Artist & Co-writer of the Color Purple on Broadway
Keynote - 3:45pm, Thursday, April 7th
Allee Willis is a one-woman creative think-tank. A multi-disciplinary artist and visionary thinker whose range of imagination and productivity knows no bounds, her success exuberantly defies categorization-’unique’ pales as a descriptor. Willis is a GRAMMY®, Emmy, Tony and Webbie award-winning and nominated songwriter, artist, multimediaist, director, collector, and party thrower whose hit songs-including Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield’s “What Have I Done To Deserve This,” and The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You (Theme From Friends)”-have sold more than 50 million records. “Jungle Animal”, a collaboration with Pomplamoose, an independent music duo with over 30,000,000 views on YouTube, was just released and became one of the most played videos in the world within hours.
Willis’ first musical, the Oprah Winfrey-produced The Color Purple, written with Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray and Marsha Norman, opened on Broadway in December ’05 and ran for two-and-a-half years, recouping in less than a year, a rare accomplishment for any musical. The first National Tour launched in Chicago in 2007 and ran through spring 2010. Immediately following the tour’s finale, Willis (along with Russell and Bray) produced Fantasia-who starred in the musical as Celie-recording “I’m Here” with a live 40-piece orchestra. The song will be featured on Fantasia’s latest CD. The second National Tour of The Color Purple is already underway, and productions in London and Brazil are launching later in 2010
Willis also continues to expand The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch at AWMoK.com, a social network with galleries, art, music, video and live events. Originally launched in late 2009, it features Willis’ world’s largest collection of Kitsch artifacts as seen on her wildly popular “Kitsch O’ The Day” blog as well as submissions made by visitors to the site. AWMoK.com promotes a vibrant and unique form of social interaction, inviting like-minded “aKitschionados” to upload images and descriptions of their own prized Kitsch to the “Kitschenette,” which Willis personally curates, adding the cream of the kitschy crop to The Museum’s permanent collection. The site also features Willis’ “What Is Kitsch?” film series as well as her animated “Pigmy Will” shorts, created in collaboration with GRAMMY and Emmy-winning artist Prudence Fenton.
Willis is an internationally shown visual artist as well, and her paintings, ceramics, motorized sculptures and furniture are widely collected. Willis’ first solo gallery exhibition, 1985′s Wear The Right Clothes Even At Home, featured kinetic sculptures, many named after her hit songs, including “Neutron Dance” and “Boogie Wonderland.” Her expansive vision further extends to art direction, set design, and animation. Many of the more than 2,000 pieces of art Willis has sold were done in tandem with her fearless alter-ego, Bubbles the artist. Within months of Bubbles’ first painting in 1999, it was rumored in The New York Times that Willis actually was Bubbles the artist. In a feature on Willis, People Magazine once called her artistic overdrive, “a multi-threat creativity that itself seems like a Godzilla out to conquer Lalaland.”
Willis has long braved new worlds of creative endeavor integrating music, art, video, multi-media technology and lifestyle via a series of work which she co-composes, sings, plays, produces, draws, animates, directs, designs web worlds for and stars in. The first release, “Allee Willis Presents Bubbles & Cheesecake “It’s A Woman Thang”-part of a 6-song collaboration with singer-songwriter Holly Palmer (aka Cheesecake)-exploded on YouTube with close to 1,000,000 views, was selected as Official Honoree in The 2008 Webby Awards, and won three 2008 W3 Awards. Her second video, “Allee Willis Presents Bubbles & Cheesecake “Editing Is Cool”, was also ‘featured’ on YouTube and won three 2008 W3 Awards. At one point, Willis’ 2009 video “Hey Jerrie,” co-starring 91-year-old female drummer on an oxygen tank Jerrie Thill, was the 12th most popular video in the world on YouTube.
Willis is also a seminal cyber-pioneer who conceptualized Internet realms and was an outspoken advocate for them back when “new” media was unknown to most. From 1990 until 1997, she and partner Prudence Fenton dove headlong into developing willisville, the first social networking portal. Willisville featured a radically new approach to interactive content, employing narrative frameworks to navigate the site intuitively, and merging multiple technologies and platforms into one story-driven interface. In 1994, willisville’s CEO was seminal digital realm entrepreneur Mark Cuban. Early on, Fortune Magazine cited it as one of the emerging Internet’s most exciting companies, and its progress was also tracked by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times throughout the 1990s. In 1999, with Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner-and in tandem with Bubbles the artist-Willis also designed the acclaimed lilytomlin.com, a non-linear journey through Tomlin’s life, characters and Tony-winning play, The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe.
Starting in the early 1990′s, Willis consulted for Intel, Microsoft, AOL and Disney and created virtual worlds for a variety of other entertainment and technology companies. In 1997, representing 3,000,000 BMI songwriters, she addressed the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property regarding artist rights in cyberspace. Regularly called upon to speak on the nascent Internet, she keynoted the very first Digital World conference in 1992 with AOL founder Steve Case and Intel founder Andy Groves, and in 1996 lectured on interactive journalism to a group of prominent print and television journalists at Harvard University.
