LOS ANGELES — “Oh, my gawwwd,” Allee Willis howls.
She is coping with a visitor who has never heard of Bubbles, her alter ego, an artist known for her sloppy brush strokes, nauseating color palette and borderline offensiveness. Lily Tomlin, a dedicated collector, once called her “the greatest artist of our time or any other.”
And Bubbles is just the start. The Willis home is unofficially known as the Museum of Kitsch, a pink palace stuffed with unopened Afro combs, “Love Boat” puzzles and space-age TVs. At the center of it is the 67-year-old Grammy-winning songwriter, Internet pioneer and party organizer who greets you at the door with her thick, curly hair — long on one side, chopped short on the other — dangling from under her bright, red knit cap.
These days, Willis is adding to her résumé. She’s been working on a song, video and film inspired by her native Detroit.
Called “The D,” the creative process surrounding the song has been characteristically over the top. No booking comfy sessions in one of Los Angeles’s many recording studios. Instead, Willis has taken her crew on the road, recording about 5,000 — that’s not a typo — vocal tracks, from regular people crooning in pizza places and high school stadiums to celebrities with a link to the city, including Ray Parker Jr., Supreme Mary Wilson, Martha Reeves and Maejor. It is, naturally, a bear to mix.
“It was impossible to even hear the 5,000 tracks at once,” Willis says. “There’s no program that allows you to do that.”
Did you ever think of recording less?
“Look around,” Willis says. “What do you think? Nothing is ever too much.”
Point taken. In the Museum of Kitsch, her home since 1980, standard operating procedure seems to be more is more.
Even as Willis complains about the amount of footage she and her crew have to sift through, she adds to the record. Dina Duarte, former cleaning lady, now longtime assistant, holds an old Sony Handycam, filming all. That has included a plumber making a house call and arborists trimming palm trees. More recently, Willis filmed the events surrounding her hip replacement surgery — at least as much as she could.
“We’re here for your health,” her partner, Prudence Fenton, told her in putting the kibosh on her filming one day. “And I’m not your cameraman.”
For all of her ceaseless energy, her wide circle of friends and her artistic range, there is a touch of melancholy when Willis tries to explain why she is so obsessed with compiling so much, all the time. She notes that in her will, she has asked that her house be preserved just as it is today, down to the contents of desk drawers and candy bowls in each room.
“Someday, someone will happen upon all this stuff and say, ‘Oh, this chick had it together,’ ” Willis says. “Maybe people will finally know who I am.”
She has a point. Allee Willis is not a household name. But her work is. Just plug her name into a search engine, scour her Internet site or check BMI’s database. As a songwriter, Willis has a slew of hits, from Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” to the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” and her final smash, “I’ll Be There for You,” otherwise known as the theme to “Friends.”
She also directed her own videos, built sets for MTV’s “Just Say Julie,” wrote a regular column for Details magazine and co-authored the successful musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” which played on Broadway from 2005 to 2008 and is being revived this fall. Then there’s Willisville.
In the ’90s, Willis spent years working to build an online community that would incorporate social networks and online stores before Facebook and eBay. Her chief executive through the project: future Dallas Mavericks owner and entertainment entrepreneur Mark Cuban. In an e-mail, Cuban said Willis’s “creativity was beyond anything I had experienced.”
And now “The D.” That’s for the city where she grew up. Detroit restaurant owner Gregory Beard, or Chef Greg, who has gotten to know Willis during her many visits back, views the song as a kind of rallying cry.
“We want everybody to come together and sing it, just like ‘We Are the World,’ ” he says. “We Are ‘The D.’ ”
Naturally, a rallying cry needed a video to accompany it. And where there’s video, there’s more video. Jason Ryan Yamas, a 29-year-old independent film producer, has signed on as co-director of a feature length documentary titled “Allee Willis Loves Detroit.” He hopes to have a cut by year’s end.
Tomlin, a longtime friend and fellow Detroit native, isn’t surprised that Willis has become so immersed in this project. That’s what she does. Beyond that, Tomlin sees a natural connection between her friend and Detroit, a city that sparked so much creativity, collapsed and now is trying to revive itself.
“The basic mentality is one of not giving up, sort of hanging in there no matter how long it takes,” Tomlin says. “She’s found a place where she can regenerate, where she can almost make it to her liking. You knew what a great city Detroit was and how real and gritty it was and sure, it’s going to come back.
