Allee Willis Co-Writes Classic Hits For Earth, Wind & Fire, Pointer Sisters, Pet Shop Boys, And Co-Writes The Color Purple Broadway Musical

Allee Willis
Allee Willis

Los Angeles-based songwriter Allee Willis has had an exceptional, multi-faceted career. She is best known for co-writing such classic hit songs as “Boogie Wonderland” and “September” for Earth, Wind & Fire, “I’ll Be There For You” for the Rembrandts (the theme song of the hit TV series, Friends), “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” for the Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield, “Neutron Dance” for the Pointer Sisters, and “Lead Me On” for Maxine Nightingale.

In addition to these hits, Willis has co-written many other songs for artists in several genres. For Earth, Wind & Fire, she co-wrote their R&B hit “In The Stone,” and she co-wrote six songs on the group’s double platinum, 1979 album, I Am. She’s also had cuts with Patti LaBelle, Deniece Williams, Bette Midler, Jennifer Holliday, Cyndi Lauper, Manhattan Transfer, Boy George, Sister Sledge, Toto, Crystal Gayle, Taylor Dayne and Narada Michael Walden. Notably, Willis won a Grammy Award for contributing to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, and she has been nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Impressively, Willis has also achieved success in musical theatre, co-writing all the songs (with Brenda Russell & Stephen Bray) for the hit Broadway musical, The Color Purple, which was produced by Oprah Winfrey. The show first opened in 2005 and received several Tony Award nominations. Then in 2015, the show was successfully revived in a new production, and subsequently won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

In addition to her music accomplishments, Willis has been successful in other endeavors. She is an accomplished artist and designer, who has sold thousands of paintings, sculptures, ceramics and furniture designs. Willis has also directed videos for Debbie Harry, the Cars and Heart.

Currently, Willis has assembled a live show called “BaDeYa, Baby! (named after a famous phrase in her hit “September”) where she and her band perform her classic songs in concert. The show also features many video excerpts, plus Willis’ recollections and stories about her songs.

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Allee Willis. Willis, who speaks in a deep voice and has a wry sense of humor, discusses her great career and tells how she wrote her classic songs.

DK: I read that you’re from Detroit. How did you get started with music and writing songs?

Allee Willis: I grew up in Detroit when Motown Records was coming up—that was really the key for me, just being obsessed with that music and having my ear glued to the radio. When I got my driver’s license, I would drive down to Motown and just sit on the front lawn. You could hear the music being recorded coming out of the walls. So it was  just being a massive music fan—pop music, R&B, soul…making me happy.


Here’s a video of Allee Willis performing in her live show, “BaDeYa, Baby!”

I didn’t really start writing songs until I was 22. I had graduated college (at University of Wisconsin-Madison) and I was a Journalism major. I wanted to be in advertising; I actually minored in advertising. Someone told me they had advertising departments at record companies, and there were more record companies in New York than anywhere else, so I moved there. Then I got a job at Columbia Records. I was a secretary for about a month, then I became a junior copywriter, and I wrote the radio commercials and print ads for all of the minority groups, which at that time was for blacks and females.

Eventually, I just bought a piano and I bought a tape recorder, and I wrote three songs and I took them to my boss (at the label). I didn’t tell them (at first) who it was, and I got a deal! And then I had an album out, with literally the first 10 songs I ever wrote.

DK: How did you like being an artist?

Willis: After the album was released, I went on tour, but I wasn’t happy. I was terrified of performing. I was eventually dropped from the label, about six months after the album came out. And on that day, a friend of mine said, “Well, you were just dropped…you shouldn’t be alone. Come to this recording session with me.” {Being at a session] was the last place you want to be when you’re dropped.  But I went and as luck would have it, as soon as I walked in, the artist knew who I was and literally just said, “Turn around and go home and write me a song.” And that artist was Bonnie Raitt. She recorded my song (“Got You on My Mind”) and that became my very first cover.

DK: Was it around that time that you decided to focus on songwriting?

Willis: Yes, it was clear to me that I just wanted to be a songwriter, because that was the part of the whole process that I really enjoyed the most at that point. So I started doing it, and you figure now that I’ve gotten my first record, it’s going to keep on coming. But that didn’t happen. I would get a couple things cut a year, or I’d get a cut with a big artist but it wouldn’t be the single.

Finally, Patti LaBelle actually heard some of my songs, and she paid for me to come to San Francisco where she was recording. By that time I was living in Los Angeles. So Patti flew me up there and I recorded some demos. She introduced me to Herbie Hancock, who was also in the studio. So I started writing with both of them, although I still wasn’t getting the singles. But between writing with them and knowing someone who was friends with Verdine White and Earth, Wind & Fire, I started writing with Verdine and then within a couple weeks, I was writing with Maurice White and we wrote “September.” [Soon after] I was asked to write the whole next Earth Wind & Fire album (called I Am), and then the whole thing exploded.


