Unfiltered: Allee Willis on the Spirit of Detroit
Detroit is blessed with many talented – and now prominent – native sons and daughters. Within the entertainment field, there is the famous and the infamous. There's Ted Nugent, Tim Allen, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Campbell, Kid Rock, Jeff Daniels, Eminem, Pam Dawber, Alice Cooper, Gilda Radner, Madonna, Lily Tomlin, Kirk Gibson and so on.
I'd add one more to that list: Allee Willis. Willis is a Grammy-winning and Emmy- and Tony- nominated composer whose hit songs – including Earth, Wind & Fire's “September,” 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. (More on Time.com: See “10 Questions with Aretha Franklin”)
Willis deserves frequent-flier miles for how much she has contributed to this blog, and I have appreciated her support via emails, telephone calls and comments here. I asked her to write up her memories of the city and her hopes for its future. Got any projects you want her to tackle? (Maybe she could write a true theme song for the city; that's one I'd download for sure.)
The Spirit of This Detroiter
By Allee Willis
I grew up in Detroit in a magical time, the 1950s, when it was the city of the future. There were brand new giant-finned, multicolored hunks of metal speeding around with push buttons, tri-tone seats, and side windows built for drive-in trays. It was all about the Michigan State Fair on Woodward, the giant stove, the giant tire on I-94, the zoo, Carl's Chop House downtown, Darby's delicatessen on 7 and Wyoming, the gorgeous blue and maroon Mumford High, Mumford Records right next to it, and consuming lots of homegrown Sanders hot fudge, Vernors and Faygo. That transitioned right into the '60s, with the greatest soundtrack a city could have, Motown. I can't tell you how many Saturday afternoons I spent sitting out on the two little lawns on Grand River watching everyone walk in and listening for any shred of sound that passed through the walls at the two greatest houses in the city—or the world—as far as I was concerned. Detroit was an incredible place. (More on Time.com: See pictures of 50 years of Motown.)
I left in 1965 after I graduated high school and went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but I came home every summer. My mom had passed away right before my senior year and my dad married someone who couldn't get along with his kids. So most of my time home was spent in a ‘62 Chevy Bel Air tooling around Detroit with the radio blasting—sometimes on CKLW and WKNR but mostly way down on the east side of the dial at WJLB and WCHB, where Martha Jean The Queen saved my life. All I did was drive around looking at the city and let the music created there soak into my soul.
I wasn't in Detroit when the riots happened in '67, but I remember my first trip home afterward, driving around looking at the ruins and feeling sick. As Detroit started its slow decline after that I didn't come back that often, as much because of my family situation as feeling an emotional shift in the city. I moved to New York after college, and after that to Los Angeles. As soon as I became a songwriter, I started meeting phenomenal artists who came from Detroit, all with the same spirit and pride about being Detroiters as I had. (More on Time.com: See pictures of the remains of Detroit)
Foremost among them was my idol, the brilliant Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier, who I'd go on to collaborate with. He didn't just write a bunch of hit songs. It was about an overall feel, stuffed with joy and soul. He wrote like your heart beat. I became friends with Lily Tomlin in the '80s and when we collaborated on her website in '99, we built a Detroit section. It was then I learned that her first job was as an usher at the Avalon Theater on Lynwood, just blocks from where I was born on Monterey, and where I saw my first movie, "The Creature from the Black Lagoon." I remember walking to my seat more than I remember the film, as the usher who led me there did spectacular formations on the floor with her flashlight. As Lily and I talked about our incredible memories of growing up in Detroit, she told me her first gig was as an usher at the Avalon and that she did performances with her flashlight. I'm dead certain it was Lily who seated me.
In 2008, I reconnected with Detroit in the greatest way possible when the Broadway musical I co-wrote, "The Color Purple", came to The Fox. It was the first time in decades I'd gotten to walk back into the place of some of my peak childhood memories, when I went to the Motown Revues every day the last couple weeks of every year in the late '60s. The Fox was even grander than I remembered, restored to the nines, and there I was with my family and childhood friends watching this show with songs I'd written that owed so much of their feel and spirit to the songs I grew up with. Every fiber of me rang Detroit.
And, for the first time since I graduated, I got to go back to Mumford, that gorgeous, Deco-ish hunk of baby blue limestone and pinky maroon trim—a color scheme that's stayed with me to this day. The first thing I did when I bought my house with money earned from my first hit, Earth, Wind & Fire's “September,” was to paint it like a mini-Mumford. (More on Time.com: See pictures of Detroit schoolchildren)
I wasn't even sure the principal, Linda Spight, would remember I was coming that day but when I walked in everything that could be wrapped in purple was, “Welcome Allee” posters were all over the walls and, to top it off, the arts students performed a tribute to me. I was expecting the school to be a shadow of its former regal self, but was elated to find it absolutely pristine inside, exactly as I had remembered it down to the original fabric on the auditorium seats, not a thread out of place.
Shortly after that, during Black History Month, 2009, in conjunction with Pacifica Public Radio, I sent clips from never-before-heard historic Civil Rights tapes I raised money to restore to the students who then DJ'd music to the clips and talked about what the tapes meant to them, including Rosa Parks' first speech after she got out of jail in 1956 and Coretta Scott King reading the speech Martin Luther King was to deliver the day he was assassinated to 30 of their closest friends. Mumford became the first high school in the country to receive hundreds of hours of these restored gems from my Sound of Soul program. I did an hour-long Civil Rights radio special on Pacifica with the principal, the history teacher and 20 students who participated in the program. I really wanted to go back and do a mass, multimedia song collaboration with all the Mumford art students, but that's when the budget crisis really hit, the radio station lost their funding for it and the fate of Mumford wasn't known. I still want to do something with the students as I've been obsessed with the creation of interactive art on the Internet since 1991, and would love nothing better than to collaborate and give them a voice.
