The kids at Fairview High do a noble job of singing and a much more ambitious job dancing than a lot of other high schools I’ve seen do “September” on Youtube. But, as the Grand Pooh Bah of Kitsch, the standout for me is the performance by the horn section.  Either someone didn’t do their homework before they came to band practice or they’re just plain tone deaf. What it really sounds like to me is that the horn players got the big riffs down after the choruses and just figured they could coast through the single note accents. Which would have been fine had they managed to find the key. Far be it for me to not encourage someone to go farther in music because they’re un-schooled. I still don’t know how to read, notate or play a note of music, including “September” and anything else I’ve written, so I’m all in favor of doing it just for the love of it. I’m just sayin’, the horns are a standout, wayyyyy stand out.

For a more through exploration of my “365 Days Of September” mission as well as details of how the song was written, go here. Until tomorrow, ba-de-ya!



People always ask me what my favorite song I’ve written is. I hate to favor any of the babies but pound for pound I’d have to shout “September”!  I think it’s an eternally uplifting song. It makes people HAPPY, not just with a capital H but ALL CAPS!! I write a lot of happy songs but even perennial foot tappers like “Neutron Dance” and “Boogie Wonderland” don’t inspire the immediate mood shift that “September” does. I’ve never been in a room where people’s toes didn’t start tapping or heads start bobbing as soon as it comes on. I’ve never been to a Bar Mitzvah or wedding where it wasn’t played, including Beyonce and Jay-Z’s, where I wasn’t but learned from US Weekly that that’s what they danced their first dance to. And they didn’t even get married in September.


Without question, the original Earth Wind & Fire version is and will always be my favorite.


With EWF founder and lead singer, Maurice White, and EWF guitarist, Al McKay, I started writing “September” the first day we met, in the summer of 1978. It was actually written as the third song in a trilogy that  Maurice and Al had already created, EWF’s “Sing a Song” and The Emotions’ “Best of My Love”,  two of my favorite Pop Soul records of all time.

sept sheet

Although most of the music to “September” was completed that first day, it actually took a couple months to finalize the lyric, during which time I was also working with Maurice on all but two songs that became their (thankfully) legendary crossover album, I Am.


I used to be hung up that the “September” lyric was a little sing-songy, not the most intelligent I’d written. But seeing the effect it has on people I’m happy I took Maurice’s advice:  Never let a lyric get in the way of the groove. If a lyric isn’t grammatically correct or even if it’s nonsensical –  like the key words in the “September” chorus, “Ba-de-ya” –  don’t replace it with something that is.  If you marry the lyric to the music just right, the meaning will come across in the feel.  I have no doubt that the love expressed in the chorus of “September” comes across even better with this nonsensical phrase than it would have had we merely filled those syllables with “I love you”.


The first time I ever went on YouTube just months after it launched in 2005, there were already tons of versions of the song there. Over the years I’ve watched “September” videos multiple like rabbits, some good but mostly a little on the lame side – Bad bar bands, jazz bands, marching bands, people in their living rooms, bathrooms, underwear, at auditions, dance classes, birthday parties, on lawns, mountaintops, in line dances, in lines at stores, playing solo bass, drum, keyboard and guitar parts, making animations and short films with it, in all varieties of languages, styles and quality.

Most songwriters are tortured when they hear cheesy versions of their work. As the Grand Master of Kitsch however, I LOVE it. I love that something I’ve created inspires someone to perform it despite an apparent lack of talent or rhythm. If it makes them happy it makes me happy.


And, trust me, this is a song that’s still making me happy. In one of my YouTube searches I stumbled onto Pomplamoose, a band that completely deconstructed the song and did it so distinctively I suggested we work together. The resulting “Jungle Animal” song, video and game went live TODAY.


But back to “September”… 1978 wasn’t the first time I placed my bet on a song that glorified September. Four years earlier, my first and only album, Childstar, came out on Epic Records. It contained the first 10 songs I ever wrote. The tune the label thought had the most single potential was called “What Kind of Shoes Does September Wear?”.


Although my career didn’t get off to the running start I had hoped it would then, I’d have to say that, in retrospect, September did, indeed, have some very nice shoes!

A few nights ago I went back on YouTube to see if any new versions of “September” had been done. To my astonishment, it was like the song had In vitro and gave birth to enough versions that if I played one a day for a year I would never run out. So I made it a goal to chronicle the madness. From this day forth, the 21st of September, the date in the opening line of the song, until the 21st of September, 2011, I shall feature one (brilliant, alarming, innovative, ridiculous) version of the song a day.

So here now, I offer you the most definitive version of all, the Godhead, “SEPTEMBER” by EARTH, WIND & FIRE on this, the 21st day of September, 2010, the first of 365 days of September. It pretty much goes downhill from here…




Because the opening line of my very first hit song, “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire, is “Do you remember the 21st night of September?” I constantly get asked the significance of that date, the very day it is TODAY.  People are always looking for some great meaning, especially those whose birthdays are today and to whom the song has held a special place. Sad to say, the only real significance is that that it felt so perfect to sing. Those three syllables – twen-ty-first –  hugged those notes tighter than an angora sweater and once that happens any good songwriter knows they need to just leave it alone because it works. What I’m most proud of achieving with my co-writers, Maurice White and Al McKay, is the transformative effect the song seems to have on people. I could be at a funeral and if “September” even came on as a ringtone most people’s lips would curl into a smile and their toes would automatically start to tap.  Beyoncé and Jay-Z even chose it to dance their first song to at their wedding. And that makes me very happy.


