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Allee Willis, award-winning Detroit songwriter, dies at 72

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Beloved Detroit songwriter Allee Willis, who produced award-winning hits  that went on to sell more than 60 million records, died Tuesday, her partner Prudence Fenton said.

The songstress died from cardiac arrest in her Los Angeles home, according to Variety. She was 72. 

Willis was an eccentric and prolific composer who channeled inspiration from Motown Records into songs that earned her Grammy, Emmy, and Tony awards and nominations. She was also known for her set designing and artistry.

Allie Willis

In 1995, Willis was nominated for an Emmy for her No. 1 hit by the Rembrandts, "I'll Be There for You," the theme from "Friends," one of the best-selling television themes of all time. She also co-wrote the music and lyrics for the Tony- and Grammy-winning Broadway musical "The Color Purple."

Her credits also include Earth, Wind & Fire’s "September" and "Boogie Wonderland," the Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance," and Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield’s "What Have I Done to Deserve This." She collaborated with artists including Bob Dylan, James Brown, Patti LaBelle, Deniece Williams, Herbie Hancock and Motown great Lamont Dozier.

Her compositions have sold more than 60 million records and she also won a Best Soundtrack Grammy in 1985 for "Beverly Hills Cop."

After earning a journalism degree at the University of Wisconsin, Willis moved to New York in 1969 and worked at Columbia and Epic Records in a copywriting position prior to turning to music and songwriting in 1972. Her 1974 Epic album "Childstar" made a fan of Bonnie Raitt, who became the first artist to cover her songs, according to her biography.

She moved to Los Angeles in 1977 to secure a publishing deal at A&M, where she created many of her hits. She was a renowned performer, visual and social artist, and director who is credited with assembling one of the world's biggest collections of kitsch — tacky popular art — and she became famous for showing it at the parties she threw at her architecturally historic home in L.A. known as “Willis Wonderland” after her hit "Boogie Wonderland," according to the biography.

Allie Willis

Her activism stood out in 1997 when she addressed the U.S. House of Representatives' Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property on behalf of 3 million BMI songwriters to fight for artist rights in cyberspace. She gave the keynote speech at the first Digital World conference in 1992 and went on to give TED talks on self-expression in cyberspace.

After taking a long break, she returned to performing live in 2010 and launched Allee Willis Marches on Detroit, an ongoing series of events and fundraisers.

In September 2017, she hosted a premiere at the Detroit Institute of Arts for "The D," a theme song and documentary for Detroit that included 70 singalongs she produced throughout the city with 5,000 vocalists.

"Rest In Boogie Wonderland Nov. 10,1947-December 24, 2019," Fenton captioned a photo of Willis on her Instagram page.

She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018 alongside John Mellencamp, Alan Jackson, Kool & the Gang and Jermaine Dupri.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_