Alta Sherral “ALLEE” WILLIS was an American songwriter, artist and art director born on this date (d: 2019). Willis co-wrote hit songs including “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind & Fire. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for “I’ll Be There For You”, which was used as the theme song for the sitcom Friends, and won two Grammy Awards for Beverly Hills Cop and The Color Purple, the latter of which was also nominated for a Tony Award. She was the only woman inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018. As a multimedia artist, she was one half of Bubbles & Cheesecake.
Her first and only album, Childstar, in 1974, did not sell well, and she stopped performing because she did not enjoy it. However, the album attracted the interest of Bonnie Raitt, who became the first musician to cover one of her songs. After moving to Los Angeles, she worked as a songwriter at A&M Records from 1977, and also wrote songs with, and for, Patti Labelle and Herbie Hancock.
She worked at a comedy club and hung posters for four years. A mutual friend introduced her to Verdine White, and in turn to Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. In the late 1970s she worked with Maurice White on the lyrics for her first big hit, “September”, among other songs, and then co-wrote “Boogie Wonderland” with Jon Kind and “In The Stone” with Maurice White and David Foster.
Willis also wrote songs for artists including Debby Boone, Rita Coolidge, Crystal Gayle, Sister Sledge, Jennifer Holiday,, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Cyndi Lauper, Crystal Waters, and Taylor Dayne. Songs she co-composed for other artists that became hits include “Lead Me On” by Maxine Nightingale, “Neutron Dance” by the Pointer Sisters, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” by Pet Shop Boys featuring Dusty Springfield, and “I’ll Be There For You” by The Rembrandts. Used as the theme song of the sitcom Friends the song went on to become one of the biggest television theme songs of all time. Willis jokingly referred to this song as “the whitest song I ever wrote”. In 1995 Willis was Emmy-nominated for the song.
In the 1980s, after starting to paint and make motorized sculptures, she became an art director for music videos, and worked on videos for such musicians as Debbie Harry and The Cars. In 1997, she addressed a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, to make the case for the property rights of BMI songwriters. She gave a keynote address at the first Digital World conference in 1992 and lectured on interactive journalism and on self-expression in cyberspace. She also co-wrote the Tony-nominated and Grammy-winning Broadway musical The Color Purple, first performed in 2005. As of 2018, a major motion picture based on the musical was in the early stages of development, being produced by Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, and Scott Sanders.
Willis continued to work as an art director and set designer, and in 2008 won awards for her work with musician Holly Palmer on the music video artwork Allee Willis Presents Bubbles & Cheesecake. As an artist, she created paintings, ceramics and sculptures, and from 2009 she curated the Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch website. She launched a series of fundraising events in Detroit in 2010, with marching bands, in support of the city. In September 2017 Willis premiered “The D”, a passion project she wrote, recorded, and produced for her hometown of Detroit, at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Her compositions are reported to have sold over 60 million records.
Willis was noted for hosting spectacular parties at her home just outside Hollywood. She said: “I always had a music career, an art career, set designer, film and video, technology. The parties really became the only place I could combine everything.”
Willis was in a relationship from 1992 until her death with Prudence Fenton, an animator and producer. Willis died in Los Angeles on December 24, 2019, at the age of 72. The cause of death was cardiac arrest.