Ever since the song was released at the tail end of 1978, September 21st has been a magic date for me. In the pre-email/text days when I used to check my phone, the messages would be filled with people singing me the song. Some of the singers were famous and the versions were killer. Sometimes it was my dentist or a friend from camp and the versions were terrible, just the way, as a lover of kitsch, I love them.

Through the years, the popularity of “September” seems to grow, so much so that the entire month of September has started to feel like a holiday to me, especially this year when it started with Earth, Wind & Fire playing “September” with a 70 piece orchestra and fireworks at The Hollywood Bowl. So, I’ve decided to honor this date that has given me so many gifts with a few gifts of my own:

• First, the release of my “Jungle Animal” video/song with Pomplamoose, a YouTube sensation band I contacted to work together after I saw their version of “September”, with over 2,000,000 views on YouTube. Now would be a good time to watch “Jungle Animal”:


•  Second, the matching “Jungle Animal” music composition game I designed and that’s ready for your jungle playing pleasure right now at

•  Third, in celebration of the one-year-to-the-day opening of my social network, The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch at, The Jungle Animal Petting Zoo is now open, featuring some of the most cheesy and brilliant jungle animal artifacts on the planet.

• And fourth, the launch of “The 365 Days of September”, where I’ll post one new version of “September” a day for a year from the thousands of insane versions of it on YouTube.

Screen shot 2010-09-21 at 10.26.19 AM

And I JUST found out that September will continue into October for me as The University Of Wisconsin Marching Band will play my songs at the Homecoming football game on October 9th and I’ve been asked to conduct! As some of you know, UW is my alma mater. And I LOVE marching bands.  And even more pertinent  on the kitsch tip, despite the fact that I’ve sold over 50,000,000 records and counting, I still don’t know how to read a stitch of music. So I anticipate that conducting the band in front of 80,000 people is going to be one of the seminal kitsch moments of my life!

So to all of you on this September 21st I say thank you and wish you a big “Ba-de-ya!”. May you all have nothing but”golden dreams and shiny days”.



Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t go to concerts. I don’t like the crowds, I don’t like the walking, I don’t like someone singing next to me or standing up in front of me dancing. I understand this is the nature of concerts and I’m not out to change that so I was always happier sinking my head under a set of headphones and listening to the intricacies of the music rather than the  idiosyncrasies of the crowd. This includes concerts where my own music is being performed. Of the hundreds and hundreds of songs of mine that have been cut I’ve seen maybe ten of them performed live. One of the most memorable nights ever for me was in 1979 at the Los Angeles Forum when half of the songs performed by Earth Wind & Fire were mine, including “September”, “Boogie Wonderland” and “In the Stone”.  Although I’m blessed to have some of my tunes among their most popular I never saw the band perform live again. Until last Friday night when I saw a performance that blew my head off my shoulders and still has me skipping along the sidewalks of Los Angeles, a very happy girl.


On the slight chance you don’t know “September”, my first hit with the group, this will jog your memory. For “Boogie Wonderland” go here. There’s a lot more of them but that will suffice as context for this post.

About six months before “September” came out at the tail end of 1978 I started writing with Verdine White,  founding member of EWF, pictured with me at the top of this post, and to this day my favorite bass player in the world. We wrote a theme song for a short-lived TV dance show called “Hot City” for a singer named Shelly Clark. Verdine married Shelly and also put me in one of my most important relationships ever, my collaboration with Maurice White, Verdine’s brother whose vision EWF was.  Although I’ve seen Verdine often over the years I just saw Shelly for the first time last night since we did “Hot City”.  That kind of time span will never happen again.


I wouldn’t have even been at this concert if my friend Nancy Ferguson hadn’t insisted that I go after almost every person I knew told me they were going.  The one photo I didn’t take last night was of my little family group, Nancye, Jim Burns and Prudence Fenton, who I go everywhere with and who schlepped me to The Bowl on Friday. Here we are a couple of months ago at a vintage slide show:


I also hung out a lot with my excellent friend and EWF fan number one, Luenell.


Luenell, Shelly and I took excellent head shots throughout the evening.


Luenell came with Constance Tillotson.  Amongst the three of us we’re known as as Twinkie (Constance), Luenell (Ding Dong) and Hostess Snowball (me).


The concert itself was astounding. It never hit me until it started that for the first time in my life I was about to hear  my songs played with a live 70 piece orchestra. It was actually the first time Earth Wind and Fire heard their songs this way too.


