Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not an avid club-goer. It used to be that I wanted to hear every detail of a record under headphones and didn’t want anyone standing up in front of me or humming along next to me when I went to hear someone sing. But now that MP3s and YouTube have become ubiquitous with fidelity crushed down to the size of an ant I don’t care as much about such things. So this weekend I hit one club for two acts. My only regret is that I didn’t bring my vintage noisemaker shakers along to rattle in front of my talented friends who were up on stage.

It would have been most appropriate to bring my Ubangi Club clapper Saturday night when I went to see Alan Paul, member of Manhattan Transfer, all members of which I’ve known for a trillion years and co-wrote “SHAKER SONG” for.

Here’s the other side of the Ubangi Club SHAKER:

There are a zillion versions of “SHAKER SONG” on YouTube but, sadly, none by the Transfer, the group that made it famous. Here’s a version by Jazzanova Band that features a fancy little cha-cha by the lead singer:

But back to the Transfer’s Alan Paul and the excellent SHAKING he did Saturday night upstairs at Vitellos, a restaurant infamous for the Robert Blake shooting extravaganza and now equally as known for the nightclub that sits upstairs above the plates of still-on-the-menu Fusilli Minestra alla Robert Blake and the kitschy murals of Italy that coat the walls below.

Here I am at Vitello’s with Alan and  Bob Garrett, who I’ve known since 1974 when I worked at Reno Sweeney’s, a cabaret in Manhattan where the Transfer often appeared, and who Alan has known since he originated the part of Teen Angel in Grease on Broadway, a role Bob took over after Alan left.

Tim Hauser and Cheryl Bentyne of Manhattan Transfer were also at the show.

I think I’d only seen Tim once since my Borscht Belt Birthday party in 1985 to celebrate my being named one of the most subversive people living in the United States by Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist party. Here we are at the party with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, two of the most prolific songwriters in history.

All four of us have used many SHAKERS in our songs. Here’s another one from my collection:

And the flipside:

Sunday night I was back at Vitello’s to see my friend, Maxine Lapiduss‘s hysterical comedy act, “Mackie’s Back In Town”.

I co-wrote a song for the show, “Scared About Life Without Oprah”, with Max, Mark Waldrop,and Michael Orland, who also led Max’s band. Here we are at the moment of conception:

And here I am with Oprah, though not at Max’s show, but my show, The Color Purple, which Oprah produced.

Here are are Michael and I Sunday night at Max’s show:

As Max is a bongo freak, our Oprah song contains many SHAKERS. I won’t let this one leave Willis Wonderland  but I believe it’s on our demo:

And the flipside:

Also at Max’s gig was my good friend, Tim Bagley.

I actually liked this photo of me and Tim better but can we discuss THE AMOUNT OF LIPSTICK ON MY TEETH?? I don’t remember sucking the tube but something of that magnitude obviously happened:

Also present were perennial Match Game panelists and comedy greats, Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill.

As you can see, the lipstick is still on my teeth but has disintegrated into a more tasteful stripe. This is the good thing about being me. Even when something as hideously embarrassing as walking around with a tube of lipstick smeared on your front teeth happens people think it’s intentional. At least it matches my glasses well.

Thankfully, by the time I said goodnight to Max along with Prudence Fenton, the lipstick had left the building and my teeth returned to their normal sparkly (yellowish) white selves.

Max is doing her show twice more in March. For tickets go here. And check the mirror before you take any photos. And please bring your SHAKER!!


I LOVVVVED conducting! I hope that’s evident in this clip. I’m grateful I got the footage I did though I’d planned to have at least five times as much of it to edit from. But as the journey below illustrates, the path was a little more crooked than I’d anticipated though well worth every swing of the drumstick!

I’m a fanatic archivist. I’ve been a walking reality show since I got my first video camera in 1978, racking up over 40,000 terabytes on my server, most of which is video. At any given point I have at least three fairly recent models of whatever’s at the high end of the consumer line as well as a bunch of other cheaper backups. I also have three Flip cams and all of my digital still ones take video. So when I was going to conduct the marching band at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, this past Homecoming weekend, an incredible honor especially for someone who has no idea what all those dots on the musical staff mean, I took all my artillery with me. God only knows how much I paid for overweight luggage but I had at least nine cameras capable of taking video as well as three tripods, two extendable poles so the cameras could be elevated, 15 batteries, three lights and three mics. I prepared for every conceivable eventuality as there was no way I wasn’t going to fully capture what I knew was going to be one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I wanted to preserve a birds eye view of what I was seeing up on the platform as I conducted so I constructed a rig to hold one of my flip cameras around my neck so it could capture most of my arm movements as well as whatever musicians were in my line of sight.


