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Detroit songwriter Allee Willis never forgot where she was from
Allee Willis achieved international fame as a songwriter, penning hits for Earth, Wind & Fire along with the theme from "Friends" ("I'll Be There For You") and the stage musical adaptation of "The Color Purple."
But Willis -- who died Tuesday, Dec. 24, at the age of 72 from what her publicist called "a cardiac event" -- never forgot her Detroit roots.
"Truthfully, whenever anyone asks me how I got into (songwriting) the first thing I say is 'I'm from Detroit,'" Willis, who was born in Detroit and graduated from Mumford High School, said during a 2018 visit to her home town. "I grew up completely obsessed -- with Motown, specifically, but then all the black labels and black radio stations. Literally, my entire life was listening to the radio."
The obsession served Willis well -- to the tune of two Grammy Awards (in 1986 for her contributions to the "Beverly Hills Cop" soundtrack and in 2016 for "The Color Purple" cast album), Tony and Emmy Award nominations, a 2018 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and a Distinguished Achievement Award at that year's Detroit Music Awards. Her multi-media project "The D," an audio and visual love letter to Detroit, premiered in 2018 as well at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
And in September she was honored by the Motown Museum at a gala celebrating the label's 60th anniversary.
Earth, Wind & Fire -- for whom Willis co-wrote hits such as "September," "Boogie Wonderland" and "In the Stone" -- posted a social media message that Willis "was a one-of-a-kind creative genius. Her love, spirit and artistry are forever woven into the fabric and legacy of Earth, Wind & Fire. She will be sorely missed. Rest in love." The group's frontman Philip Bailey added that, "It would be like Allee Willis to Take Flight at a time of the most Holy of days. You will be missed my friend..."
Motown Museum CEO Robin Terry also posted a message that Willis "was an exceptional songwriter and a truly unique human being. We feel deeply honored to have worked with her...Her colorful energy will be missed in the world but her spirit will live on in the iconic songs she created for all of us to enjoy."
In addition to her music, Willis was also known as a hostess of lavish parties at her Los Angeles home as well as an avant garde furniture maker and a collector of art and kitsch. Detroit philanthropist and musician Ethan Daniel Davidson recalled a visit to Willis' home where, among other things, she showed them the late Sammy Davis Jr.'s last stash of marijuana, with a note from the entertainer, that she kept in a small box.
"My vision always was I want to take all these things -- the art, lifestyle, technology, music -- and merge them all together, which I'm still on a quest to do," Willis said. "It's been a very fun ride -- torturous at times, but I wouldn't trade it with anyone."
Besides listening to the radio, Willis' love of music led her to hang out on the lawn in front of Motown's Hitsville USA headquarters as a teenager, often sparring with her father about her affinity for black music and culture. She went on to study at the University of Wisconsin and took a job in New York writing ads and press materials for Columbia Records. She moved on to songwriting and performing, releasing one album -- "Childstar" in 1974 -- before moving to Los Angeles where she met Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White and began her career as a writer for hire.
Willis' other hits include "Neutron Dance" for the Pointer Sisters and "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" for Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield. Willis also wrote for Debby Boone, Jennifer Holiday, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Patti LaBelle, Cyndi Lauper, and Rita Coolidge, among others, as well as the theme from "The Karate Kid," "You're the Best." In recent months she was also writing with Detroit rapper Big Sean.
"The D," which included a song and video, was the culmination of a self-financed six-year project built from more than 5,000 vocal and instrumental tracks she recorded during a series of visits to the city. "'The D' was meant to be something I would build on," Willis said at the time. "That was meant to give me a foothold back there. I wanted to keep doing things that were very much associated with Detroit. I wanted to show this is not a city to be forgotten about and show off the soulfulness of the people who are there."
Willis is survived by Prudence Fenton, her partner of 27 years. Memorial arrangements for Willis are pending.
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