Songwriting can be a lot of work. For me personally, many times along the way it was also a lot of trauma as when you’re a songwriter it’s oftentimes like being the attendant in a restroom; the restroom attendant is there to change the towels and service the patrons/ the songwriter is there to deliver options of music and lyrics and service the artist. I started doing art and videos and later, technology, because I was someone who needed to create all the time.  Whereas much of my time as a songwriter was spent babysitting, waking up an artists’ brain from seemingly eternal sleep, waiting around for hours while they decided whether it should be an “a” or a “the” in the lyric or to go to a D in the music and me knowing it should be none of the above.  But I have news for you – Every inch of blood, sweat and trauma was worth it when I saw EWF play “September” with a big  mofo 70 piece live ass orchestra and fireworks going off throughout the song. I think you can tell how excited I was by this little movie I took on my Canon Elf.


People who filled the 17,000+ seats posted a zillion videos of this on YouTube. This one is shot from further back and shows all of the fireworks.


Now I know I’m about to stay up all night writing this because I keep finding all these videos shot from different seats at the Bowl.  This one’s from about halfway back. As much as I’m tempted to post the at least 20 of these I’ve seen so far because I’m so eternally grateful for people around the world who’ve embraced “September” for all these years, I promise this will be the last:


About a year ago, when I first opened my social network, The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch @, me, Luenell, Verdine and Larry Dunn, original EWF keyboard player who played on all my EWF hits, did a slightly less orchestrated and lit performance of “September” when we performed it at the opening night party in an alley playing on thrift shop instruments.


Not at the party that night but always in my heart is Philip Bailey.  As anyone who’s ever listened to EWF knows, Philip has just about the most extraordinary falsetto voice as any human being ever created. Until last night at the Bowl it had been at least 15 years since we’d seen each other.


I can’t tell you how happy I was to be reunited with Phillip. Just like I can’t tell you how proud I was to be part of this extraordinary group whose message  has been rock-solid-2010-spiritually-evolved since they began recording in the late 60s. Phillip felt the same way about me as evidenced in this video that unfortunately cuts off right when he gets going. (I suppose I should be grateful for having even this much of the conversation on tape though truth be told, my heart felt like battery acid was lacing through it when I saw the camera dangling from the arm of the person I had given it to to shoot as opposed to being pointed at us capturing every single once-in-a-lifetime word.)


I know it’s hard to hear so I’ve stooped to typing out what Phillip said because it meant the world to me. Phillip: “Allee Willis is one of the greatest writers who ever lived or breathed.  Without Allee Willis, a lot of those songs wouldn’t be here for us, for Earth Wind & Fire….”

Luckily I only went for a photograph when I saw Ralph Johnson, the third original member still in the group.  We hadn’t seen each other since the early 80s. It will most certainly not take another 30 years for this to happen again.


Even the Godhead himself and the man without whom I would never be where I am today as a songwriter took the stage for a few moments. Maurice White hasn’t performed with the group for years and the audience went insane when he walked out. He left before the party afterwards but here’s a photo of us taken a few years ago at the opening of Hot Feet, a musical featuring all EWF music in which I had seven songs. We’re with two of my all time favorite songwriters in the universe, Ashford and Simpson, and LaChanze,  who won the Tony for playing Celie in my musical, The Color Purple, playing just down Broadway from Hot Feet at the time.


Now back to The Bowl. Here I am with Greg Phillingaines, the completely brilliant artist and keyboard player who also was a prominent part of my musical history, not to mention playing on every important Michael Jackson solo record and about a trillion other ones you know.  Not to mention that he’s also playing on “I’m Here”, a song of mine from The Color Purple that’s on Fantasia’s new CD.


I had the time of my life Friday night but I still don’t like the crowds, the walking, the people singing out of tune next to me or blocking my view because they’re up on their feet dancing. But if anything could change my mind it was this experience of 17,000 people going nuts while the group who changed my life, a dream orchestra and easily some of the most spectacular fireworks I’ve ever seen accompanied my music.





Well, the obvious tunes I would name are “September”, “Boogie Wonderland”, “Neutron Dance”, “What Have I Done to Deserve To This?” and I guess “I’ll Be There for You”. The rest of my favorite tunes are here.  But if I have to credit an early source of inspiration for being in the music business and then becoming a songwriter it would have to be the TV show, “Name That Tune”,  upon which this game is based and which I watched  religiously as a wee nip.

There’s nothing more I like in a game from a Kitsch perspective then if it’s convoluted to play. On the other hand, I love the early  attempt at  injecting multimedia interactivity into it. Made in 1959 by Milton Bradley, you play “Name That Tune” by the player elected to be “Disk Jockey”  spinning the dial three times, calling out the numbers on which the arrows stops each time and then spinning the enclosed 78 on which actual TV host, George De Witt,  introduces himself, calls out a number and “plays” a tune.


From here on in I don’t understand the instructions. But maybe you do as there’s still a foot of them to go through:


“Name That Tune” ran from 1953 to 1959 on CBS with De Witt as the most popular host until it came back  from 1974-’81 with Tom Kennedy and later with Jim Lange. The game show became the template for a continuing slate of copycat shows as well as ones that borrow from it heavily including current fare like “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” and “The Singing Bee”.

name-that-tune_6024 name-that-tune_6028 name-that-tune_6027 name-that-tune_5764 name-that-tune_5765


What’s to make me join yet another social network when I’m already a member of so many, dragging myself ’round the clock to fulfill my duties as a responsible citizen on each of them? What’s to make me listen to a record that sounds like everything else – same beat, loop or intellectually challenged lyric? It’s one thing to be first. It’s another to be 43rd.

