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Songwriter delivers new Detroit anthem for her home town

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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Allee Willis has written all sorts of songs during the past five decades, including hits for Earth, Wind & Fire (“September,” “Boogie Wonderland”), the Grammy Award-winning stage musical “The Color Purple” and the Emmy Award-nominated theme song from TV’s “Friends,” “I’ll Be There For You.”

But her passion project has been a song for -- and by -- her home town of Detroit.

This week Willis -- a Mumford High School alumnus whose credits also include songs for Bette Midler, Patti LaBelle, Toto, the Pet Shop Boys, the Pointer Sisters and more -- will premiere her song “The D” during a special event at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It’s the culmination of a self-financed six-year project during which Willis, through a series of recorded “singalongs” in the city, put together more than 5,000 vocal and instrumental tracks into a celebratory anthem.

The timing is perfect for the city’s recent resurgence from bankruptcy, but it was darker times that actually inspired Willis, 69, into action.

“I just got so sick of the hate,” Willis, sporting her trademark bright, colorful attire, says over lunch at the Traffic Jam & Snug in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. “You would tell people you were from Detroit and all you would get is ‘Ooooh’ or these signs of pity, and it made me insane.

“I feel, especially as a music person but even in general, you are descended from royalty if you come from this city. It’s such an incredible, soulful place. That’s what people need to know about it. So I thought, ‘Let me write a theme song for Detroit, but make it with the people of Detroit.”

Using both her musical skills and a knack for throwing parties that’s made her something of a legend in Los Angeles, where she now resides, Willis staged some 60 singalongs in Detroit, including sessions at legendary United Sound Studios and in public places such as the DIA, the Detroit Historical Museum, churches and even the living room of the house where she grew up. The vast majority of participants are from the general public, though Willis also enlisted some Motor City and Michigan musical compatriots such as Motowners Lamont Dozier, Valerie Simpson, Paul Riser and Martha Reeves along with Mayer Hawthorne and fellow Grammy Award-winner Narada Michael Walden.

Willis also created a short-form video about the endeavor, while a longer documentary is also on tap.

“It’s just meant to show the spirit of the people of Detroit,” Willis says. “I wanted to write something that would accompany the reimagination of the city -- even though that wasn’t happening yet when I started but is definitely going on now.”

Willis hopes this week’s premiere of “The D” will add to project as well. The song and video premiere will be accompanied by the creation of a visual work called “We Are The D,” allowing attendees to draw self-portraits on paper plates that will then be affixed to a wall at the DIA for what Willis envisions as “a mass Detroiter art piece.”

“My challenge is to create an Allee Willis party out of town in this massive space,” she explains. “I view the party as a companion piece to the first music chunk of it. I’m obsessed with mass collaboration, so anything I can do to execute on that vision, I do.

“And what we’re doing here is really special. Detroit has been an incredible city to collaborate with, and what an unbelievable place to grow up. I want this to be a positive piece of all the good things that are happening her right now.”

If You Go:

• Allee Willis’ “The De” Premiere Party

• 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28.

• Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave.

• Admission is free, but reservations are required.

• Call 313-833-7900 or visit dia.org.

Web Site: www.dia.org

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