If there’s one thing that Allee Willis BA1969 was not, it’s one thing.
Famous for her songwriting, Willis was an artist in many different media, looking to bring creativity to every aspect of her life. She earned Grammys for music that appeared in The Color Purple and Beverly Hills Cop, and she earned a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame with songs such as “September” (recorded by Earth, Wind, and Fire). But her interests stretched far beyond music.
Born in Detroit, Willis came to the UW to study journalism. The campus atmosphere in the late 1960s, infused with radical politics and avant-garde art, opened her mind. “I started off a sorority girl … and ended up marching and demonstrating,” she said to On Wisconsin magazine. “I knew I was going to a great school at a time of revolution. I got the best of all worlds.”
After graduation, Willis moved to New York City and took a job with Columbia Records. There, she began writing liner notes for Columbia albums and eventually wrote music for her own record, Childstar, released in 1974. Though Childstar didn’t sell well, it did win the attention of more established musicians. Bonnie Raitt recorded Willis’s “Got You on My Mind,” and Charlie Rich recorded her tune “It’s Too Late.”
Willis’s big break came in 1979, when Earth, Wind, and Fire recorded “September,” which reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the rhythm and blues charts. Over the following decades, hundreds of her songs were recorded by dozens of artists.
But even as Willis saw more of her songs recorded, she began to feel unfulfilled.
“I think she felt so restricted by just being stuffed into the songwriter box,” says Willis’s partner, Prudence Fenton. “She was very established as a songwriter. And I think she wanted more than that.”
Willis experimented with painting and sculpture, but according to Fenton, she was most fascinated with the possibilities offered online. She “desperately wanted artists to be in charge of the Internet,” Fenton says. in the 1990s, the two collaborated on Willisville, an online interactive community that predicted much of the e-commerce and social media trends that took off decades later.
Willis continued to create new art from virtually everything she saw, right up until she passed away in 2019.
“Allee absorbed everything that the world had to offer in a way I never witnessed in another person ever,” says Fenton. “It doesn’t matter if you’re walking by an empty vacant lot, Allee would see a sort of beauty and potential in it. She loved everything. She loved this world and everything it had to offer.”