I like to be comfortable wherever I am, especially if it’s in a social space. In order to command my undying attention and devotion a social network’s got to have something that none of the others have, fill a spot in my life and psyche that needs filling. Conversely, a degree of familiarity in social network design, what works about other social networks that I really want to see working here, also assures happier orientation and participation. The only way I’ll hang or even notice a new social space in the first place is because enough of those things I’m already comfortable with are there fused with outrageously original, fantastic and artistic social design

It’s the same with a song if you think about it. An outrageously unique record stays in your heart and brain cells and sets the pace for years. One that’s merely derivative lasts for a few weeks or months and burns out forever, maybe relegated to replay at high school reunions.

In founding a community fresh, creative thinking always wins. In what new way can people hook up and push or pull what they want easier than they can anywhere else? Do we honestly need one more music or video social net whose only differentiator is it’s one more place to post?

It doesn’t work any differently in any business. Quantumly different products and services burst onto the scene be they social networks, songs, technologies, films, stores, diets, Snuggies, whatever – and trillions of lemming like spin-offs spring up trying to bite off a piece of the green before the bloated landscape sinks like a rock. 

I never felt a conflict between “art” and “commercial”. In entertainment, the greatest successes usually include aspects that time and again appeal to the masses mixed with something so outrageously fresh that it redefines the direction the entire business is going in.

I’m (among other things) a songwriter. I’ve never tried to write anything that sounded like everything else that was out at the time. (What artists and producers do with my songs once they decide to cut them is totally in their control. Oftentimes they mash out the uniqueness like chunks of potato to join the rest of the homogenized mess and usually disappear as fast as the songs they ruin.)

But as much as I strive to be unique there’s a cardinal rule that any songwriter would be nuts to ignore: If you wait three minutes to get to the chorus your song won’t be a big fat hit. That’s just how it is. People live for and remember the chorus. So that rule, plus the fact that rhyming is a good idea, are two ‘industry best practices’ that would be fairly idiotic to ignore. The trick is to juxtapose these tried and true things with other aspects of the song where you take chances and create something unlike anything else around.

Any popular piece of art has many of the same characteristics as a popular social network. They both inspire people to talk about it, share it with their friends and go to it often. Popular songs like popular web destinations bring something out in someone’s personality that may have remain tucked inside had they not ventured into that space. 

In 1978 I co-wrote “Boogie Wonderland” for Earth Wind & Fire with The Emotions. I really wanted to write a disco song and, with my collaborator, Jon Lind, figured out a way to use the word ‘boogie’ that was different from the zillion other disco songs out there. Everyone used it to mean ‘dance’. We used ‘Boogie’, in conjunction with ‘Wonderland’, to mean an exhilaratory state of mind one enters into while dancing. 


“Boogie Wonderland” was actually based on the movie “Looking For Mr. Goodbar”, where Diane Keaton goes to a disco every night to forget her pitiful everyday life and ends up almost being murdered because she has so little sense of self. Everyone always tells me how my song makes them feel so good but if you really listen to the lyrics it’s about someone on the brink of destruction who goes out to numb and forget themselves, only feeling like everything is alright when they “Dance! ooh ooh ooh ooh dance in Boogie Wonderland”. 

This is a device I often use in songs – mix a heavy theme, lyrically distinct from other songs of the genre, into happy, uptempo music. The BW lyric was distinctive as was the massive horn and string arrangements and the structure of the song itself. But that payoff chorus was in the same place as other hit songs and that hi hat disco spirit was very much there. Formula plus a squinch or more of innovation wins big every time. I need that same rhythm in my social networks.

(To hear the demo and read way more about how Boogie Wonderland was written go here.)

grammy-winning-85 Winning the Grammy in 1986

Yesterday I wrote an open email to a widely read music industry newsletter re the longstanding mistreatment of songwriters in the entertainment industry, veering off into the music industry ignoring the Internet until it had almost swallowed them up. Today, Mark Cuban posted this on his Facebook page which led to it spreading virally. I’ve had so many people email me and send me Facebook messages today I decided to post what I wrote myself:

Hi,  Bob (Lefsetz). I’m Allee Willis.  Songs I’ve written include September, Boogie Wonderland, Neutron Dance, What Have I Done To Deserve This, the Friends theme and the Broadway musical, The Color Purple.   One of my earliest hits, Lead Me On by Maxine Nightengale, was co-written with David Lasley, who Andre Pessis talked about in his email to you.  We also wrote the first cover I ever got, Got You On My Mind, by Bonnie Raitt in 1974.  I’m weighing in because in 1981, after getting hundreds of songs cut in just a couple of years, I was the first songwriter who tried to unionize writers because of all that Ellen Shipley wrote about and more. I was also the first pop songwriter I know of to embrace the Internet  in 1991.  I started designing a collaborative social network in 1992 and, much of that time with my then partner, Mark Cuban, got laughed out of publishing and record company offices when we suggested they take the Internet and all digital technologies seriously.

