Allee Willis was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame on June 14, 2018, an honor long overdue. She is the writer of classic hits for Earth Wind and Fire (including September), the Pointer Sisters, Patti Labelle and others; writer of Boogie Wonderland, the theme from Friends – “I’ll Be There For You” – and co-writer of the musical The Color Purple; few are more deserving.
On the eve of that award, a month prior, in Detroit, she debuted her multi-media One Woman Show, LIVE in DETROIT, that tells – in her inimitable, wacky way – the story of her extraordinary life.
Allee has spent the last years moving back and forth between her pink, kitsch-filled home in L.A. and her hometown Detroit. A musical savant, her writing of scores of songs – without the ability to read or even play music – has its roots in the ’60’s musical culture of the Motor City. Back then Allee, a fuzzy-haired Jewish girl from the city’s West Side, immersed herself in the city’s soon to be majority Black culture – very much unlike most Whites in the rapidly changing city. She hung out after school and on weekends on the Motown stoop, listening to the soulful sounds that one could often hear outside. She left for California and her songwriting career blew up.
Today she is a legendary party-thrower, though not of the chic soirée variety – her gatherings are celebratory exercises in advanced child’s play – balloons, crayons, toys, unlimited candy – and Kool-Aid. Her One Woman Show is like one of these amazing parties, and mirrors her fantabulous every day existence.
The multi-media performance, which opened at the Detroit City Theatre, was an assemblage of various stages of Allee-life – her parties, her talks, her collection of kitsch, her music, her videos, and her entourage – a translation of the Allee Willis shtick – and genius – into performance art. Balloons covered stage front, bouncing into the audience, the stage was draped in long, golden, fringes of tacky, glittery garland, like on a kid’s TV show – the audience is primed for fun.
Through it all, she weaves the story of her life and career with punctuation marks of calls and responses by her clowning, ever-smiling, pianist side-kick Andrae Alexander, and on stage high-fives from one of her favorite Detroiters, Chef Greg, who makes the Boogaloo Wonderland Sandwich that Allee loves, hypes and shares whenever she can (an old West-Side neighborhood staple, it was reborn by Chef Greg, and partially renamed for Allee’s Boogie Wonderland). He cooks in his west side Hole-In-The-Wall cafe, the older version of which was where she used to wait at the bus stop after school. Mid-show, he offers his signature paper cups of Kool-Aid to the audience. Her ubiqitous videographer Sean Welch is also a part of Allee’s real-life and onstage world.
Interwoven with the silliness are funny and poignant vignettes – of Allee’s early, dead-serious adoration of Motown and love of Black culture (loathed by her father); of life on the way to songwriting fame, with the co-incidences, favor and preternatural proclivity for lyrics and tunes that have marked her career; her tales of life with Hollywood and music Royalty – including Liz Taylor and Sammy Davis Jr.; and she throws a Detroit oak tree’s worth of shade on an old acquaintance, the singer Phoebe Snow.
Some remembrances are salty, some so hilarious I couldn’t stopped laughing through her entire telling of them – and some are both.
Mid show, when attention might have lagged, Allee burst into a raucous, three-wing circus-like auction of items from her internationally renowned collection of pop culture kitsch – including a singing James Brown Bobble Head, a MLK/JFK/Bobby K velvet banner and a historic MLK record album, the latter two standard items in many Black homes, back in the day. Her co-auctioneer was her friend from the old neighborhood, Les Gold, of the Hardcore Pawn reality show. Several pieces were sold for serious prices – but fun was the primary motive for the sales.
On the night of her show’s debut, she hurled a tasty brickbat about Taylor Swifts’ cover of her song September, which had just broken the internet; Allee referenced the word “turtle” relative to the song’s tempo, among other choice morsels. An account of the rebuke went viral on social media, recounting the moment, but leaving out her final, rueful salvo – that it actually wasn’t all that bad.
With her signature asymmetrical, chopped bob, and her usual assemblage of delightfully mannish, embellished vintage duds, and ubiquitous hi-top gym shoes – in shiny gold for the show – she led her audience through a deceptively jovial narrative on the trajectory of her career. For beneath the surface of her non-stop, mile-a-minute persona, is a magician performing a madcap sleight of hand, hiding the doubtless countless slings during a lifetime of being brilliantly different; a musical Pierrot accustomed to never quite fitting. A Jewish woman obsessed with Black music – and, most importantly, in love with Black people and culture – during years when the Whites in her world were being driven from the city by instigated animus and racial fear. She has created African-American musical classics without a trace of appropriation or mimicry, yet capturing the essential zeitgeist of our cultural experience.
Allee and the Music
Somehow, in her real love of the culture of Detroit, she admired and absorbed it – without ever becoming a caricature of a blue-eyed soulster. She has had a life amidst Black music, and is able to assemble the many facets of her existence to create it – and gain the admiration of those in the culture for doing so.
She experienced the rejection of her cultural preferences by her father, but doubtless many others in her community as well – a life spent not quite fitting – but not caring if she didn’t. She doesn’t exactly look or act like the suburban ladies-who-lunch peers from her growing up.
Allee is rightfully in the lineage of songwriters from Tin Pan Alley to Carole King, but her allegiance to soul music puts her more in line with Holland-Dozier-Holland, of Motown – and Stevie Wonder. There was a moment during the show, when the lyrics to one of her Earth Wind and Fire songs were projected onto a big screen, and this writer was struck by the deceptively simple, yet sacred nature of the lyrics. Another song played, and it was clear that many of Allee’s songs are a form of gospel.
Allee Willis is a musical savant, one of the musical and lyrical engines behind the iconic, stage version of The Color Purple. She’s a White woman who’s career achievements are touchstones of modern Black American cultural life, though, until recently, not widely known in her own home town – even after having created the largest music video ever made – “The D” – with over 5,000 Detroit participants. One could argue that she is as important to Detroit’s musical legacy as Diana Ross or Martha Reeves.
A documenter of virtually every public move or utterance that she makes – by her always on hand videographer – one wonders if she must do so – to affirm her incongruous, gifted existence. All of this and more plays out on the stage of her One Woman Show, and if I could, I’d see it all again, to watch a savant at work and play – and to experience her sheer exuberance – here in her hometown Detroit.