Show is completely SOLD OUT! Only 4 more days of being the most overworked person on the planet (though I never expect that to diminish). See the LA Weekly article here.
Photo credit: Jenny Warren.
Show is completely SOLD OUT! Only 4 more days of being the most overworked person on the planet (though I never expect that to diminish). See the LA Weekly article here.
Photo credit: Jenny Warren.
What are the odds of losing two of the most influential songwriters of all time on the same day? That’s what happened yesterday. First, Jerry Lieber, whose “Hound Dog” got the Elvis-not-to-mention-Rock-‘n-Roll train rolling, and then Nick Ashford, a songwriter whose influence on me was immeasurable. I never met Jerry, though I wrote a bunch of songs with his son, Oliver, in the early 90’s. But Nick I knew and loved. Not just as a songwriter who wrote my favorite song of all time but as one of nicest guys around. His eyes always sparkled, he was always smiling and soul oozed out of him as naturally as breath.
Along with his brilliant wife and collaborator, Valerie Simpson, Nick turned out the kind of songs that made my songwriting head spin. Can you say “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”?! How does a song get any better than that?? In any of the zillions of versions of it that exist? And that’s just the tip of the hitberg.
When my musical, The Color Purple, opened on Broadway, Nick and Val were there. And when Chaka Kahn came in as Sofia a couple of years later they were there again. I don’t know where Valerie was for this shot with me, my Color Purple collaborator, Brenda Russell, and Patti LaBelle, the singer who first started regularly doing my songs back in the day, but that big smile was typical of how Nick always walked around.
Nick and Val also came to the Broadway opening of Hot Feet, the Earth Wind & Fire musical I had seven songs in. Here we are with Maurice White, founder and lead singer of EWF and who gave me the biggest break of my career with “September” and all that followed, and LaChanze, who won a Tony for playing Celie in The Color Purple.
Nick and Val were among the most supportive songwriters ever. I can’t even tell you how incredible it made me feel as a songwriter every time they told me how much they loved my music.
Which is amazing because the only time I ever got to work with them was on a really stinky song in a really stinky movie. In 1987, Scott Sanders, who later produced The Color Purple, managed Ashford & Simpson and asked me to write and produce a song for them. My collaborator, Danny Sembello‘s, mom got very sick right after we began and he had to bow out of the project. I was in way over my head without him. If you know bad movies and didn’t know I did the song that everyone dances to in the infamous McDonalds scene,“Down To Earth”, in the kitschingly horrendous Mac and Me, I know you’re plotzing now. And you certainly can’t imagine royalty like Ashford & Simpson gracing that mess either. So even more impressive that they remained so kind and supportive of me through the years. But I shouldn’t be talking about bad songs when honoring such an iconic being as Nick Ashford. Everyone should be as blessed to have such a joyous soul in their life.
Just a few weeks ago another iconic songwriter and friend passed, Jerry Ragovoy. Not only did he write such gems as “Piece Of My Heart” and “Time Is On My Side”, but he discovered an unknown songwriter named Allee Willis and produced her one and only album, Childstar, in 1974.
This hasn’t been a very happy month for songwriters. Though if I think about the jam going on upstairs it makes me smile. Besides, these are the kind of guys that live forever. R.I.P. Jerry Leiber, Nick Ashford and Jerry Ragovoy. If ever there were Rock ‘n Roll royalty this is it.
Mere days after my first and only album, Childstar, was released on Epic Records in 1974, I walked on stage in front of 10,000 people to open in Boston for folksinger David Bromberg.
The only other time I had been on stage before was when I played a little fur tree in a school play when I was 8. Now here I was singing soul music, the first 10 songs I ever wrote, plus a Mary Wells medley and Brenton Woods’s “Oogum Boogum”. My band, the singers of whom would go on to become Chic, were dressed as sequined vegetables and I was in a satin suit that I’d autographed from head to toe. This is a really crappy photo of part of the costumes on mannequins but it’s all I’ve got;
Me and The Angle Babies aren’t in costume here but you can get a pretty good idea that between us and our costumes we weren’t what the folksinging crowd came to see.
I didn’t have a very good time on stage. I never could remember my lyrics and I always spent more time designing the sets and costumes than I did rehearsing or getting comfortable being on stage. After five performances on the East Coast we were booked into a lunchroom at Ohio State, the only way the college could also get Joni Mitchell to play in the main auditorium because we had the same agent. Our only audience were three people at a bridge table eating hot dogs and a psychology class being conducted in the back of the room, with the professor telling us to lower our volume after every song. I walked offstage after six songs and made the decision to just be a songwriter, where at least if I was being tortured it was in the comfort of my own room.
Through the years I’ve gotten much more comfortable performing – in my own unique way of doing so which doesn’t include singing live – mostly because I’m a big party thrower and walk around on mic the whole time.
