LOS ANGELES — Allee Willis, a raconteuse with an asymmetrical hairstyle (long on one side, short on the other, like the life of man), lives in a light-pink house north of Hollywood with a bowling-ball garden and a heaving collection of kitsch. This is the house that “September” bought. It was the first hit for Ms. Willis, 70, who was a co-writer of the Earth, Wind & Fire wedding, bar mitzvah and after-party perennial from 1978. Hundreds more songs followed, some of which are well known and some of which are not.
“I, very thankfully, have a few songs that will not go away,” Ms. Willis said, “but they’re schlepping along 900 others.” She is an untrained musician but an unstoppable musical force. “I hear melodies constantly,” she said. “I always say, ‘If you were to drop dead, I could write to the clunk of the body.’”
This month, she will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame for her contributions to music, which are as varied and unlikely as Ms. Willis herself. She has helped bring you the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” (which briefly got her listed as a subversive by Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper in the Soviet Union); the Pet Shop Boys’ Dusty Springfield duet “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”; Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”; and, more recently, the score to the Broadway musical “The Color Purple.” She has a Grammy (for the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack), a shelf full of BMI awards (for the earworm ’90s classic “I’ll Be There for You,” the theme song to “Friends”), and has been nominated for a Tony and an Emmy. (The “Friends” theme lost that Emmy, for main title theme music, to “Star Trek: Voyager.” Go ahead and hum the theme to “Star Trek: Voyager,” if you can.)
Ms. Willis grew up in Detroit during the halcyon days of Motown, whose studios she visited like a temple every weekend growing up. “I would sit on the lawn,” she said. “You could watch everyone come in. But most importantly you could hear through the walls, which is how I became a songwriter.” She never learned to play music, and to this day, she said, she can’t sit at a piano and plunk out one of her songs, so she begins with rhythm, which is what she could hear from her perch on the Motown lawn. “Certain instruments — bass, drums, background vocals — you could hear those leaking through the walls,” she said. “A lot of times I would learn a bass line and then I’d hear the records and I’d go, Oh, that was ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’”
She nurtured a love of black music and culture, one that didn’t please her father, a Detroit scrapyard owner. (Her mother taught elementary school.) In her basement, not far from where she keeps an enormous collection of black memorabilia (her former collaborator James Brown loved it and encouraged her to keep collecting), she has framed the note, on scrapyard stationery, that her father sent her when she went off to college: “Stay away from black culture. Dad.”
“I got him back good,” she said. “Can you imagine having a daughter like me? When he passed away, 2002, I got the last word, because the very last thing I ever said to him, I leaned down and I whispered in his ear, ‘I just got the gig to write “The Color Purple.”’” (She adored her father, she added, but race was an issue between them.)
After college, Ms. Willis began her career at Columbia and Epic Records, writing ads and liner notes, until she cut her first (and only) album, a ’70s singer-songwriter opus called “Childstar.” The LP didn’t amount to much, but it did impress a few up-and-comers who, once they had met her, asked her to write for them. One was a young gun named Bonnie Raitt. From there, Patti LaBelle. After that, the deluge.
But she didn’t confine herself to music. In part to support herself — Ms. Willis rarely got production credits on her songs, which limited her share of royalties — she veered into art, furniture making, set design, videography and technology. In the ’90s, fascinated by the still-nascent digital culture, she set up her own Willisville, a proto-social network meets virtual world.
“She’s the first person who told me about the internet,” said the actress, writer and director Pamela Adlon, who worked as Ms. Willis’s assistant while she was still a teenager. “She was like, ‘I’m doing this thing called the internet.’” Willisville arrived years too early to take off, but in its visionary oddness it recalled “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” as much as Second Life. (Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, was an old friend, though Ms. Willis did not work on his show.)
Her gonzo-vintage aesthetic set in early. She was already dressing in vintage 1950s clothes (“The music people thought it was cool,” she said), but while working as a production designer on “Just Say Julie,” the early MTV clip show with Uptown Julie Brown, she consciously crossed the line into kitsch and fell in love. (The final push was delivered by a painting of two clowns drinking coffee.) Her deal with the show, given her paltry budget and salary, was that she could keep what she got for use on the air. In rushed the stuff, now lovingly curated and arranged in her home, and cataloged at her online Museum of Kitsch.
