Gary James' Interview With Songwriter
Allee Willis has co-written some of the most popular songs for some of the most popular musical acts around. We're talking "September" for Earth, Wind And Fire, "Neutron Dance" for The Pointer Sisters and "What Have I Done To Deserve This", which she co-wrote with Pet Shop Boys Featuring Dusty Springfield. She also wrote "I'll Be There For You", the theme for Friends. Allee Willis's songs have helped sell over fifty million records! What's her secret to writing a hit song? That's what we wanted to find out, and more.
Q - How fortunate Allee that you were born in Detroit.
A - Absolutely.
Q - At the same time that Motown Records was really taking off.
A - Yeah.
Q - You would sit out in front of the building and listen to what was being recorded on the inside. Does that mean you met people like Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye when they were entering or exiting the building?
A - Not at the time, but through the years I got so close and really more in my recent years where I was really working heavily with Motown. Then as a songwriter I ended up writing with Ashford and Simpson, Lamont Dozier, working with a lot of the producers. At the time I was just a teenager sitting on the lawn at my favorite place in the world. What's most significant about it is because Motown was really just a little house, which it still is, you could hear the bass, you could hear the drums, you could hear the background vocals leaking out of the walls. To this day those are the only music lessons I ever had. I still have never learned how to play, but I became obsessed with music because I was so attached to Motown, literally to the front lawn. So, a lot of times I would know these bass lines and once the records came out I would say, "Oh yeah, that was that song they were recording."
Q - You say you don't play?
A - Yeah.
Q - How then do you write? Do you hum the melody into some type of recording device?
A - Yeah, if I'm co-writing. Ideally I'm writing with someone who really does play like I would play if I knew how to play. It's really anything. Sometimes I would just kind of clump my hands down on the keyboard, get it onto the keyboard and then I would go back and move things around so they actually form chords. I would just kind of get the feel down. So, it's really any combination of things. But, I hear everything in my head. A lot of people just assume I'm just a lyricist, which drives me crazy, though I do pride myself on lyrics. I'm a stickler on them really being intelligent, not being typical song lyrics. If you strip the music out, would they hold up as a story or a poem? But, ideally I'm writing both, music and lyrics.
Q - Before you started writing songs you had a pretty good job. You were writing liner notes.
A - Yeah.
Q - You were also doing point ad and radio commercials for female artists on Columbia and Epic Records.
A - Yeah, the female and Black acts. They were all grouped into the minority category.
Q - Was it difficult to write liner notes?
A - No. I had been a journalist major at college. I went to the University Of Wisconsin. I think that really helped me in terms of that job in that you had to find very concise ways of doing things, especially if you were writing the advertising and the promo. I felt that really influenced the songwriting because you have to figure out most quickly and succinctly, say what it is you're trying to say and look for a hook. So, certainly in college and my early days in that job I never thought I would be a songwriter. That just happened out of the blue one day, but it was very exciting working there because Columbia turned into SONY, so there were so many artists there that I had grown up idolizing. But after a couple of years there was a song out, this was 1972 and it was the biggest song of the year, "Alone Again, Naturally".
Q - Gilbert O'Sullivan.
A - Yes. Oh, my God! I went insane for that song and I wrote my own lyric to it and then I called up a friend who I knew played piano and he came over. I had bought a piano at that point and a reel to reel tape recorder. So, I must've had an instant that something was about to happen. He brought over the sheet music to "Never Can Say Goodbye" and we started at the end of "Never Can Say Goodbye" and then he kind of played the chords starting with the last, going back to the first. I could always hear melodies to anything, like if a teaspoon dropped I'd be able to sing something to it. So, I just wrote my first song that way. I wrote a bunch of other songs by myself and I took them to my boss at the label. So, he knew who I was 'cause he was my boss and I had to tell him, but then when we had to go through the President of Epic (Records), who was a guy named Ron Alexenburg at that time and then ultimately it had to go to Clive Davis who was the head of Columbia. I got a deal for my one and only album without anyone knowing who I was because as soon as they knew who I was I had to quit my job because it was a conflict of interest.
Q - Do you remember some of the people you wrote liner notes for?
