Start listing UW-Madison graduate Allee Willis’ show business credits – hit songwriter, renowned artist, acclaimed Broadway tunesmith, multimedia pioneer and kitsch singer – and she responds about her behind-the-scenes, unknown status with a big laugh.
“I’m the best-kept secret,” she bursts out.
That’s not far from the truth.
“I know,” she says, smiling. “I know.”
Willis, 58, fits many descriptions – gregarious, funny, outrageously creative and more – but bravado ranks low. The guests at her New Year’s Day party this year in Los Angeles, for instance, included Joni Mitchell, “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and Cybill Shepherd, as well as many attendees from other occupations, but you need to pry details about these celebs from her.
Willis, in Madison on Wednesday to talk to UW-Madison students, name-drops professional and personal moments with Bob Dylan, James Brown and Lily Tomlin, but again, her stories need nudging.
She’s proud of her own work, too. It earned her a Grammy Award – and nominations for Tony and Emmy awards. There’s also 2007’s honorary Webby Award for Internet artistry. Her most popular credits, however, are for her songwriting, which includes co-writing the Broadway hit musical “The Color Purple,” the theme to TV’s “Friends,” Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” and the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance.”
“Beverly Hills Cop” used that tune in the opening scene to one of film’s all-time blockbusters. But in 1985, Willis knew little about the movie’s potential.
“I thought, ‘What a dumb title. Who’s going to see this movie?’ ” she said. “After the premiere, I knew it would be huge.”
A Detroit native, Willis graduated from UW-Madison in journalism with an emphasis on advertising. In the early 1970s, she worked at a New York record label and recorded a solo album that found few listeners – although one fan was Bonnie Raitt.
Willis turned to songwriting, but she didn’t have her first hit song until 1978 when she “was as close to being on welfare as you could get,” she said. She wrote hundreds more tunes, then turned to pop art after painting a bathroom pink and, using a large canvas with the same color and vintage doorknobs and clipped art from Ebony magazine, created her first piece.
Throughout the 1990s, she concentrated largely on Internet art during online’s infancy. She was ahead of her time designing a visual social network. By 2000, her attentions turned back to songwriting (thanks to “Color Purple”) and she developed an alter ego named Bubbles to reinvent her performing and art careers.
“I can’t stand not being creative,” Willis said. “I will take any chance in the world if I get an idea.”
She lives in a lavish Los Angeles home that was used by major film studios in the 1930s as a party house. Still, she’s apt to pour most of her money into new projects. “I’d rather be terrified than miserable,” she said.
No matter what she does, most people recognize the song “I’ll Be There For You” from “Friends.” She has mixed feelings about that.
“I’ve had so many people come up to me and do that hideous clap in the first line,” Willis says. “The producers wanted a very Monkees-sounding song, which it is.” The show debuted three weeks after she wrote it. “I’m totally grateful. That show exploded. I went along for the ride.”
Willis urges others to pursue artistic expression.
“I don’t care if it’s putting a plastic penguin on your front lawn in a grass skirt,” she said. “If you can express yourself as an individual through some creative means that’s an incredible step toward self-esteem.”
Willis also treasures her years at UW-Madison. Her mother died before Willis left for college. The university helped her through the tragedy.
“It was the first time I was thrown into something without a net. This was salvation for me,” she says and adds with a laugh: “And the color of the school is red. That is a happy color.”