My connection to Mumford ran deeper than just my attending school there. Beverly Hills Cop had just opened and I had two songs on the soundtrack, which I won a GRAMMY for. A few weeks earlier I went to a screening in Jerry Bruckheimer's office. It was only his second film. I didn't even know what the film was about as I had never read the script. I started sobbing as soon as I realized that the cigarette truck Eddie Murphy was hiding in the back of in the opening scene was careening through the streets of Detroit while my song “Neutron Dance” played in the background. Right on the line “I'm just burning doing the Neutron Dance” the truck slams into a car that explodes in a fireball. While I was writing that song I looked out my window and saw someone trying to break into my 1962 Corvair. As I tore out of the house to fend them off I yelled back the line to my collaborator, Danny Sembello, “Someone stole my brand-new Chevrolet.” Here I am in Bruckheimer's office and bang! The truck slams into a Chevy right on that line. And then to top it off, right on the closing note of the song, the door to the truck flies open and Eddie pops out wearing a Mumford T-shirt. I couldn't believe it! Not to mention discovering that Bruckheimer had gone to Mumford too. I have no idea how I had written something that fit that the scene so perfectly having never seen the movie. I had a profound sense that it was just a spiritual connection to Detroit that did it. (More on Time.com: Read “Why Motown Wants to Save Its Symphonic Soul”)
More fond memories of Detroit were on the east side in my father's scrap yard on Mt. Elliot. It was a couple blocks long with a tiny railroad running through it. I grew up spending Saturdays climbing up piles of cars and every other kind of scrap metal imaginable, grabbing comic books out of the huge paper baler and bringing home treasures other people threw away. The whole business was connected to automobiles, and all these relics of the past were the future. This stayed with me forever as I went on to assemble one of the largest collections of Atomic Age, soul and kitsch artifacts in the world. I even built a social network around the crazy things that people collect and their soulful connections to them at my Web site. I feel my roots to Detroit every day.
Growing up, it never dawned on me that any city was better than Detroit. Automobiles were at the core of American culture, and the design aesthetic coming out of Detroit for cars and anything else that revolved around them was mind-boggling. It was a time of wild experimentation as well as the rise of the middle class. It was the Atomic Age and the city was right in the center of everything with a mindset of style, convenience, and innovation.
That became my formula as an artist—style, convenience and innovation with a massive hit of soul. The Detroit I knew, and still have a sense of, was a completely thrilling place. It was a serious mix of old-school culture and hip design, of “hi” and “lo” sensibilities, of treasures salvaged from the past and futuristic Atomic wonders, all with the funkiest conceivable happy pop beat underneath as score. It was also home to the best intersection of black and white pop culture on the planet. I know I experienced Detroit in its prime years, but the memories can never be erased, and they color my enthusiasm for the city that I still think is the best in the world.
I can certainly say that in the entertainment industry, Detroiters are known as a soulful bunch. The gifts that people born there have given to the world are plentiful. I think artists from everywhere respect the city for its authenticity and creativity. Detroit is raw, real and facing problems every other city will eventually face as we now have firmly entered a new period for human civilization. (More on Time.com: Read “Fixing Detroit: A Laboratory for Saving America's Cities?”)
I was excited to read the Aug. 3 New York Times article “Wringing Art Out Of The Rubble In Detroit,” which Karen Dybis linked to in her Detroit Blog post. I was hooked by its chronicling of artist collectives, creative communities, and artists themselves in the city. I really identified with Detroit artists creating works out of salvage materials, something I'd always done since being spoon fed in the scrapyard. When I first designed a social network in 1992, it was all about trying to make cyberspace visual by decorating it with salvage artifacts and imbuing anyone inside of it with an incredible mix of the past and the future, all with a big dose of soul. The same sensibility carries over into all my music and art, always a blend of retro and authentic mixed in with as much style and innovation as I can muster.
I think the times we're living in right now provide the opportunity for that same kind of hi/lo, past/future, familiar/innovative environment to exist. But this time, it's about fostering new attitudes, new world businesses, new ways of financing of those businesses and—extremely importantly—paying mind to the artist's way. It's no surprise to me that so many artists are drawn to Detroit and feel this opportunity there. Artists feed on inspiration. They're trained to live on little to nothing until, if they're lucky enough, success hits—though that's an old world model. Very few artists I know, including myself, are getting rich these days. But the real ones create because that's all they know how to do, and they do it whether they get paid or not. That's the kind of passion and artistry that will allow Detroit to bloom. It's so not about bringing the city back—it's about realizing that you have a chance to create a new world. (More on Time.com: See TIME's special report “The Committee To Save Detroit”)
Though it may not seem like a golden opportunity right this second, Detroit has incredible possibilities to create the future just like it did back when the automobile was king. There is much to be said for things falling apart if one has the balls and brains to put it all back together in a new and evolved way. Artists oftentimes see the future first—their way is to dream and paint that picture for everyone else. Reinvention and constantly shifting one's perspective to stay inspired is at the heart of my philosophy of creativity. It's as vital for places as people.
Detroit is going through a major reinvention, and is ahead of the curve in the type of radical transformation that other cities will also ultimately have to make to remain viable. That's both painful and exciting; a dichotomy that artists have long learned to live with. And that's a perfect recipe for Soul, something the whole world needs a massive dose of now. So, I hope that any plan being considered for reconstructing Detroit is an artistic one as well as a business and technologically minded one. I'd love to brainstorm with like-minded folks about this. I'm ready to put my passion for Detroit on the drawing board.
Just as a tuna fish sandwich on toasted white and a hot fudge sundae at Sanders remains my favorite meal ever, my belief in Detroit as the city of the future is alive and well indeed!