The  songwriting union never got off the ground as much because of the ever-confusing work for hire issue as the fear many songwriters had of being blackballed. Our mistreatment wasn’t the dirty little secret of the music industry.  If it were a secret that at least would have been something. In reality, it was a non issue, not even a notch in the totem pole of consciousness.

I’ve written with and for hundreds of incredible artists and my songs have been at the top of the Pop, R&B, Jazz, Country, Dance and Alternative charts. I absolutely love writing songs and composing scores. But with success came an emptiness from the 1001 ways to screw a songwriter, long accepted as standard industry practice. This was coupled with a growing trend that if you were a songwriter who wrote for artists or producers other than yourself what you had to write to get records was progressively more homogenized. The dumbing down killed me even more than the screwing.

Other things that made me nuts (and thankfully led to a massive branching out of my career beyond songwriting):  A) Writing up to ten songs for someone and only seeing one or two make the album despite being told repeatedly you’re the only writer working with them. (Where there’s no payment there’s no accountability.)   B) Artists and producers sitting on songs for months and years until they had enough of them that the earliest songs felt old and they were cast out like a homeless kitten with one leg.  C) Giving away pieces of publishing and songwriting shares just to get cuts lest your spot be filled by a more de-spirited and desperate songwriter than yourself.  D) Settling for mere songwriting credit when your demo was used as the actual record – I was literally told by a major female artist that I didn’t deserve credit as a producer or arranger as  I was “only the songwriter and that’s what songwriters do”. E) Babysitting artists who had absolutely zero songwriting chops, doing whatever it took to keep your brain functioning as they deliberated whether an ‘a’ or ‘the’ was better for their already idiotic lyric. I’ve often said that unless you were the artist yourself, being a songwriter was like changing towels in the restroom, only difference being that the restroom attendant got paid.

Probably because many of my early cuts were with instrumental artists like Herbie Hancock and Weather Report or male bands like Earth Wind & Fire, coupled with the fact that to this day I don’t know how to read, notate or play music, it was falsely assumed I was just a lyricist. I was given tons of tracks to put words to. Oftentimes I would spend 18 hour days putting words to whole songs only to be told when I handed them in that only the choruses were going to be sung.  Is songwriters’ time so less valuable than anyone else’s that they can’t be told this when they’re given the track?

And then there’s movie soundtracks, where songs are sent out as temp tracks to be copied by other writers.  One of the last straws for me was when I received a copy of my own song, Neutron Dance, already out on a Pointer Sisters’ LP, and told to rip it off for Beverly Hills Cop.  After my co-writer, Danny Sembello, and I stewed for a couple of weeks we decided no one could rip us off better than ourselves.  We wrote a parallel song that mimicked the lyric – Neutron Dance’s “I don’t want to take it anymore, I’ll just stay here locked behind the door” became “I can’t stay here while I go nowhere” in the new song.  We slightly adjusted the drum track. We never heard anything after we submitted it – another standard practice after you’re hounded to hand something in.  Three weeks before the film was released we found out that only because Jerry Bruckheimer pulled a tape out of his wastebasket that his song screener had passed on and checked it to make sure he could tape over it did he hear our copy song, Stir It Up,  and insist it go into the soundtrack.  They never found a better song than Neutron Dance and that stayed in too.  Not only did I win a Grammy for Best Soundtrack but, in one of my favorite musical moments, I was named one of the most dangerous subversives living in the United States by the Communist government when they mistranslated the song as Neutron Bomb.

A decade later, in fairly infamous songwriting lore, two of the three producers of Friends, a full year after the song was a hit, demanded songwriter royalties because they had given me notes.  I don’t know very many composers who write for film or tv who don’t get notes from producers or directors.  By that point I was full throttle into my interactive career, building my prototype for willisville, my social network, and spending every dime on it that I earned from consulting for Microsoft, AOL, Silicon Graphics, Electronic Arts, Fox, Disney, Warner Bros. and Intel, who partially funded the prototype build (tho in reality I was stuck adding music and visuals to an excessively dorky technology they had already invested in). So I just gave in and watched my share of the Friends theme plummet because, as I heard it, these producers always wanted to be composers.  To add insult to injury, The Rembrandts never agreed to the song being released as a single as they resented not writing it by themselves so despite it being one of the biggest airplay records of the year singles income was nil.

In 2006, I had songs in three of the Top 10 films of the Year  – Babel , Happy Feet and Night At The Museum.  I didn’t know about any of them until I sat in the theater and heard them. Then it meant spending money to hire someone to track them down and to see if I’d been paid. Shouldn’t the songwriter, not to mention co-copyright owner, be informed and allowed to negotiate when their songs are used?

Currently, I have a theme to a hit VH-1 show that’s already run one season and is filming the next right now.  The production company still hasn’t submitted cue sheets to BMI for season one and the credits are so small and run so fast no one can even see my name which, I guess, isn’t a real problem as songwriting credits aren’t even listed.