But as soon as I finished conducting I realized that although I had turned the camera on I forgot to hit ‘record’. I stayed cool knowing all was not lost because I had four backups – 1) Mark Blackwell, who came with me from LA and was was never more than 20 feet away capturing all the sweaty details and whom I was directing throughout the performance.


2) Eddie Alshuler, who Mark and I were staying with and who was sitting directly across the field from where I was conducting on the 50 yard line, who could capture a front view of me and an excellent overview of the 300+ piece band. But as I blogged about yesterday, Mark’s footage snagged at a crucial point in the first song, “In The Stone”, where arm movements I’d practiced for two weeks to make the slowed down section at the entrance of the fade-I have no idea what that’s called in musical terms-ultra dramatic. Now Eddie’s footage consisted solely of his wife and my sorority sister, Muffin’s, crotch as the camera lay in her lap waiting to be turned on when, in fact, it was actually already in ‘record’, only to be snapped off the second I mounted the platform. Here’s me conducting from Eddie’s camera’s POV:


Once I left the conducting platform Eddie turned the camera off, which was actually on, so we got an excellent few bonus minutes of Muffin’s ass.

Alternative #3 was another one of my sorority sisters who shot the pregame tailgate performance where I also conducted. But she’s incredibly short so all of her footage featured a booming bass drum with me like a little ant flailing their arms above it.


Number 4 was the husband of another one of my sorority sisters who got some great shots of me but you only see the tops of the heads of a small portion of the band.


So as grateful as I am for all these people manning my cameras, I didn’t end up with enough footage I could edit together so you’d feel the impact or scope of what was going on. In previous days, the fact that both primary and backup systems failed would have killed me, but with age I’ve learned to roll with the punches. I really think that’s how my sense of kitsch became so well honed, appreciating when things went awry and figuring out a way to deal with them. How else would I ever be talking about Muffin’s body parts in a post that’s about my debut as a conductor? If all I wrote about was the wonderfulness of conducting this would probably be a very boring read to anyone other than a marching band freak.

As one final backup, I decided to go through footage from my rehearsal with the band the day before on the practice field. But the bulk of that was either shot from the back of my head as I tried to concentrate on memorizing the arrangement…


… or on documenting me as I tried to figure out what I was going to stand on to conduct. I’m not one to stand still so the thought of having to keep my feet in cement on a tiny platform ten feet in the air while I’m enduring several other distracting conditions was of major concern to me. 1) I don’t read music and don’t have particularly great memorization skills so the chances of looking like I am leading the band are questionable to begin with. 2) I’m performing in front of 82,000 people when the bulk of my stage experience has been as a little fur tree in my second grade play. 3) I’m sweating to death in the unexpected 84° weather and don’t really have the right clothes despite bringing everything I had with the school color, red, in it. 4) I will be bouncing around on a knee with a ripped meniscus that I’ve put off having an operation on and, 5) I’m waving around sticks with two bum wrists from decades of pounding on keyboards. So the issue of safety while conducting is real.

First I tried a smaller version of the ladder Mike Leckrone, the incredible bandleader/arranger who’s been at Wisconsin since I was there in the 60’s, usually stands on.


But the little platform you stand on was only a couple inches deeper than my big feet and I wasn’t eager to meet my death or crush one of the kids guarding me. So I passed on that and finally settled on something that would only involve a broken ankle or two if I fell.


In fact, I almost tipped over three times during the real deal in the stadium. You can see the first time  at 1:02 in the video


… and again at 1:29…


… and finally at 3:00 where I really thought I was going to kiss the dirt.


Thankfully I made it off alive, ankles, wrists and knee intact, and stayed in rhythm 98.3% of the time. I’ve been obsessed about being a conductor ever since.

Once I got back to LA and transferred the footage I realized my only option was to stick with what Mark shot on the field with me and abandon the idea of putting in different angles to make it more compelling or cover every time it got to an angle on my face or body that made me grimace.


I’m the one who always carries on about loving yourself just as you are so I’ve mentally committed to not spotting the flaws but, rather, to just seeing the spirit that gripped me at the moment. But then I see the video once it’s been uploaded to YouTube and the sync is unbearably off. Now this really drives me nuts because I know the sound and picture as the clip sits on my computer is completely in sync but now, because of YouTube’s ever-changing compression schemes, I’m going to look like an idiot. This then brings up all my issues about designing a social network in 1992 based on things like people’s home movies and becoming friends and collaborators with people all over the world but never getting it off the ground because I was too concerned about screwing copyright owners when someone used something they created without paying for it. I can’t even believe that this is coming up for me now! YouTube thrives because it doesn’t pay people like me royalties and now they’re messing with my conducting debut! I digress, but it ate up most of yesterday to finally get something uploaded that didn’t make it look like I was conducting a band in the next state.