Here’s a video of Earth, Wind & Fire performing “Boogie Wonderland,”
which was co-written by Allee Willis.

DK: “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” are such great songs. Can you tell me how you co-wrote these songs?

Willis: With “Boogie Wonderland,” [Jon Lind and I] just wanted to write a song—disco was so huge. Everyone was using the term “boogie,” meaning to dance. So we wanted to use that, not in the classic sense of it just meaning dancing. So we thought a lot about, “Why do people go out to discos?” Well, they go out because they’re lonely; they want to meet someone and hook up. But that is not necessarily coming from someone with supreme confidence, or someone who really knows where their life is going. So I was much more interested in exploring the mindset of someone who felt the need to go to a club every night. And I had just seen the movie, Looking For Mr. Goodbar, starring Diane Keaton. So that song is based on that movie. If you really dissect the lyrics in that song, the first verse is just about the height of desperation, like not knowing where your life is going. You know, you’re looking in the mirror, and it’s staring back at you and telling you you’re not good enough. And then you just go…Screw it. I’m just going to go to the club and dance. So to us, “Boogie Wonderland” was really a state of mind, that you would enter in order to escape the reality of your life.

DK: Thanks for explaining that. Can you tell me how you wrote “September”?

Allee Willis: “September” was the third song in a trilogy that had already been started by Maurice White and Al McKay. The first was “Sing A Song,” which was an Earth, Wind & Fire hit, then came “Best Of My Love” by the Emotions, and “September” was meant to be the third one. So the only real direction that we had writing that song, was that it had to be as happy, if not more, than those other two records. The only thing Maurice knew, was that he wanted it to be called “September.” He came in with the title.

The whole goal of “September” was to be very, very simple. So I largely followed Maurice’s lead there. The one, kind of big story that came out of “September” was that I didn’t want to keep the phrase “Ba-de-ya,” which is the substance of most of the chorus. It’s mentioned three times in every chorus. I wanted to replace it with words, and Maurice kept saying, “We’ll get to it, but we’ll leave it for now.” And then ultimately it wasn’t changed, and I asked him what [Ba-de-ya] meant. He said, “Well, it doesn’t matter what it means, if the spirit is there, and it goes so great with the groove. So never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.” And that was just a huge lesson for me, that really impacted me for the rest of my life, basically.

DK: Around that time, you also had the hit “Lead Me On” for Maxine Nightingale. How did you and David Lasley write this song?


Here’s the video of The Rembrandts performing “I’ll Be There For You,” the
theme song from the hit TV series, Friends. This song was co-written
by Allee Willis.

Willis: David and I were just writing all the time, and there was a song out called “Emotion” by Samantha Sang, that we both really loved. So we said, “Let’s write something in that spirit.” I was going through a huge breakup at the time, so for me that was just a completely autobiographical song.

DK: I also liked your song “Neutron Dance,” which was a hit for the Pointer Sisters and was on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. How did this song happen?

Willis: “Neutron Dance” was written originally for a film called Streets Of Fire, but it wasn’t used in the film. That film (had a story which) involved a nuclear holocaust. Then I was put together with (musician/producer/writer) Danny Sembello whom I’d never met. He had never written a song before. Basically, I wasn’t interested in songwriting at that point, and I was kind of writing to fulfill a publishing deal. So I told him I only had an hour, and we put a timer on.

For Streets Of Fire, it was very specifically for a black doo-wop band to sing while they were on a bus riding out of town. So I just said to him, “Play the tritest ‘50s bass line you can think of.” And then he started playing the bass line that ended up in “Neutron Dance,” and I literally sang the melody in one take. We cobbled the lyric out, and he was out of my house within an hour. It was not a song that I had any interest in, or had any faith in. [But it] was just one of those incredible things that happened. There’s a brand new version of “Neutron Dance” out that’s fantastic, by a EDM artist named ShyBoy that I co-produced and did the video of, that’s an entirely new spin on the song. I think that the song is more timely today than it was when it was written.

DK: You also wrote a big Pet Shop Boys hit called “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” which featured Dusty Springfield. How did you hook up with the Pet Shop Boys?

Willis: I was doing a lot of art at the time, and their manager hired me to do a portrait of the group. I went to England to do the portrait, and it was only when they were posing for me, that they discovered I was a songwriter. At the time, “Neutron Dance” was a big hit. So I stayed and we wrote that song. To me, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” is a very typical song of how I write. There’s a lot of different sections in it. A lot of songwriters would have made the decision to keep all these sections as separate songs. and if things don’t quite fit together, glueing them together with a chant. All that stuff was really typical of the way that I was writing, and still do actually. And with Dusty, I had worked with her a lot, and the Pet Shop Boys absolutely loved Dusty. So as soon as we wrote that chorus, they said “Ooh, it would be so great to get Dusty Springfield.” Then I said, “I know her.” But it took [some time] to convince her, because she hated the record business, and she didn’t want to do anything again.