Willis grew up in Detroit, on Sorrento Street, the youngest of three. Her mother, Rose, taught first grade, made special meatballs called satellites (they were peppered with grains of rice) and let her daughter scribble with her pencils. Her father, “Big Nate,” ran a scrapyard, called her Cookie Dook and loved to dance with her when he got home from work.
Willis was always into music. Marlen Frost remembers putting on Vaughn Monroe’s quirky hit “The Maharajah of Magador” when her kid sister wasn’t even 2.
“There was a part where there was a high falsetto voice, and she would stand in front of the record player singing it,” says Frost, who is seven years older. “That high little whiny voice. I had to play that record for her maybe 20 times a day.”
For Willis, everything changed in the summer of 1964, just before her senior year of high school. Rose fell ill and went to the hospital. She died a few days later of an undiagnosed heart problem. Only a few weeks after that, Big Nate fell for the mother of one of Allee’s friends. He basically stopped coming home, moving in with her future stepmother.
After Nate remarried, he and his new wife threw out most of the Willis family’s pictures and possessions. Willis believes her new stepmother’s desire to wipe Sorrento Street off the memory map is what inspired her compulsive desire to document her life.
“I have exactly three things from my childhood,” Willis says. “I have a Ben Casey bobblehead. [The character from a popular TV medical drama show in the 1960s.] Mine has a little hole in his heart because I wanted to go out with someone and he wouldn’t go out with me so I stuck a pin in it. I have the stereo that was in my family’s living room. And my typewriter that I bought when I was 13. A red and white Royal.”
When her family fell apart, Willis didn’t retreat. At the University of Wisconsin, where she graduated with a degree in journalism and minor in advertising in 1969, friends remember her as the center of attention. She headed off to New York, breaking into the music industry as a copywriter. She also began collecting, decorating her apartment with discarded furniture.
“She knew the sanitation schedule for heavy items and the routes,” remembers Connie Zalk, a friend. “She would go out at midnight and find these phenomenal furniture pieces.”
In New York Willis got a record deal, and in 1974 Epic put out her debut, “Childstar,” a soulful singer-songwriter album that fit into the world of Laura Nyro, James Taylor and Carole King. But it stiffed, and not long after, Willis began writing for other people. A lot. There are 599 working titles registered under her name at BMI.com. She won a Grammy for her work on the soundtrack of “Beverly Hills Cop,” scored her final smash for the “Friends” theme in 1994 and has her name on seven of the nine songs on Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1979 album “I Am,” including the top-10 hit “Boogie Wonderland.”
“Midnight creeps so slowly into hearts of men who need more than they can get,” Earth, Wind & Fire singer Philip Bailey croons into the phone, a line from the hit, when asked about Willis. “The great thing about Allee is, she writes for the actual artist. It’s not like one shoe fits all.”
Out in California, the parties began. You might see David Cassidy and Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens, Buck Henry and Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson. Guests would sometimes be asked to bring a dish potluck style — and dress as their dish.
“And you expect to be humiliated,” says actress Lesley Ann Warren, a longtime friend. “She’s going to single you out and you’re going to have to play some crazy game or sing a song. And everything’s going to be photographed. You expect it. The people that are attracted to Allee and the people that want to know her and get to know her are comfortable in Allee’s world.”
On a recent weekday, that world is typically crazed. Willis Siris into an iPhone to tell one staffer to pick up another hard drive. She’s working with musical collaborator Andrae Alexander, under a wall of gold and platinum records, to clean up a section of “The D.” Across the room, she goes over to another staffer, who is editing the video. She also clicks through her archives, showing off clips of James Brown, from the 1980s, singing an impromptu tribute to her dog, Orbit, and Tomlin praising Bubbles at an art gallery opening. Naturally, as she scours the video, Duarte, with her Handycam, films the moment.
How much footage has she got for the Detroit doc?
55,000 hours, she insists.
How much has she spent so far on the project?
“Now, simultaneously, we are starting to look for money,” Willis says. “Because Mommy is out of money.”
That statement elicits a groan from Fenton, her partner of almost 22 years. (Naturally, they met at a party thrown by Reubens.)
“It used to be, ‘I’m going to lose my house,’ ” Fenton laughs. “Well, she’s completely paid off her house. I think every friend has heard that song about how broke she is. She can’t possibly be broke.”
A pause and then Fenton is asked why she loves spending time with Willis, even if their relationship is a tad unconventional. (They don’t live together, for one thing.)
“So much heart and soul,” Fenton says. “She can just share in the littlest of things. The beauty of a kind of green or an empty vacant lot, whatever’s there in front of you. She’s so present, so present in the moment. Nothing else matters.”