So here’s what I’m left with: footage from one camera that has a blip in it right at the exact second of my one big rehearsed move that’s shot too close when I can’t move my feet, forcing the lower half of my body to function differently than it should when the top half is moving as it was, wishing I had starched my pants so they didn’t look like I had just pulled them out of a suitcase overstuffed with camera equipment, none of which functioned properly anyway. And the camera’s close enough that I can see a flinch of sadness when we hit the final bars of the final song, the theme from Friends.

When I was first told what songs of mine I’d be conducting I didn’t understand how the Friend’s theme made it there, especially over marching band favorites like “Boogie Wonderland” or “Neutron Dance” that were left out. But another blessing of this trip was the opportunity to conduct Mike Leckrone’s seriously incredible arrangement of it.


I’m standing up there on the podium thinking that in the context of everything that was happening, “I’ll Be there for You” was the grandest sounding song of all. So in addition to everything else I’m thankful for that occurred last weekend, a serious supreme joy was letting me appreciate my song in a way that so many people have told me through the years that they do. Sometimes it takes massive distance from something you do to appreciate why you did it in the first place.

Such is the life of an artist. Such is the joy of conducting a marching band playing your songs. Such is life.



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…





My life would have never been the same without Soul music. Growing up in Detroit, my teenage years were spent on the far right of the AM radio dial, down where the black stations were. I had no idea I would eventually become a hit songwriter especially because I never learned (to this day) how to play an instrument. Call it a limitation but I’m someone who believes in finding power in limitations. I learned everything I know from the Soul Stars in this book. Published in 1968 by Right On! magazine, a division of Tiger Beat, Right On! was THE commercial rag of blended Pop Soul, music that rippled with unbridled joy of freedom and self-expression, exuding confidence and spontaneity that sprung from a Black Is Beautiful social consciousness. Listening to THAT music was all music training I needed.

Here’s Right On’s 100 Super-Soul Stars as of 1968:


I know the names are small but squint to read them because they changed music forever and most of the records they made sound as contemporary today as the day they were mixed.


I loved every record the Supremes made though I loved the earliest ones the most.


The original version of “I Heard It through the Grapevine” by Gladys Knight and the Pimps slayed me. In 1973, “Midnight Train to Georgia” became and remains my single favorite background vocals record ever recorded.


Marvin Gaye’s songs recorded by the time Right On’s 100 Super-Soul Stars came out, especially “Wonderful One”, “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “I’ll be Doggone”, were my favorites. When he released his version of “I Heard It through the Grapevine” I think it became one of the greatest records ever made.


Merry Clayton was the believable female voice on The Rolling Stones ‘Gimme Shelter’. I got a promo copy of her solo LP in the early 70s when I was working at Columbia Records and played it constantly until I used it as a hat brim for an outfit that really screamed for an albeit impromtu hat.


The highest form of Godliness in Soul, Aretha’s ‘Soul ’69’ is still one of my favorite LPs ever.


I was very depressed when I graduated college having to leave all my friends at the University of Wisconsin. The only thing that kept me somewhat calm and optimistic on the long drive back to Detroit was hearing  “Oh Happy Day” over and over again on the radio.

For as great as 1968 was in producing Super-Soul Stars it was still too early to include the group that honestly and for real changed my life, Earth Wind & Fire. In 1978 they gave me my first hit single, “September”, and in ’79 my first hit album, “I Am”, on which I co-wrote every song but two.  Here’s they are in 1975:


Larry Dunn, keyboardist extraordinare, had the most awesome Afro of anyone in the group.


Though they too had spectacular Afros I hadn’t even heard of The Emotions when Right On’s 100 Super-Soul Stars came out in ’68. But years later they joined Earth Wind & Fire to sing my second hit, “Boogie Wonderland”.


Last Saturday night I went to The Waterfront Concert Theater in Marina Del Rey to see Elements of Fire, an EWF tribute led by Larry and Sheldon Reynolds, who joined the group as guitarist in the late 80’s and filled in for co-founder/lead singer and my favorite singer of all time, Maurice White, when he left the group. I bumped into Larry as I was walking in.


Once inside I met up with one of my favorite friends and funniest persons alive, Luenell, who was introducing the band.