Fate in the theater world is not much better.  Depending on the producer, composers and lyricists have little to no say about the way their music is arranged or mixed or how their show is promoted. Musicals take an average of five years to write so this can be especially heartbreaking.

The blessing of all of this was that very early on I was so unhappy I started to paint, soon after motorizing my art to my music.  This led to art directing tons of music videos for people like The Cars, Debbie Harry and Heart. I kept writing songs, still loving the actual act of songwriting, and also because my publishing deals helped finance each new field I went into.  But music publishers were not great at recognizing the value of multi-media careers.  Brain dead might be a more accurate description.  Despite selling close to 50,000,000 records my advances were numbifyingly low compared to writers who had much less success.   As opposed to thinking a broad artistic vision might actually enhance the contribution I could make my multi-medianess was looked at as a threat to the number of songs I could churn out. The exception to publishers wearing blinders (altho the low advances still persisted) was Kathleen Carey at Unicity (MCA), who hooked me up with Pet Shop Boys by selling their manager some of my art which led to me being hired to do their portrait.  During the sitting Neil Tennant put it together that I was the same A. Willis on some of his favorite records and we started writing WHIDTDT that night.  And also, Judy Stakee at Warner/ Chappell, who took my interest in digital technology seriously and introduced me to Mark Cuban in 1992.  Despite this, W/C would hear nothing of removing my song quota and letting me function as their Internet liaison, scoffing at my predictions that things like CDs and record stores would cease to exist and radio play would become irrelevant.  Anyone who cites Napster as the official beginning of the fall of the record industry still has their head in the sand.

These days I’m living my dream, finally singing my own songs for the first time since my one and only Epic album, Childstar, in 1974, integrating the songs with my art, videos and online worlds.  My first video,  It’s A Woman Thang, has close to 1,000,000 views with no promotion at all and was a winner in the Viral category of the 2008 Webbies.  The second one was featured on YouTube and won four W3 awards. The latest, Hey Jerrie, featuring me and a  91 year old female drummer on an oxygen tank, was the twelfth most popular video in the world on YouTube within 48 hours of its release a few months ago. These days, a least if I get screwed I’m screwing myself, which is ultimately more satisfying as I can always get a meeting with the person doing the screwing.  I’ve been toying with business models on the web for eighteen years.  I may not be rich from it yet but I’m rich as an artist with a larger and larger loyal following which, ultimately, is the greatest reward of all.

Reinvention was always easier for me than letting my personality and pride be clubbed out of me like a baby seal. I have a had a blessed life. I have watched myself go from battered songwriter grabbing at whatever crumbs were thrown my way to a strong, centered and fearless artist. I’m  a better songwriter now than I ever was.  I still have the same old bullshit befall me as a songwriter but I don’t stick around long enough to suffer.   It’s been a long, concious battle but as Celie says in The Color Purple, “I’m Here”. Very much here.  I thank the publishers and record industry for doing to us what Wall St. and the banking industry did for the American people – take such advantage and pay us so little regard that we’re stripped back to nothing, individuals who now have more chance than ever to do something spectacular on their own and change the world.

Allee Willis



64,000 YouTube views and counting since the “Hey Jerrie” launch party a few nights ago at Ghettogloss that I should be blogging about right now instead of writing this.


If you follow this blog at all you know how I am. I know any decent blogger or social networkist posts photos and videos immediately. But for me, documentation of an event is an equal part of the art the event was thrown to celebrate. So before I can post anything I need to find the right place for said documentation in the organic ball of goo that is “Hey Jerrie” or any other piece where my music, art, video, animation, technology and a party converge into the octopus-like formation known as “my art”. 

I can deal with the photos, though writing captions makes me feel like a Roto Rooter is sucking my blood out. But I did manage to go through them and despite the fact that the shots are mostly posed so the craziest spontaneous moments, the ones that make the party ‘THE party’ are nonexistent, you may go here to see them. But make sure and come back.

Now going through party videos so I can get some stuff up online quick is another animal entirely. I’m conditioned to being terrorized by camera people who don’t capture any of what I’m experiencing and instead concentrate on such tight close ups I may as well be talking to myself at a party of one. If my wrinkles were what I wanted to see I could have just stayed home and looked in the mirror. Besides, transferring 16 hours of footage from three cameras and archiving it so it can be found in the glut of 42,000 terabytes known as my server demands I enter the proper brain space – blissful peace meets mob mentality – and I’m just not there yet. So instead, as process is the most interesting thing about creating art to me, I shall regale you with how it got to the point of “Hey Jerrie” being the 34th most viewed video in the world on YouTube just 36 hours after its release and, just as important to a kitsch freak like me, how it became “the most responded to video EVER” in Hong Kong.


(If you have no knowledge whatsoever about my rendezvous with Jerrie Thill, the 91 year old female drummer on an oxygen tank and primary star of “Hey Jerrie”, read my previous posts on her (of which this will appear first so scroll down). If you are familiar with HJ or if you’re too lazy to catch up on the posts, which I certainly would be if I were reading this, please continue.

