatest time ever. Detroit was a magic city, the most exciting place to be.”
She reached out to one of her best friends, fellow Detroiter Lily Tomlin, to join creative forces in helping revive Detroit’s image. “We talked forever about ‘Let’s do something,’ but every time we made plans Lily would get a gig and couldn’t come,” Willis explains. “You wouldn’t believe how hard she works.
“So I thought, ‘What could I pull off by myself?’ I do two things well: writing songs and throwing parties.” (Willis is known for her glitzy soirees at her pink Valley Village, Calif., home.)
“What if I write a song, stop on street corners and teach a bunch of Detroiters to sing it?”
She wrote “The D” with “one of my favorite collaborators,” L.A.-based composer Andrae Alexander. That was the easy part.
“I was joking about ‘I’ll just stop on street corners,’ but that’s not really what I wanted to do,” she says. “We would call places and try to set up singalongs, but it was hard to firm up locations.”
Ultimately she convinced the Detroit Historical Museum to share her lyrical vision. “They were the first place to sign on and they were magnificent, incredible,” she says. “When we did our singalongs there, they placed my handprints in cement!”
That opened the floodgates to more than 70 recordings over two years in places from the Detroit Yacht Club and Detroit Opera House to laundromats, restaurants, and synagogues.
“We did an unbelievable session at United Sound [Systems Recording Studios] with 40 guitar and bass players at the same time,” Willis says. “Everyone said, ‘You can’t do it, just plop down microphones and record.’ I said, ‘I’ve always done it that way, and this is what we’re doing.’”
The 5,000 lead singers on “The D” include a vast cross-section of city residents mixed with some very familiar voices. Along with Tomlin, such made-in-Detroit notables as Keegan-Michael Key, Ray Parker Jr., Lamont Dozier, Mary Wilson, pawnbroker Les Gold, the Contours, and John Sinclair joined in.
The acclaimed Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, for whom Willis threw a celebrity-splashed fundraiser at her home last April, also plays a prominent role.
“It’s the first time in my career I stopped everything to concentrate on one thing,” says Willis, who bankrolled the entire effort. “I’m a self-financed artist, so I’m always broke. All a hit [song] ever meant to me was I could [do] another crazy thing like spend five years on this Detroit project.”
Willis, who has had a videographer — at the moment, a blithe young man named Sean Welch — record her every waking moment since 1978 in anticipation of what someday will be a mind-blowing documentary, says, “I want people to feel the same spirit I felt growing up in Detroit, that I feel all people who grew up here have.
“People who grew up in Detroit have a pride that’s unlike anywhere else, because the city has been so embattled. Look at all Detroit has given to the world, and what still endures.”
This is the beginning of a frenetic hometown season for Willis. She says she’s set to be the first performer at the old Michigan Central Station Sept. 13, appear at a gallery opening at Eastern Market Sept. 23, be part of the annual “Detroit Performs Live” concert at The Fillmore Detroit Nov. 3, and escort a bevy of friends to the Fisher for The Color Purple.
However, “The D” is at the top of her list. And her heart.
“I’m proud of it,” Willis says.
“I’m not sure how I did it. But I’ll never do it again, I can tell you that much.”