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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What A Thill!

How I didn’t know about this dynamo drummer and firecracker of a spirit named Jerrie Thill when she’s led her own all female bands for over 60 years is nuts. Especially given my proclivity for being attracted to distinctive characters like The Del Rubio Triplets or “Shagman” Seymour Heller, Liberace’s manager for 37 years, who forge their own way where no way has existed before. The sheer force these people exude to manifest whatever vision they have of themselves is a trait I’ve aspired to emulate ever since I realized I had a mutant career that didn’t follow the normal Hollywood path to success. It would be up to me to pave my own orbit if I wanted to ever combine everything I did – music, art, video, technology, collecting, entertaining, et al – into one fiery ball of art expression. Jerrie Thill, NINETY ONE AND STILL SMACKING THE SKINS, propelled herself into a similar orbit drumming and singing her way from The Great Depression to The Might As Well Be Great Depression upon us today.

Jerrie isn’t happy unless two sticks are in her hands and high heels are on her feet tapping the bass drum like a steady heartbeat. Her body language is a study in HAPPINESS, her little arms flapping like birds as if the sticks lift her off from the drumheads. For the past 4 months she’s been attached to an oxygen tank. It’s slowed her down some, just for the sheer pain in the ass of having a tank as a third arm. Not to mention those tubes that connect it to your nose. But I’m so into the quirkiness of a 91 year old drummer, female no less, that the oxygen just becomes an interesting fashion accessory and makes the overall intensity of what I’m seeing and hearing even better.

My neighbor, songwriter Alison Freebairn-Smith, introduced me to Carol Chaikin, Jerrie’s younger sax sidekick, at our block party this summer. Carol’s been playing with Jerrie since 2002. Alison documented them for her just-about-finished documentary of all girl bands which, by the way, did not start with The Go-Gos, but has been alive and flourishing in the US since the 1920’s. Jerrie’s led or been in tons of those bands including the famed Dixie Belles, who I saw on Johnny Carson in the late 80’s and almost needed oxygen myself.

These days Jerrie and Carol and whoever else feels inspired to join them play Sundays at El Cid, a gem of a vintage Mexican eatery in LA. But their most important stop is right here at Willis Wonderland where we’re recording a song I wrote in her honor, “Hey, Jerrie”. Jerrie came over last week and smacked out the drum track in one take. Her kick drum sound is the best I’ve ever heard, 60 years of high heel grime and funk on the ones.

We’re almost done with the record, also featuring a 6 year old drummer and 11 year old Blues and Jazz guitar virtuoso. Then I just need to whip a video together and you’ll hear it. Hopefully that won’t take the usual 7-9 months my other videos have taken. I got to move as fast as Jerrie!

I loved Issac Hayes. Who didn’t I guess? He was totally innovative, his own man, one of the most classic soul songwriters in history and a MASSIVE influence on me. “Soul Man”, “Hold On, I’m Comin'”, “B-A-B-Y” not to mention ‘Shaft” and “Bumpy’s Lament”! First Black composer to ever win an Academy Award, busting it open for Black composers for all eternity. How much better does it get?

Those chains and wild pantsuits, a soul fashion icon of the highest proportion. A total individual following his own path. This photo of him holding the Bubbles’ ceramic he owned, Mr. Issac Hayes #7, is about my favorite photo of my work ever taken. I loved how he autographed it ‘To “Allee”‘, as if I was the one who wasn’t real and Bubbles was who really mattered.

I finally got to meet Isaac Hayes when he came to the opening of The Color Purple, my musical that opened on Broadway Dec. 1, 2005. I stumbled over Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Sidney Poitier, Chris Rock, Oprah, you name it, to get to the one who really mattered to me.

Isaac Hayes was the kind of artist I adored, not content to do the same thing over and over again just writing songs, recording them, going out on the road and starting the exact same process all over again. That bores me. As far as I can tell Isaac Hayes followed his heart, stretching his limits and going places few if none had gone before and looking sharp all the while. A master at reinvention, he dug deep into his hot buttered soul and made music that soaked into the very fabric of humanity. He shall, of course, live forever. I’m only sorry I never got to share a meal with him on that plate.