Allee Willis, a Detroit native and award-winning songwriter who had long traced her inspiration back to Motown, died Tuesday evening in Los Angeles at 72 from cardiac arrest, her publicist confirmed to USA TODAY.
Her partner, Prudence Fenton, shared a photo of Willis on Instagram, with the caption: “Rest In Boogie Wonderland Nov 10,1947-December 24, 2019,” referring to the Earth, Wind & Fire song Willis wrote, reports the Detroit Free Press, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network. An article on Willis’ death was posted to Willis’ Instagram page.
From May 2018: Allee Willis returns home for a Detroit honor
Willis was known for writing other Earth, Wind & Fire hits, including “September,” and later the “Friends” theme song, “I’ll Be There For You,” performed by The Rembrandts. She also co-wrote “Neutron Dance,” a song popularized by the Pointer Sistersand featured on the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack. She also penned “You’re the Best,” a theme from the hit ’80s movie “The Karate Kid.”
“You will be missed my friend,” Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire, wrote on Twitter. “Until we meet again. Love And Light.”
In 1994, Willis was commissioned to co-write the “Friends” TV theme that wound up becoming one of that decade’s most ubiquitous songs. Released as a single in 1995, it topped Billboard’s radio-airplay chart for two months.
Willis won two Grammy awards, including one in 2016 as part of the team behind the Broadway revival for “The Color Purple.” She also won in 1986 for her work on the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack. She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018, and also received a distinguished achievement award the same year from the Detroit Music Awards.
“We are devastated over the loss of Allee Willis,” said Robin Terry, CEO and chairwoman of the Motown Museum. “Allee was an exceptional songwriter and truly unique human being. She was kind, generous, and her humor was unmatched. We feel deeply honored to have worked with her on our recent exhibit and the Motown 60th celebration in Detroit. 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.”
Willis was born in Detroit on Nov. 10, 1947, and grew up on the city’s west side.
In a 2018 interview with the Free Press, Willis said she traced her musical success to the education she got listening to Motown.
“I spent almost every Saturday of my youth either being dropped off at Motown or, once I had a license, driving down there. I literally would just sit out on that lawn for hours,” recounted Willis. “This was early ’60s, so it was (Motown’s) heyday. Every now and then, you could hear stuff leaking through the walls, so I’d hear bass lines and drum patterns and background vocals. Those are literally the only lessons I ever had.”
They proved to be key.
“I think that whole way of listening to stuff in parts is still very much the way I write,” Willis said in 2018. “It taught me to be an arranger as well as a songwriter. I’m so insanely attached to Motown and all the music that was coming out of Detroit, and it gave me a love for that kind of music. There’s no question: Had I grown up anywhere else, I would not ever have been a songwriter. Because I certainly don’t have the skills to be it.”
Perhaps the greatest manifestation of her love for Detroit was “The D,” a song and video project released in 2017 featuring the voices of thousands of everyday Detroiters, mixed with contributions from the likes of Mary Wilson of the Supremes and Ray Parker Jr. It was recorded during multiple visits over several years, and was conceived to capture the city’s longstanding soul in the context of the city’s rebound.
Willis was a larger-than-life personality, a magnetic figure who happily embraced the term “kooky” and was known for her bright, quirky outfits. In her 70s, she remained musically active, including recent work with Big Sean at her Los Angeles home, having met the Detroit rapper during Motown’s 60th anniversary concert at Orchestra Hall in September.
That event was Willis’ final public appearance in her hometown. Onstage before an audience that included Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., she gave an emotional speech while introducing pioneering entertainment executive Suzanne de Passe, reflecting on her own career path and strides made by women in show business.
Willis is survived by her brother and sister-in-law Kent and Barbara Willis of Detroit; as well as her sister Marlen Frost of Omaha; and nieces, nephews, great nieces and great nephews.
Contributing: David Oliver, USA TODAY
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