Famed Songwriter Allee Willis Talks Writing 'The Color Purple' and 'Friends' Theme Songs, Working with Music Legends, Success, and More
Allee Willis is one of the most prolific songwriters in the country, writing countless hits including the theme song to Friends “I’ll Be There For You” and “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. She has collaborated with artists from a diverse range of genres and sold over 60 million records. In 1985, she won a Grammy for Best Soundtrack for “Beverly Hills Cop” and she has recently achieved induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 14, 2018, in New York City. She'll also receive the Distinguished Achievement Award at the Detroit Music Awards on May 4th at The Fillmore in her hometown of Detroit.
In addition to writing world-renowned songs, Willis is a successful artist and describes herself as an “artist, a multimedia artist, writer, director, producer, collector, party-thrower, songwriter.”
Get to know Allee better here:
You grew up in Detroit and later wrote “The D” for Detroit. How has your hometown inspired you and your work?
In every way possible. Growing up, I was obsessed with Motown. My parents used to drive me down there, and then when I got my driver’s license, I would drive myself down there literally every Saturday. I never, to this day, despite writing both music and lyrics that have sold 60 million records, I never learned how to play. So when someone says to me, ‘how to you know how to write music,’ I literally just say ‘I’m from Detroit’. I’m very attracted to the underdog, the misunderstood, the disenfranchised – especially for the past ten years or so – felt like the ultimate defender of it. It’s an incredible city. Now I think’s it’s being recognized. It’s just an incredibly soulful, vibrant city that has this horrible picture painted of it. I wrote that song and did that video, ‘The D’ because I really wanted people to feel the soul and heartbeat of the city. It’s really the people that make that city.
You’ve collaborated with such artists as Bob Dylan, Patti LaBelle, and James Brown. What has your experience been working with such iconic figures?
Patti was the first one who would regularly do my songs – like do a couple each album. In that case, I was just writing the songs and giving them to her. My kind of thing with all of these people, especially the really famous ones, they would say ‘we’re being put with all these younger writers and they’re playing bad Bob Dylan for us or bad James Brown.’ And my thing was, I would really want to get to know the person and write about something truly interesting to them; not just give them a hit. I tended to have a really good and interesting relationship with them, James Brown especially. I had a ball with him, and he absolutely loved my place. I’m a big collector, so it’s a very colorful, vibrant house. There’s nothing in it that isn’t vintage. When you work with artists of that caliber, they’re visual as well as just caring about the music. We would always work in my house and end up playing half the time – not an instrument but literally just playing.
Could you describe the creative process in developing such popular songs as “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” performed by Earth, Wind & Fire?
I always loved writing both music and lyrics. On ‘September,’ that happened because my friend was dating someone in Earth, Wind, & Fire. I was a total starving artist, and I got a call from Maurice [White] asking me to co-write the entire next album with him. It was one of those things like ‘Are you kidding?’ How does this even happen?’ September was the very first song we wrote. The music had been done already, so I just came on the lyrics. That was just a matter of sitting with him and getting his thoughts down on paper.
"Boogie Wonderland" was a completely outside song that I co-wrote the music and lyrics. We decided we really wanted to write a pop/disco song for them. We knew we wanted to use the word "boogie" but not use it in the sense everyone else was using it, which just meant to dance. I had actually seen the movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar the night before. It’s about a woman who has no sense about herself, but she goes out to the disco every night to forget about her horrible life during the day. She picks up all these different guys, and one night, she brings home someone the audience is led to be a serial killer. So we really wanted to write a song about someone who really did not have a lot of self-confidence but would enter this euphoric, kind of dangerous state every night by going to the disco. If you listen to "Boogie Wonderland," the verses are very dark both lyrically and musically. And then it explodes into this very kind of happy, almost Broadway melodic chorus. When I write by myself or co-write with someone and we’re going to bring a song to someone, I can go way deeper than if you’re just writing with the artist. Basically you’re just there to help them get their thoughts and rhythm out.
What can you tell us about your work on the Tony and Grammy-winning Broadway musical, “The Color Purple”?
We were extremely glad to have this show come back to Broadway eight years after it originally opened. We adored the first version, but it was realized as a big Broadway show and when we were writing it, were envisioning this very intimate setting, almost like you’re sitting on their front porch with the characters. In the demo, instead of instruments, we were using eggbeaters and pots and pans and beer bottles for the rhythm. This time, when it came back in 2015 (which is the version that won the Grammy and the Tony), it was directed by John Doyle, and he stripped everything out of it – the sets, the costumes, the wig changes, the makeup – and really all there was music, lyrics, dialogue, character.