A - Well, the liner notes were different. I do remember, but it was the ones I got to write the ads for that for me was more exciting, but Columbia had a lot of people's earliest recordings. So, I did liner notes for "Aretha Franklin's Greatest Hits". It was before her Atlantic (Records) days. So they weren't songs people knew. I did "The Byrds Greatest Hits". I did Dolly Parton. I can't remember who else. I did five or six, but mostly I was writing radio commercials and print ads that would go in places like Rolling Stone, Creem and all of the trade papers at that time, which was Billboard, Record World and Cashbox.
Q - How long were you at Columbia/Epic doing this?
A - I was there from '69 to '74. But my main acts that I worked with were Laura Nyro, Sly And The Family Stone, Barbra Streisand, Jeff Beck. I met Janis Joplin right before she died. I got in there five days before she died. That was the first one I did anything for. But basically, if you were on Columbia, at some point you crossed my path.
Q - Tell me about Janis Joplin.
A - "Pearl" was about to come out.
Q - You met her in Los Angeles?
A - Yeah, 'cause the advertising department was on the tenth floor. So, if anyone had anything coming out, they would come up and meet with a songwriter and an art director and talk about how you were going to promote it. But then, she passed away.
Q - What do you remember about that meeting with Janis Joplin?
A - Mostly for me just how excited I was and that she was very Janis. It was the briefest of conversations, but it was so exciting 'cause I was such a huge fan. At that point, working at a record company, you're right out of college. I was like 20 years old. It was just really exciting.
Q - I can only imagine. A dream job.
A - Yeah. It really was.
Q - At one point you were directing music videos?
A - Well, that was later in the '80s and most of them I was just art directing. They were music videos where the whole thing was based around art direction. As soon as I had my first hit, which was "September", Earth, Wind And Fire at the end of 1978, I almost immediately became bored because at that point everyone wants to start working with you. A lot of people, especially since I was kind of associated with male supergroups, they assumed I was just a lyricist, again which I wasn't. But that was the assumption. So, people just started sending me tracks and it was so exciting to go from being a starving songwriter to all of a sudden you're on every record that comes out. So, almost as soon as I started having hits, I knew that I couldn't keep up songwriting. I wasn't interested in a lot of the stuff I was writing, again because I wasn't having anything to do with the music. Within a couple of years I just thought I've got to do something else. It took a couple more years for me to figure out what that was. But, one night out of the blue I just started painting and at that point I was working with one of The Go Go's, Jane Wiedlin, and she waled in the day after I did my first painting 'cause we were going to write together, and she bought the painting. Then she commissioned me to do a portrait of her and I kind of just had a built-in audience because I was writing with so many people. They would come in and see what I was doing and I would sell the painting. So, I had this built-in music audience. That included people like James Brown, who was one of my favorites of all time and couldn't have had a bigger fan of my art if I tried. So, a lot of times if I was working with someone I would do; now when I say paintings, these were all motorized. They actually moved to the music. They were large scale pieces, like eight feet by ten feet. Sometimes they weighed a ton because of all the mechanics on them. And then someone who was familiar with my art and my music and my house, because I was always a collector of mainly '50s, '60s and '70s atomic, kitsch artifacts. I ended up sitting next to this big video director at my boyfriend's art studio. We were having dinner there. He asked me if I ever art directed videos before and I said no, but I really wanted to. He was directing a Debby Harry video that weekend. He had just gotten the gig and he knew about my house. He said, "If we can film at your house I'll make you art director." So, that was how all the videos started. We shot here for three days. Then I basically became his art director. So, we did Debby Harry, The Cars, Heart, Robbie Nevil. This guy, Jeff Stein had had a couple of really famous videos before that like The Cars' "You Might Think" with the animated fly and Tom Petty, the Alison And Wonderland one, "Don't Come Around Here No More". It was in the golden age of Rock videos, so that was great. Then I started art directing and production designing a lot, like the very first music clip show on MTV, which was The Julie Brown Show. This was the Upton Julie Brown, not Downtown. I was just always looking for ways to combine everything I did into one expression as opposed to a video for this one, a painting for that one, a song for this other person. I always was looking for ways to do that. Then in 1991 someone showed me the internet, which was all text at that time, and I thought okay, this is the new medium of entertainment. I love that people hook up from all over the place. So, in 1991 I started developing a concept for a social network and then in 1993 Mark Cuban became the CEO and we tried throughout the '90s, but people just didn't understand the internet enough. They certainly didn't understand when we would say this is basically a new place to live. It's a social space. We were so early. People just thought we were crazy.