If one just judges the music and love affair between performers onstage and the audience, the evening was spectacular. I spent two exquisite hours enjoying some of my favorite music on earth, several songs of which were mine.  I was surrounded by friends from back in the day. But that’s where the party ended. Once the evening was in the hands of The Waterfront “Concert Theater” it was a 3, no, 23 ring, circus of errors.

As a purveyor of kitsch and aforesaid strong believer in rolling with limitations if you can’t do anything to change them, these are the moments I must take a breath and remember I’m blessed.  Rather than chasing down the manager to strangle him/her I just squint and look at the evening as a massive wheel of brie spilling off a way-too-small buffet table and know I will remember it as a stand out in the annals (or anals depending on how hard you’re squinting) of Kitsch.

The screw-ups started a full week before I even got to The Waterfront “Concert Theater” when I tried to buy tickets over the phone and talked to a chain of robots, none of whom could help me other than tell me that dinner was served during the show. I would’ve bought tickets online but after five minutes of searching the site for a link to the box office there was no link to tickets for the band I wanted to see. I finally bypassed the club and got tickets through the tour manager. But even with them printed out in hand you still had to stand in line to pick up the real tickets which were the identical printed sheets of paper. Which would have been slightly more tolerable if the air conditioning had been working.

Soaked like a mop, I went to the bathroom to freshen up. I know this place is called The Waterfront because it sits on the harbor. I just wish they would’ve confined the standing bodies of water to outside. Nothing short of a few sticks of dynamite could’ve unplugged this:


I moved on to sink  number two but unless I had brought my bathing suit and spent the night sitting on the bathroom counter dipping my toes to try and cool down from the malfunctioning air conditioning I still was left with no place to wash my hands.


I included the following photo because it’s important for you to see the primo condition vintage 1950’s rayon shirt I have on. Covered with starbursts, it’s one of the best Atomic Age shirts I own.  I only wear it on special occasions when I know I want to feel good.


Little did I know as I swept  past the Waterfront’s beautifully finished bathroom walls…


… and well-attended to wastebasket…


… what would happen the second I got to my seat in the “VIP” section, three bridge tables plopped in the middle of the one and only narrow aisle that led to the stage and at least 20 other people who would need a waitress or a bathroom throughout the night. Though we were in slightly better shape than hundreds of other sardines smashed together in a room with only one exit. I finnnnnaly stepped over enough bodies to crumble into my seat and a waitress dumps a bottle of beer and a full whiskey sour on my beautiful, special, rare and beloved Atomic shirt. Ice cubes dribbled down my back coating both sides of the garment with sticky goo and deposited yet another body of standing water in my chair, the kind that has ass indentations carved into the wood so any liquid just sits there. Despite not being enough to soak up the mess on me, my chair, the floor, the people next to me and my once beautiful but now permanently spotted leather bag the waitress returned with six towels, a blessing as she only brought one thin paper napkin when she finally delivered our meal, the one and ONLY item on the “full dinner” menu the robots had told me was available, a Styrofoam plate with a tiny pile of bagged salad, an unidentifiable mound of squishy stuff that was probably going for Jumbalaya and “Chicken Strips”, 4 tiny frozen Costco chicken legs. As Luenell said when she got on stage, “Don’t be tellin’ a black woman you got chicken strips and then bring her no chicken legs dripping with sauce so now her lipstick’s smeared all over her face and she got to get up on stage. That’s dangerous.”

After about a half an hour I adjusted to the fact that I was stuck in a beer and whiskey soaked outfit in a club with little to no air conditioning and no sink to clean any of it or me off. The music was SO good – “September”, “Boogie Wonderland”, “Reasons”, “Serpentine Fire”, “Can’t Hide Love”, “I Can’t Let Go”, “In The Stone”, “Getaway” “Fantasy”, “That’s the Way of the World” and on and on. I even got used to having my chair shoved in my back every time anyone needed to get by. Of the hundreds of times it happened that night thankfully one time it was by this guy in the blue shirt:


He had many hits by the time he made it into Right On’s 100 Super-Soul Stars in 1968.


Ultimately, I think covering a sweat soaked body with an outfit made of beer and whiskey made Stevie’s medley of “Shining Star” and “Superstition” even better for me. Despite the constant efforts of The Waterfront Concert Jail I Mean Theater to do otherwise, it was the kind of night where you couldn’t help feeling like a Soul Star when you left.