“A lot of times, people are very shocked when they walk in here, because they think they expect it to look like a thrift shop,” said Ms. Willis, who takes umbrage at the idea that she hoards (though she does rent a full-floor storage space for overflow). The walls are lined with paintings by Bubbles the Artist, an alter ego of hers who paints art-brut portraits and whose career she “manages.”
Combining it all are the parties she hosts at home, a 1937 Streamline Moderne house by the California architect William Kesling, which she painted its current baby pink but otherwise has conserved. (Ms. Willis’s long-term partner, Prudence Fenton, an animator, artist and producer, lives elsewhere.) It was originally a party house for a nearby film studio (Warner Bros. and MGM are the best guesses) in the days when a trip home to Beverly Hills took six and a half hours on a dirt road. “I’m a serious party thrower,” she said. “I’ll tell you, that’s my No. 1 skill. I always had a music career, an art career, set designer, film and video, technology. The parties really became the only place I could combine everything.”
In certain circles, Ms. Willis’s parties are famous, and she spends weeks preparing games, activities, themes and costumes. The guest list is diffuse and inclusive, famous, infamous and unknown. “Angelyne, Toni Basil …” Ms. Adlon said, ticking off past guests. Joni Mitchell once won the prize for best dress made out of a Hefty bag, Ms. Willis recalled (she accessorized it with French fries and ketchup). Cher, she said, once won a game of “Tampax Toss,” bouncing a tampon attached to a Super Ball through a vintage toilet seat attached to a yucca plant.
Asked about those parties, Jenifer Lewis, the actress and singer, chortled. “Oh, honey!” she said. She is a frequent guest, a regular performer (“She’ll go on for hours,” Ms. Willis said) and has been for years. “Marc Shaiman took me to her house for a party, and I never left,” she said. “Everybody’s here! The Pointer Sisters are there! Nona Hendryx! Lily Tomlin! What’s her name! My baby girl — the children are there! The Gypsies! Oh, I hear we can’t use the word Gypsies anymore. Every other word in my goddamn book is ‘Gypsy,’ that’s what we were back then.”
These days, Ms. Willis writes less than she once did, though the engine is starting up again. An enormous, multiyear project to create a song, video and art installation for her native Detroit, using thousands of recordings she made of real people, sapped some of her energy. (An accompanying feature-length documentary ultimately foundered.) She focuses more now on her one-woman shows, played around Los Angeles and the country, at which she auctions off bits of her kitsch collection, often to benefit charities based in Detroit, where last month she received a distinguished achievement award from the Detroit Music Awards.
But she is especially proud of her Songwriters Hall of Fame induction, which she said, “was never that important to me until I got it, and then I realized how important it was.”
She is the only woman to be inducted this year, which has not escaped notice. “Back in the day, there were as many female songwriters as males but very, very few of the big female songwriters were progressing into being producers, which was the logical step that you would take — it’s where all the money is,” she said. “Certainly, any male that had even half of my credits would have automatically been made a producer. That I was always conscious of.”
But the songs endure, and more, she hopes, will follow, especially on the heels of her induction. (“It’s just like the difference between saying you’re a songwriter and a Grammy-winning songwriter,” she said. “It does half of the work for you.”) She is a holdover from an earlier era of pop songwriting, before corporate songwriting camps and Swedish production teams, but she nevertheless keeps an eye on the musicians working today, and expressed a desire to collaborate with Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper. (Ms. Swift, in fact, recently covered “September.” Just before its release, Ms. Willis had put out a statement that she was “thrilled,” though she acknowledged at one of her shows that the reigning opinion on social media was that it was “lethargic as a drunk turtle dozing under a sunflower after ingesting a bottle of Valium.”)
And if not with them, then with someone or something else.
Ms. Adlon said: “I’m just realizing now that I’ve taken on so many different things in my career, and she showed me that you can do everything. You don’t have to do just one thing.”
You don’t even have to do one thing at a time. “I want to do more things that involve everything I do: the music, the art, the technology, the social aspect of things,” Ms. Willis said. “I want to be able to move quicker, so no more huge, self-funded projects. Life is too short, and I am too tired!”
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