Q - It was a hard concept to grasp initially.
A - Yeah. This was twenty-five years ago that we were trying. (laughs) You think at the time it didn't work, but then years later every inch of energy and sweat that you put into it ends up coming out in a different form. I never viewed anything I did, even if it didn't work at the time, as not working. It just comes around in its own way.
Q - You liked the songwriting part, but you didn't like the performing. What didn't you like about the performing?
A - It terrified me. Now, I have to say now performing is my favorite thing to do. Now, I'm in a heavy performance phase, but that took almost forty years. I couldn't memorize things. I never could. So, the thought of getting up there and singing a song was always terrifying. I thought I would never remember the next line. The only time I performed was right when my album came out, which was 1974. I went on tour. I was always into designing sets. In those days very few people had sets. I remember I wanted an electric sign with my name and people were going, "Who's ever seen a sign onstage?" (laughs) It was like it was so prehistoric. Designing the costumes. Again, I was into full expression, but I was terrified onstage. So, I only did about four performances in cities. So, there were probably ten performances and I just thought I can't do this. It's too terrifying. I was also dropped from the label at that point. That was the part where someone said to me, "Well, what about this do you really enjoy?" I said, "The songwriting." The day I was dropped from the label; one of my friends who was a background singer said, "You really shouldn't be alone. Come to this recording session I'm doing." I said, "The last place you want to be when you're dropped is someone else's recording session." But, they convinced me and I went and it was one of those lucky things where as soon as I walked in the person whose session it was, who I didn't know who it was at the time, just turned around and took one look at me and had been the biggest fan of my album and said basically, "What are you doing here? Go home and write me a song." That was Bonnie Raitt. So, I ended up writing three songs that night with a friend of mine who I've heard her name from so many times, and called him up. He met me at my apartment. We stayed up all night. We wrote three songs and the next day I had my first cover. Then I went on the road with her singing backup. I thought I kind of like it here in the background. Then you think your songwriting career is going to take off, but it didn't. I would get a few songs cut a year, sometimes by major artists, but never the single. Then all of that changed in 1978. Patti La Belle heard some of my songs. She was the first one to kind of regularly start doing my songs. She paid me to come up to San Francisco where she was recording. Gave me money to go into the studio and at least put the songs down as demos, which I didn't have the money to do. She introduced me to Herbie Hancock, who was also recording at that studio and I ended up writing with him like a third of the album he was doing. Then in very short order between writing with the two of them, the word started going around, and then one of my friends was dating someone in Earth, Wind And Fire, that let to Earth, Wind And Fire and then it completely exploded.
Q - And I'm going to ask about that in just a minute. But first, you knew Dusty Springfield and she told you she didn't like the record business. What didn't she like about the record business?
A - Oh, the same I didn't like about it, which I still don't. I'm like the least political music person. I could never tell you who was head of a record company. She, like I, hated the competiveness of it. Just didn't want to have anything to do with it. I had written some stuff for her in the early '80s and then in 1984 I was hired as an artist, not recording artist, but a painter artist to go to London. It was right after I started painting, to paint a portrait of this new group that just had a hit in Europe and they were about to come to the United States and they needed a portrait for this fan club stationery. So I went and it was Pet Shop Boys. They didn't even know I was a songwriter. They kind of discovered that as they were posing for me. And so I ended up staying there in England and writing "What Have I Done To Deserve This" with them and they immediately, as soon as we wrote the chorus, said, "Wouldn't it be great to get Dusty Springfield?" They absolutely loved her. I basically said, "No shot. She never wants to record again, but I'll call." It took us three years between me calling and them calling because they kind of stayed on her. Finally, in 1987 she said, "Okay. I'll do this one thing," and it ended up becoming her second biggest record, sales wise next to "Son Of A Preacher Man", but she still hated the music business. It was great that she got to come back in that way and they had another hit with her, but it wasn't someone who had any desire to regularly sing again.
Q - I know it's never good to ask a songwriter what their song is about, but what is "September" about?