Super-Soul-Stars-Book_4207 Super-Soul-Stars-Book_4210

(For more of me, EWF & Luenell on an evening that was far better managed, see the opening party for my social network, The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch at, last September 21st, the date that’s in the opening line of the song, “Do you remember the 21st night of September…”.  Larry Dunn and founding EWF member Verdine White, greatest bass player who ever lived, played for anyone who wanted to sing kariokee of “September”.  Though there are no drinks being spilled, no germ infested bathrooms, lots of food, air conditioning and folks who worked there who actually got past the first grade,  it’s still fantastic viewing material for anyone who likes me, Earth, Wind & Fire, Luenell or Super-Soul Stars in general.)



“Boogie Wonderland”:


This late 60’s Soul Grabber sign for Budweiser malt liquor is one of my favorite possessions. Everything about it screams late Afro 60’s, one of my favorite periods in Soul. In my personal life there’s one supreme SOUL GRABBER and her name is Patti LaBelle. She was the first singer to start regularly doing my songs, starting with “Little Girls” in 1978 and continuing throughout the years with others like “Come What May” and “Stir It Up”, which won me a Grammy when it was on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack. When I first met her Patti also introduced me to Herbie Hancock and between the two of them that led to Earth, Wind & Fire.  So when it comes to grabbing souls Patti got a hold of mine, shook it loose and got it soaring.

Last night I went to a surprise birthday party thrown for Patti. As surprise parties go, as parties in general go, this was a killer, a real SOUL GRABBER. Here I am with Patti and her mom:


And here with Anita Pointer (of The Pointer Sisters, also responsible for me getting that Grammy with “Neutron Dance”), Luenell (hooker extraordinaire in Borat and fantastic comedienne/friend), Bunny Hull (who wrote “New Attitude” for Patti), Constance Tillotson (inseparable from Luenell – we call ourselves Twinkie, Ding Dong and Hostess Snowball):


And here I am with Loretta Devine, original Dream Girl…:


… and Siedah Garrett, singer extraordinaire who also wrote  “Man in the Mirror”:


And for the second day in a row here I am with RuPaul who I just saw at my party:


Don’t worry, I  haven’t forgotten about the Soul Grabber…


Here I am with Charlo Crossley (one of my oldest friends, a former Bette Midler Harlette and also a Church Lady on Broadway in my musical, The Color Purple) and Rudy Calvo, who’s always with Patti whenever I see her:


The great Kym Whitley:


And the so great Brian Dickens, Fantasia’s manager. I co-wrote and just co-produced “I’m Here”, Celie’s big song in The Color Purple, with a live 40 piece orchestra and Fantasia, who starred as Celie.  It comes out July 13.


I still haven’t forgotten about the Soul Grabber…


Here I am DEEP in conversation with the birthday girl:


And with Cheryl Dickerson and Freda Payne (“Band Of Gold”, “Bring the Boys Home” and party regular here at Willis Wonderland.)


And here I am with Norwood, songwriter and owner of my favorite front lawn in LA…


… the one with all the statues of David in front of it:


That house grabs my soul and everyone else’s who spots it and does an abrupt turn off of 3rd Street to park in front and take photos.

So happy birthday Patti LaBelle and may your soul continue to be grabbed so that you may regularly grab all of ours!


Photos: Prudence Fenton and Allee Willis


This starts out looking like a performance in a dinner theater and quickly spirals into something out of “Hair”. Between ‘costumes’ from much earlier in the  ’70s than when my song came out and the exceedingly Caucasian phrasing of the lyrics and choreography this is, in a Kitsch lovers universe, a stupendous rendition of “September”.

If you live in Los Angeles, come to Ghettogloss on Monday night, September 21 (“Do you remember the 21st night of September?”) for a party commemorating the opening of The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch featuring karaoke versions of this song that changed the course of my career. Hopefully, you’re as skilled as the folks who took the stage at Abilene High.

This starts out looking like a performance in a dinner theater and quickly spirals into something that out of “Hair”. Between ‘costumes’ from much earlier in the 70s then when my song came out and the exceedingly Caucasian phrasing of the lyrics and choreography this is, in a Kitsch lovers universe, a stupendous rendition of September.
If you live in Los Angeles, come to Ghettogloss on Monday night, September 21 (“Do you remember the 21st night of September?”) for a party commemorating the opening of the Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch featuring karaoke versions of this song that changed the course of my career. Hopefully, you’re as skilled as the folks who took the stage at Abilene High.



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.


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


With the spectacular mini-skirted, go-go booted guitar playing singing stars, who I’m credited with discovering, in the living room of their mobile home, 1986. For a Del Rubios smorgasbord plus “Neutron Dance” and “What Have I Done To Deserve This” as you’ve never heard them before run here.



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…