Almost every conversation I have comes through the speakers and I’m literally directing and producing the party as I go. Throw in the thrift shop auctions and stupid party games that I lead the guests through and I’ve gotten very relaxed holding that cold metal thing in my hands.
But I still never have gotten it together to sing anywhere other than in the studio.
So the fact that in mere hours I will be up on the stage for the first time in almost four decades and I’m not sitting here throwing up is a MASSIVE ACHIEVEMENT! Me and five other well oiled songwriters will be singing our greatest hits and talking about how they were written. It’s just with a keyboard – Chris Price, who I’ve been writing and recording a song with and shooting a video all on iPhones, is accompanying me – but I’m singing and remembering lyrics and lines nonetheless.
And if I can get through the evening not thinking about soul singers dressed as vegetables, psychology professors and hot dogs I will have made a big breakthrough.
I’ll be performing “September“, “Boogie Wonderland”, “Neutron Dance”, and “I’ll Be There for You (theme from Friends)“. At least radio has regaled me with these songs thousands of times over the years so I’m hoping that for once I can remember my own lyrics and be happy I’m up on stage.
Wish me luck!
I’m always happy when my work inspires folks to take on their own creative endeavors. But in this case, the spirit of my song, “September”, just might have inspired a little too much confidence in three college boys out to make a concept video. I get the fact that the guy in front suspects something is going on yet somehow misses that there are two (bad) dancers prancing behind him, but as storytelling goes this sinks like a tugboat loaded with cement. I especially love that the dancers often duck prematurely, even before the guy in front turns around to discover nothing. And sometimes the music just mysteriously stops. Best is once the innocent in front leaves the room so that the guys don’t have to mime anymore, one of them continues to silently mouth the song. Once it turns into a full-blown dance off, I can’t say I would be awarding any prize other than to advise them that their allowance money ought to go towards a new mic. Without question, the best part of this video is the toilet paper covering the door of the room across the hall.
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!
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 @ AWMOK.com, 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.
These 1950’s bongos with pearlized crushed ice wrap and heavy chrome hardware have been beaten on just about every song I ever wrote. If it weren’t for their bone crushing girth they would be in my suitcase right now as I’m on my way up to northern CA. to finish six songs with Pomplamoose.
Despite having sold over 50 million records I still have never learned how to play, which always makes for a very interesting experiment when I collaborate. It’s rare that I leave my own studio and the over 500 percussion instruments that are in there because the easiest thing for me to do when I hear a melody in my head or some kind of repetitive lyric is to walk over to something like these bongos and start filling in rhythm.
I was drawn to Pomplamoose when I heard them do my song “September”.
I’ve seen trillions of versions of this song and no one gets within a continent of Earth Wind & Fire. But Pomplamoose dissected that thing like a frog and reconstructed something inventive and fun so I did what I never do, I tracked them down and asked if they wanted to make records together.
We got together for four days in December and got great starts on six songs, filming for the videos as we went.
I’m completely spontaneous. I don’t really plan anything when it comes to music or art. I just go with the first thing in my head or under my fingers which are usually these bongos and songs start to build from there.
I video everything and Pomplamoose videos every final take. Between all of us we had 40 hours of footage at the end of the four days.
I’m only taking one of my three HD cameras this trip but there’s also tripods to lug, plus enough tapes to let the camera roll for three days, 3 still cameras, my MacBook, iPad, 2 mobile phones, 6 travel drives, three digital tape recorders, cords for every conceivable configuration, not to mention my clothes – I’m not the type who can wear one outfit for three days despite the fact that I’ll never be leaving the studio. My one regret is that there’s no room for the sacred bongos to come along.
My trip was postponed for a month so the suitcases on are back in the closet and the percussion is resting nicely in its regular bed.
Pomplamoose tunes are so hot and I hate to dial it back to simmer but all will be boiling in June when we get together and pick up where we left off in December.
Today I spent all day watching tv because no one knew I was home.
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.)
Here I am with James Brown in my studio in 1984 as we peruse one of my favorite Kitsch books, How To Sing For Money. The Godfather and I used to joke that it should have been called ‘How To Write For Money’ as there were so many ways songwriters got screwed out of royalties and credit, a situation that befell both of us numerous times.
I thought this would be an appropriate Kitsch O’ The Day post in view of my post yesterday on behalf of jilted songwriters everywhere. The book, only the top quarter of which is visible in this photo from Billboard magazine, was published in 1945. Maybe the advice worked back then but it’s irrelevant given the oil slick music industry of the last thirty years.
I was, thank God, Reality TV before Reality TV existed as I filmed almost every significant moment of my life since I owned my first video cam in 1978. Here we are seconds after we read the book, writing an ode to my dog Orbit, a plain brown baked potato who Mr. Brown loved and let sleep on his mink coat whenever he came over.
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.
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.