When I first met Jerrie a few months ago I invited her over because I thought she’d enjoy my collection of Atomic 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s Kitsch, much of it music based from an era when she ruled the drum thrones of clubs in LA. But as our date drew near it dawned on me it would be stupid not to record her. It’s not like she could just run down the hill if I got a good idea for a song. 

I had no interest in capturing Jerrie playing her standards like “When You’re Smiling” and “Route 66”. Anyone could do that. It had to be one of my songs for me to truly be interested in doing anything with it. “Neutron Dance”, whose bass line was a calculated 50’s jazzbo rip, felt vaguely appropriate. But at the same time as my gut was telling me to write something original I was (foolishly) swamped with The Stallionaires. I also hadn’t written by myself in years so I just prayed the music muse would arrive sometime before Jerrie rang the bell.

Two days before she came over the melody hit me getting off the 101 at Highland. As is a nasty mental habit of mine, some of my simpler stuff, songs that ultimately catch on the quickest, seem dumb as I’m writing them. “Neutron Dance”, which I won a Grammy for as part of the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, was definitely one of those. But now I was just looking for something sing-songy that would be easy for Jerrie to drum to. So I decided to commit to the melody stuck in my head long enough to write the lyric.

Although I’ve written both the music and lyrics for 90% of my songs my lot in life has been to be thought of as a lyricist, probably because I wrote with so many male groups like Earth Wind & Fire and the assumption is the female’s there for the lyric or perhaps it’s the fact that I don’t know how to actually read, write or play music. When it’s really flowing, music and lyrics arrive in my head in one tight package. The words “Hey Jerrie, put on a show” spilled out spontaneously with the melody. By the time I passed The Hollywood Bowl at the end of the freeway  exit I had the entire first verse:

Hey Jerrie, put on a show./ You play them songs everybody knows./ Beat them skins and keep it in time./Ya make me loose like a bottle of wine when you beat!

Sing-songy, not going to win a Pulitzer prize but it had Jerrie’s zippy spirit written all over it. 

The next couple of nights I wrote 36 different versions of verses, choruses and chants. I recorded the beat in my head by playing one drum at a time – I have no idea how someone plays different things with different hands let alone gets their feet synchronized – but even a pathetic little temp track would make it easier to sing the song down to Jerrie when she gets here. I constantly change the lyrics as I sing it down.

D-Day arrives. As soon as we hear the car pull up with Jerrie, Allison Freebairn-Smith who introduced us, and Carol Chaikin, Jerrie’s sax player, my longtime assistant Dina, who started out working my parties in the late 80’s, became my cleaning lady in the 90’s and graduated to chief assistant/ videographer/ keeper of the house in 2003, starts shooting. By this time it’s dawned on me I need to capture some decent stuff in case the song is actually any good and I might want to do a video. So I shoot Jerrie and Dina shoots both of us. 


It’s then I realize I’m going to have to deal with the sound of the oxygen blasts that shoot into Jerrie’s nose every few seconds as they’ll be audible in the live recording. I can’t yank the tubes out for 3 minutes or we’ll lose the drummer. So I decide to time the song to the little puffs. I believe it’s the first time oxygen has been used as a percussion instrument and this makes me very excited.

Jerrie does the song in one take. The sound of her kick drum slays me. The weathered, muffled thud sound I had always lusted for. 

So I end up with some dark cramped footage and a song that’s starting to sound like it could be something. Carol adds a few takes of sax and flute but the fact that I don’t play, despite hearing every note in my head, has me concerned about how I’m going to finish the record.

The next night I go to see a friend of mine’s 10 year old kid who’s playing Blues guitar at Genghis Cohen. I am definitely guilty of telling someone I’m really interested in hearing their kid play or sing when in truth I’d rather be having my toenails pulled out without anesthetic. All parents, at least the good ones, think their kids are tremendously gifted in their artistic pursuit. If I had the guts, I would tell them to save their money as the kid’s talent is usually hovering in the local telethon area. But this was someone who had recently started coming to my parties who I wanted to keep as a party guest so off I went on a Saturday night to see the 10 year old who I thought was going to put me to sleep.

Lo and behold, Milo Sussman was a mofo. Total Chicago Blues chops and attitude mixed with endearing naivite. By the second song all I could think was 91 year old, 10 year old and me plopped somewhere in the middle. As if 91 years old and an oxygen tank wasn’t enough, that’s a hook! 

After the show the mom tells me her 6 year old is as good a drummer as Milo is guitar player. I book them both and they come over twice after school to lay down guitar and add to the toms and two fingered keyboards I’ve played on top of Jerrie’s track. I video every inch of this as well, still no idea how to make anything that looks like something other than a home movie of the sessions, of no interest to me whatsoever. And the kids footage is full of parents and bad lighting.