Here’s the trailer for The Color Purple musical (revival). The songs
were written by Allee Willis, Brenda Russell & Stephen Bray.

I was very happy that it came out, because it showed another side of me that was actually the more typical side of me.

DK: Another big song that you’re known for, is co-writing the hit theme song “I’ll Be There For You” by the Rembrandts, for the popular TV series, Friends. How did this song come together?

Willis: That was written three weeks before the series came on the air. [The producers] weren’t even going to have a theme song, and then they thought right before it came out, “Well maybe a song could help promote the show, if we had a song that could be a hit.” The music had been started by Michael Skloff, who was married to one of the producers of the show. Kevin Bright was another producer of the show—he was my mentor when I won the AFI Woman’s Directing Award a couple of years before.

So I got to know Kevin then, but around this time (1994), I really did not want to write music anymore. I was really heavily involved in the internet. I had formed a social network, and I didn’t want to do music anymore. But everytime I thought I was done with my (music publishing) contract and I had written enough songs to fulfill my deal, [my publisher] said I still owed [a portion of a song]…1/7 of a song. So when Kevin called the publishing company to see who was available to write the song, they said “Well, how about Allee Willis?” Because he was my mentor, I said, “Absolutely.” Then [my publisher] said, “Well, if you wrote this one, then you’re out of your deal.” So the only reason I wrote that song was to get out of the deal.

DK: Well, it turned out to be a nice exit for you, to write such a big song.

Willis: Yeah, it was great, and it was the last song that I ever thought would be a hit. It was a nice way to leave at that point.

DK: So when you walked out of the writing session, you didn’t expect anything to happen?

Willis: It wasn’t a writing session. The music had been written, and I needed to do the lyric, and the lyric had to go back and forth [to get approval from] the producers. It happened over a series of about two weeks—I just wanted it done. I never thought that thing would be a hit. Or that I would be hearing [the Friends TV theme] multiple times a day for the rest of my life. But that’s a good problem to have.

DK: Several years later, you co-wrote the songs for the hit Broadway musical, The Color Purple, with Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray. How did you make the transition from writing pop songs to writing a Broadway show?


Here’s the video of the Pointer Sisters hit, “Neutron Dance,” which
was co-written by Allee Willis.

Willis: Well, I was the one who got the call on that, because I was brought in as a consultant, to advise who should write the music. [At the time] I had no interest whatsoever in writing a Broadway show…I’m not a theatre person at all. But I knew that The Color Purple was a significant part of African-American history, and such an incredible property. So I [realized that] I really wanted to write it, but that wasn’t why I was brought in. I never really said anything, beyond advising who should write it.

Finally, about a year after this consulting thing happened, an opportunity came up, where I was asked to choose more writers, who could compete writing a spec song. One of the  names that the producer had on the list was Brenda Russell. Brenda was actually on her way over to my house at that moment, because I had created an animated series that was running on the Oxygen TV network, and I was scoring that with Brenda and Stephen Bray. So I asked if the three of us could compete together, and we won. So that’s how that whole thing started. That took four-and-a-half years to write…every single day.

The story ends up being incredible, because it won the Tony Award this year (for Best Revival of a Musical), and we finally saw it staged much closer to how we were envisioning it in our heads as we were writing it, than the original production. [The show] got recognized in a much more significant way this time around, than the first time around. So that was a pretty incredible gift that none of us were expecting.

DK: Besides your success as a songwriter, you’ve done so many other things, such as directing, painting, sculpting, furniture design and ceramics. How do you fit in all of these other interests, and where are you at right now?

Willis: Well, where I’m at right now is performing. It’s how I started off, but back then was terrifying to me. It took me almost four decades to do it again, and that’s what I’m enjoying doing the most now, because it’s the one area that can bring all these other interests together. I’ve done my show mostly in Los Angeles, which have been sold out shows, and I recently gave my very first New York performance. That was also the biggest, most ambitious show I’ve done. [In the show] I do absolutely everything. There were close to a thousand technical cues, and literally, [with] every single word, something is happening visually or sonically. I approach it, not as a singer/songwriter—I approach it as a party host. If you ask me what I’m best at, I won’t say songwriting…I would say throwing parties. That used to be the medium that I expressed myself the most, which is a natural extension of thinking of a social network—and I mean literally thinking of a social network—because I’m the first person who ever used that term. I started building one in 1991, which was over a decade before they kind of came into proliferation.

So this was a way—performing became a way of taking the parties kind of out of my backyard and putting it onstage. So I’m very much a party host who happens to be a songwriter. So my songs are all done as sing-alongs, and all the stories are very elaborately accompanied by visuals, or short films I’ve made. The show is very funny, and I’m loving doing it. It took me a very long time to finally get it together.