So many people said to us, ‘Did you write new songs? What was cut out?’ And the answer is nothing. There was 10 minutes of dialogue cut. The music wasn’t changed at all. It was just that all the glitz and everything was stripped out and you were left with the pure show. It took us four and a half years every day to write. Definitely a very intense experience. But I tend to love projects like that, and I approach them from a very global place where it wasn’t just like we were writing, but my whole memorabilia collection kind of shifted to black southern culture in the first part of the twentieth century. We were kind of living and writing in the environment the characters would have been in. I like to create authentic experiences. I’m a huge believer that environment affects everything.
You are soon-to-be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Could you describe what that means to you?
I didn’t think it was going to be that important to me, because, I didn’t think I was going to get in – not that I didn’t think I deserved it; I did think I deserved it – but these things (like any campaign from the Oscars on down), you have to actively campaign to get it. And I’m always very uncomfortable with that, so I just assumed it wasn’t going to happen and when it did, I was thrilled a thousand times more than I thought I would’ve been thrilled. It feels great. It definitely feels like validation. I’m someone who never stops; I’m still as active as I always was. And I’m very proud that my music kind of goes across genres. And it really is a big deal, and I feel it more than I ever thought I would. I’m very happy about that.
Could you talk about Bubbles the Artist and your artistic work outside the music industry?
I’ve never been, other than maybe the first couple years, just a songwriter. When someone asks me what I do, I describe myself as an artist, a multimedia artist, writer, director, producer, collector, party-thrower, songwriter. I try and weave all of those things together as much as I can in anything I do. I had a whole separate art career that started in 1983. I was horribly bored writing songs. I was getting over a hundred songs cut a year, which meant I was writing hundreds more. It was pushing me further and further away. And out of the blue, I just started to paint, and I kind of had this built-in audience because I was writing with so many people. I painted my first painting one night, and the next day I was writing with one of the Go-Gos' Jane Wiedlin. She came in and bought the piece. A lot of the paintings had musical themes, and that kind of grew into me designing sets. Then in the 90s, I got completely obsessed with technology. I wanted to stop all the linear stuff I was doing and just concentrate on that. I started prototyping a social network in 1992; my CEO was Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban from Shark Tank. We were way, way too early, but I spent most the 90s trying to concentrate on that. When I wrote the theme for Friends, “I’ll Be There For You,” that was only to get out of my music publishing deal so I would never have to write a song again. Then I stopped completely.
But by the end of the 90s, I decided writing songs and painting feels really interesting to me again. I missed working with artists as opposed to people that code. I didn’t really know how to get back in, so I thought of the moniker Bubbles the Artist, and what I did was, I painted 100 paintings in a month, and I had an auction – it was like my first big party in seven or eight years – and I made a bid deal about discovering this artist who was the most talented act I had found since the Del Rubios. And all the paintings were hanging around my backyard, and I live in the house that was built as the party house for Warner Brothers in 1937. So each painting had a story that went along with it, and I sold 92 out of 100 paintings. And to everyone who signed up in these silent auctions, I would do copy paintings. So Bubbles ended up in her first year selling over 1000 paintings. It ended up supporting me throughout the writing of “The Color Purple.” Bubbles was really paying the bills. Most people knew it was me, but everyone went along with the joke. Lily Tomlin hired Bubbles to design her website. Lily actually owns the most Bubbles pieces; next is RuPaul. I retired Bubbles the week “The Color Purple” opened, but I am bringing her out of retirement. It’s time. Bubbles is officially coming back.
How do you use your creative talent to inspire society?
I’m a great believer that if people could tap into their inner creativity, the world would be a lot happier, so I do whatever I can to make everyone feel like they’re worth something. The music, the art, the parties, the shows – everything – I just to make everything very happy, very upbeat but very very real. I realized a long time ago with songwriting that you could take very serious topics and if you couch them in very bouncy music, you could get all these things across. People who were really listening to the lyrics would understand it’s a really serious topic but it’s making you happy as you think about it. For me, that’s the ultimate approach to life. You’ve got something serious to deal with. If you going look at it as a tragedy, it’s going to be very hard to get through. If you’re going to look at it as a challenge and have this great attitude, that’s a far more pleasant way to go through life. I try to put that into everything I do.
What’s next for you professionally?
I’m actually collaborating with a ton of people now. My concentration now is much more on performing. I treat it as a party host as opposed to a singer-songwriter. I auction off tons of stuff from my collection. I paint and build my own sets, and then sell the sets. As far as writing goes, no more just writing someone’s music because they need the song finished. I’m only working with people who really turn me on. I’m working with an artist in Detroit, because, the Detroit music scene is as vibrant now as back in the 60s. I’m working with an artist whose music heavily involves technology. So I just want to do things that are very interesting to me, but the main concentration would be performing.