A - My stories about that song are more about what it took to write it. When I got the phone call from Maurice White, he asked me to write the entire next Earth, Wind And Fire album which is the "I Am" album. He said, "Before we start we have to write one song that's going to be a single on Earth, Wind And Fire's Greatest Hits, Volume One," which was going to come out two months before the new album. The only thing that he had was that he knew he wanted to call the song "September". I only learned very recently, literally within the last week of today that it was called "September" because that's when his son was supposed to be born. So, I never knew that until recently.
Q - Is that where the 21st day of September comes in?
A - Yeah. It's the date the baby was supposed to be born on. But again, I never knew any of that at the time. All I knew was that he wanted to call the song "September". He told me it was the third song in a trilogy, the first two which had already been out already and had already been hits. And that he wrote with Al McKay. There were three of us on "September", me, Maurice and Al. The first was "Sing A Song" by Earth, Wind And Fire. The second was "Best Of My Love", The Emotions, and now the third was supposed to be "September" and it was supposed to be the happiest song of any of them. So, when I walked into the studio the first day to meet them, they had already started. The band was already working on the intro. I just thought, oh my God, this is like the greatest sounding thing I've ever heard. Over the next couple of months we wrote the song, but we were also writing nine or ten other songs at the same time for the "I Am" album. It was the one song that didn't have to conform to that kind of spiritual philosophy. So, it was more simplistic than I was comfortable with. We had a lot me saying, "Oh my God, no. It can't be as plain as 'Do you remember the 21st of September? Love was changing the minds of pretenders while chasing the clouds away.'" I lost all those arguments, which I am completely grateful for. And then the big one was using the nonsensical phrase, "Ba-de-ya", which Maurice would always use as a work vocal. Anytime there was a new melody, the kind of phrase he would sing to the new melody trying to find a pocket was "Ba-de-ya", but in a "September" it was very obvious he was going to leave it in there and I kept arguing, "No. We need real words. It's too cute." I lost that argument and again, I'm so grateful I lost the argument. I always say the lesson I learned from him and specifically that song was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove. If the melody is there, if the beat, the feel, the rhythm, that's all there, people are going to know what you're talking about. And so I learned it was a way more organic view of looking at music as opposed to here's the lyrics, let's put this lyric on top of it. They went so hand-in-hand. That song remains my favorite of anything of mine to this day. It seems to get bigger each year, which is just like crazy.
Q - If I'm not mistaken that song has been in a commercial.
A - Oh, it's been in so many commercials. It's been in fifteen movies. I call it the song that wouldn't die. I think it was 2006 or 2007 that song "September" and "Boogie Wonderland" were in three of the Top Ten movies of the year. It was in Bubble, Happy Feet and Night At The Museum. So, between those two songs they're constantly popping up everywhere.
Q - It's better than money in the bank!
A - Yeah.
Q - Well, it is money in the bank!
A - Yeah, I know. But it is better than money in the bank because they're songs that make people happy. They don't die, which is incredible.
Q - You and Danny Sembello wrote "Neutron Dance" in about an hour?
A - Yeah.
Q - Danny had never written a song before.
A - Yeah.
Q - How did that happen?