I’m tortured by the prospect of a dull video. I want people to know about this woman who’s been beating the skins since the Capones saw her play sax and drums in their clubs while her parents ran bootleg liquor for them. I decide to scan in all her dust-crusted photos. At least I know how to make those come alive. If something cute enough happens maybe that will be a starting point. I also decide to bring Jerrie back, clear everything out of my living room and roll around in an Aeron chair like it’s a dolly so I can get longer and brighter shots than the cramped-in-my-bedroom-home-studio footage I have thus far.


One of my favorite records of all time is Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd”. Very loud partygoer crowd sounds surrounding that great piano playing and Maurice White’s record debut as an artist. I call up a bunch of my friends, some of whom can’t even carry a tune, and make them come over to clap and sing along. I forget to tell them I’ll be filming so the combination of no make-up, ugly clothes and, due to cramped studio conditions, footage of mostly shoes and backs of heads, makes the video aspects of “Hey Jerrie” seem even further away.


That’s when it hit me I had to throw a party. Which is where this whole blog started… 

As I stated earlier, though I’m a natural writer I’m not a natural blogger. I mean I actually love to blog. But I hate to blog just as I hate to write when I’m blogging just to blog. So now I’m really into telling you the rest of the process of making “Hey Jerrie” and it taking off on YouTube the second it arrives there. But if I continue doing that now, with the video and party process still to go, you will be here the better part of your week. And the idea of having material for imminently future blogs is exhilerating to me. Maybe even a tweet or two! 

So I’m calling it for the night and will pick up on the rest of it in my next posts. In the meantime, please enjoy the party photos. To make your experience more authentic the main meal items at the party were Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Pixie Sticks. So if you have any of those around you may want to start chewing now.


To be continued…

When I co-wrote the song “Boogie Wonderland” in 1978 every other record that came out had the word “boogie” in it to capitalize on the Disco craze that had wrapped itself around the world tighter than a spandex miniskirt. I spent hours with Jon Lind, eventual writer of such hits as Madonna’s “Crazy” and Vanessa Williams’ “Save The Best For Last”, discussing how we could use the word “boogie” in a song without using it as a synonym for ‘dance’ as trillions of composers before us already had.

I had just seen the movie “Looking For Mr. Goodbar” in which Diane Keaton goes to the disco every night, picks up men and brings them home, eventually stumbling on a serial killer. The state of mind of a club-goer who gyrates their brains out on a dance floor, escaping for a precious few hours their otherwise dysfunctional life is the state of mind that to us was Boogie Wonderland, a wondrous and temporary headspace where all is well and life is bouncing to a happy beat until the record ends and life deflates back into its more depressed state.

Over the years, the term “Boogie Wonderland” mutated to “Willis Wonderland”. Not by me but by friends and almost any writer who wrote about me and attempted to describe my living quarters and lifestyle. But as any good writer knows, one must be judicious about how often one uses these monikers. What starts out as descriptively hip ends up tragically trite. Dare I say “King Of Pop”? So I’m very careful about how many “Wonderlands” I drop.

So imagine my surprise a couple of days ago when I received an invitation from a company whose work I like and who, from time to time, represents my art inviting me to a “Winter Boogie Wonderland” roller skating party. That would be like me calling an event of mine “Allee’s World Of Wonder” (their name). What are people thinking?! And why on earth would you send me an invitation when you used my title?

I know, I know. What you hope and pray for as an artist is to create something so catchy and unforgettable that it becomes a lexicon in the culture. In that respect I am eternally grateful to be borrowed from. But word to yo mama, if you’re borrowing someone else’s creation at least take the time to edit your mailing list.

That’s like when, in seeking songs for the movie “Beverly Hills Cop”, the music supervisor sent me a copy of my own song, “Neutron Dance”, instructing that this was the song one should emulate – translation: rip off – when submitting songs for the movie. I bitched at first, boycotting the stampede of writers who rushed to steal the beat and spirit of ‘Neutron Dance”. Only to call up my co-writer, Danny Sembello, and tell him we were being stupid by not ripping ourselves off. Who better to do that?! And way better to have a song in a hit soundtrack that you would eventually win a Grammy for than to remain pissed off that your creation was used as a blueprint on the way to someone else’s wealth. No time for the “Neutron Dance” story to be written here but point is stop soaking in your own stew and take some action!

So I emailed my folks at World Of Wonder to express my dismay that I wasn’t at least asked if I minded that “Boogie Wonderland” was being co-opted for their own use. MUCH to their credit they immediately offered to change the name and design new invitations. I said a simple credit would do. This arrived the next day:

Duly credited at the bottom this makes me very happy to be borrowed from. This made me even happier:

Songwriters are so often overlooked. We’re the faceless creators of the hits that singers and producers get the lionshare of attention for. We’re the people who never get paid when their songs are part of movies that made zillions in video and DVD sales. We’re the folks who rarely get paid at all anymore these days as people have universally decided that music is in the public domain and less deserving of compensation than a pair of underpants or a fishing lure or any other product someone made. Performers have ticket sales and tee-shirts to grab the cash from. SAG members have a Union. Songwriters just get fucked.

So I want to thank World Of Wonder for having a conscience and being responsible for their borrowing. You have more than made up for the transgression. Perhaps you’ll be having a party next “September” and need a good title? “I’ll Be There For You” then as well.