Willis is also an impresario of inspired parties and events-as-performance art. Many of the events take place at her architecturally historic L.A. home, a William Kesling-designed Streamline Moderne gem known as “Willis Wonderland,” and often called “the house of Atomic Kitsch.” It’s filled with Willis’ various collections, which represent one of the world’s largest assemblages of Kitsch-Willis was actually in the dictionary.com definition of kitsch.
Willis’ foray into theater began in 2001 when she co-composed the Tony- and GRAMMY-nominated music and lyrics for the The Color Purple. As reported by the New York Times, Willis, Russell and Bray “worked in their idiosyncratic style, mixing high-tech tools – Ms. Willis’ 17 networked Macs, which they used for research, and programs that allowed them to digitally record complete orchestrations – and very low-tech instruments like an old manual eggbeater or sandpaper.” The process the Times mentions echoes Willis’ own evaluation of her fundamental style across all the disciplines as “a blend of the highest tech and design and the lowest Kitsch.”
Also on Broadway, Willis contributed seven of her classic hits for Earth, Wind & Fire to the 2006 EWF-themed “jukebox” musical Hot Feet, which helped her make Broadway history as the first woman-and only fifth person ever-to have written music for two shows opening on the Great White Way in the same season. It’s a distinction placing her in an elite group including Georges Gershwin and Cohan, Irving Berlin and Marvin Hamlisch. In 2006 as well, Willis’ songs were featured in three of the top-grossing films of the year, Happy Feet, Night At The Museum and Babel.
Tracing back to her roots, Willis was raised in Detroit where the music of Motown got in her blood. She earned a degree in Journalism at the University of Wisconsin before moving to New York in 1969. She landed a copywriting job at Columbia and Epic Records, and in 1972 turned to music and songwriting herself. Her first ten songs were released the 1974 Epic album, Childstar. Bonnie Raitt, a fan of the album, gave Willis her first cover that year as she was working as a hat-check girl at the fabled Manhattan nightspots Catch A Rising Star and Reno Sweeney’s.
Willis then moved to Los Angeles, where she landed a publishing deal at A&M in 1977 after being turned down by almost every other publisher in town. In 1978, she sold ten million records and has since collaborated with Bob Dylan, James Brown, Herbie Hancock, and literally hundreds of other music luminaries. A GRAMMY® winner for Best Soundtrack for 1985′s #1 album Beverly Hills Cop, Willis is one of contemporary music’s most prolific songwriters – and, one with a keen eye for talent. In 1987, Willis authored a column for Details Magazine, “Some Like It Smog,” in which she introduced her proudest musical kitsch discovery, The Del Rubio Triplets, mini-skirted octogenarians who went on to tour the world and appear on over 20 network television programs.
At the same time that her music was regularly climbing the charts, Willis became a sensation for the performance art events she masterminded at Willis Wonderland which, in the late 1930′s, was a major film studio’s official party headquarters. Her thematic soirees draw A-list celebrities, art world stars, pop culture icons and notables the world over. Always press magnets, the parties were early vehicles through which she freely expressed all her multi-media talents to serve one fabulous end. Among the most memorable are “The Night of the Living Negligee, 1-3,” a series of all-girl pajama parties, and the “Borscht Belt Birthday Party.” The latter was a wry-on-rye affair commemorating Willis being named, “one of the most dangerous subversives living in the U.S.” by Russian newspaper Pravda because they mistranslated her hit song “Neutron Dance” as a nuclear-themed “Neutron Bomb”. Willis’ party-throwing-as-artistic-expression continues to this day.
No matter how out-sized her musical success, or landmark accomplishments in any realm, Willis sees it as one piece of a far broader platform. In every aspect of Willis’ creative process, the incorporation of new media and the interactive realm has been a constant since the beginning of the ’90s. In 1991, a positively Paleolithic age in terms of mainstream computer use, her home was one of the first fully-wired, networked locations in Los Angeles. Three years ago it became one of the first all fiber houses.
Looking ahead, Willis’ intent is to undertake projects that integrate the many mediums in which she delves to create veritable symphonies of innovative interactivity. One of them will be a live show/workshop/art extravaganza that will spotlight Willis as a Social Artist. She will share her experience with and philosophy on the creative process, and interact and collaborate with participants on the concept of personal reinvention-all happening within the guise of a supremely kitschy company convention.
With everything converging, Willis’ signature vision and creative intelligence have entered a new phase. As journalist Anne Stockwell wrote in a recent profile, “To understand where Willis is going, you have to open your mind to a degree of inventiveness that’s frankly a little scary.” And spectacularly fun.