A - We had the same publisher. I had gone from getting over a hundred songs cut a year to not even wanting to write anymore. I discovered art. I was getting more satisfaction from that than music. So, my publisher at that time; there was a movie coming out called Streets Of Fire and they needed a song. The publisher had just signed Danny because his brother Michael Sembello had the biggest record of the year before with "Maniac". They were just hoping that the talent was going to trickle down to the brother. I, at that point, never thought I would have another hit again. I went from a zillion songs cut to "I don't want to do this anymore." It's one thing when you say it, it's another thing when people stop calling. So, we were at the stop calling phase. Then I thought, oh, they're putting me with this guy who's never written before. How could I go any lower? So, I told him when he walked in I only had an hour. I literally put a timer on. The only thing we had been told about this movie was that there was a handsome guy, a cute girl, and a Black, doo-wop band and they were the only ones to escape a nuclear holocaust and they were on a bus riding out of town and we were supposed to write a song for the Black band. Danny was only 17 at the time. The only thing I knew about him is he had been in Stevie Wonder's band since he was 15 and he was the keyboard player. I said to him, "Just play the tritest kind of doo-wop bass line that you could think of I can write a melody to anything." All I was trying to do was get him out of my house. That song is very autobiographical because I was so down at that point. We just like raced through that thing and they ended up not using it in Streets Of Fire. Thank God. I just figured it's a dead song. Then all of a sudden The Pointer Sisters cut it, but it was on a huge album for them and they already had five singles. So, I thought it's better being a dead song. No one will ever hear this, and then it ended up being used as a temp track in Beverly Hills Cop. They were trying to get a sound-alike song so they could own the song as opposed to licensing a song. I was one of the songwriters they sent it to, to rip it off. I got so sick of all my friends calling me up and telling me how much fun they had ripping "Neutron Dance" off that I called Danny again and we literally, basically kept the drum track, stripped everything else off of it, used the same instruments and basically re-wrote the same song. It was called "Stir It Up" and we handed that in and that got rejected. Then about three weeks before the movie came out I got a call that Jerry Bruckheimer, whose second film, /Beverly Hills Cop went into his garbage can looking for a cassette tape to tape over and they were all the cassettes his screener had passed on. By a twist of fate, he pulled the cassette out that had "Stir It Up" on it, played a little piece of it just to make sure it sucked as bad as the screener said, ended up falling in love with it, never found a song he liked better than "Neutron Dance". So, three weeks before that film came out I ended up with two songs in it, won the Grammy and better than any of it, Pravda, which was the official paper of the Communist government, mis-translated "Neutron Dance" to Neutron Bomb and they named me one of the most dangerous subversives living in the United States. For me, who is a lover of kitsch, it just doesn't get any better than that. Also, my high school in Detroit was made famous in that film because Eddie Murphy wore a t-shirt that said Mumford on it. So, it just gave me this whole connection back to my home town, to my high school, from a song I thought was nothing and wrote in under an hour.
Q - What a story!
A - Yeah. It's unbelievable. I've left out so much that happened with it. It's just a crazy story and then it became one of my favorite songs of mine from me thinking it was completely insignificant.
Q - Is it difficult to come up with a different sounding song all the time? "Neutron Dance" doesn't sound like "September". I would think there would be a tendency to write the same sounding song again and again.
A - The tendency to write the same song again and again was what was making me hate writing songs. When people would send me tracks they would say give me a song like "Boogie Wonderland". Well, your music isn't anything like "Boogie Wonderland". (laughs) They wanted to stay within very kind of safe, established zones whereas "Neutron Dance" was kind of me and Danny going off doing our own thing. When I had freedom, that's when the songs would be very different. People say to me all the time, "How does the person who wrote the Friends theme write 'The Color Purple'?" But that's what I love doing. A lot of that experience came even though I didn't enjoy writing to other people's tracks so much, like just doing the lyric. I got to work in so many different kinds of music that way, it really kind of trained me to do anything. I was someone who just hated being inside the box lines so much that I was always game for anything.
Q - Great attitude. Great energy. Great spirit.
A - Thanks.
Q - Now, didn't you collaborate on a song with Bob Dylan?
A - Yeah. A friend of mine was going out with him. This would have been 1985. We actually never finished the song, but we got together a lot. He was kind of in a transition period of finding himself. Synthesizers were in. He had never done that kind of stuff before. We had a lot of common interests, welding being one of them. We actually split a piece of machinery called a plasma welder. My dad was a scrap dealer in Detroit and Bob collected scrap, you know like piles of fenders. Things like that. That was kind of way more about writing enough that he kind of found his footing again. I got into that kind of relationship with a lot of artists. I would be put with kind of superstars who had lost their footing and were looking to do something contemporary again as opposed to like both in his case and in James Brown's case, they would tell me they would be put with all these contemporary songwriters who would then sit down and play them a bad James Brown or a bad Bob Dylan, whereas I was more interested in the person. We were all collectors. We had interests outside of music. So, it was kind of more about loosening the person up. Trust me, I wish I had records out with both of them, but I got to have just these amazing experiences. In retrospect I wish I had pushed a little harder 'cause I would have loved to have gotten on a record, but I think for what was important for that artist at that time I did what I was supposed to do.
Q - Wait a minute. Bob Dylan is still around. Isn't there still hope that you could write a song with him?
A - Yeah. I would love to. I haven't seen him forever. He was a great guy. Really a great guy.
Official Website: www.AlleeWillis.com
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