Retrocon 2024

Interview with songwriter Allee Willis, Who Wrote 'You're The Best', 'Neutron Dance' and More

(This interview was originally published December 15, 2012 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

Ms. Willis passed away in December of 2019 at the age of 72, so this opportunity to interview her before that is even more special to me. She was deservedly inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018.

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Allee Willis. She is awesome for so many reasons, but the main reason we’ll celebrate here is her prolific songwriting. We’ll focus on the '80s, but she also co-wrote the Earth, Wind & Fire hits of the late-70s like “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” as well as the popular TV theme song for Friends, “I’ll Be There For You” by The Rembrandts, which ran from 1994 until 2004. For the '80s, she co-wrote two popular songs featured in Beverly Hills Cop, a memorable song featured in The Karate Kid and a big hit by Pet Shop Boys. She is an accomplished artist, co-wrote the musical adaptation of The Color Purple and was an internet/social-networking pioneer among her many fascinating endeavors. Find out about her, those '80s songs and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Allee Willis…

Q: When and how did you get your own start in the music industry?

Allee: I grew up in Detroit and was obsessed with Motown. I went to the University of Wisconsin in 1969 and graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Advertising and then moved to New York and got a job as a secretary in the advertising department of Columbia and Epic Records. Within a month or so, I was promoted to a copywriter and started writing print ads, radio commercials and liner notes for most of the artists there including Laura Nyro, Barbra Streisand, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood Sweat & Tears and a zillion others. In 1972, I bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a piano. One of the biggest songs of the year that year was “Alone Again, Naturally” by Gilbert O’Sullivan. I was on a bus riding down Columbus Avenue to my apartment on 69th Street and started writing my own lyric to that melody. To this day I don’t know how to play an instrument but I called a friend of mine from college who I knew played piano and asked him if he had ever written a song. He hadn’t but he was game for it. He brought over the sheet music to “Never Can Say Goodbye” and we started at the end of the song and played all the chords backwards until we got to the first chord of the song. I’ve always been able to sing a melody to anything and that’s how my very first song, “Ain’t No Man Worth It”, was written.

After that I started writing by myself and took the first three songs I wrote to my boss at the record company. He loved them and took them to the president of Epic, Ron Alexenberg, but didn’t tell him who was singing because it would’ve been a conflict of interest. He loved it and I got a deal. I cut an album called Childstar, (which coincidentally is being re-released by Sony Japan on Christmas Day this year) produced by Jerry Ragavoy, an incredible producer and songwriter who wrote songs like “Time Is on My Side” and “Piece of My Heart”. The album came out in 1974 and I quit my job to become a full-time singer-songwriter.

Q: Do you use a certain process every time when writing songs? What is your normal process? Does the melody come first or the lyrics? Do you start with a song title or end with a song title? Where does inspiration usually come from?

Allee: As to what comes first, it could be anything from a lyric, a melody, a baseline, a string part, anything. I’m very spontaneous and if left to my own devices I just start recording as soon as any kind of idea hits me. I never write a song before I start to record. I work on an idea as long as the thoughts keep coming and put it aside as soon as they don’t. That could mean I end up with anything from just humming a melody to a fully arranged piece. I write as many pieces as I have ideas for. I never worry about whether they will all work together. I always have confidence that if something is written in the same space and time it can all be linked together. This is the advantage of being a completely unschooled musician. Someone who studied music would never have guts to work that way. A typical song that’s a compilation of a lot of different pieces written in the same space and time is “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” by Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield.

Q: How did you come to work on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack? Please tell us a little about how two of your songs, “Neutron Dance” and “Stir It Up” became part of the movie.

Allee: I had nothing to do with putting the actual soundtrack together. That was a woman at MCA named Kathy Nelson, who put a lot of huge soundtracks together. I had written “Neutron Dance” with Danny Sembello for a film called Streets of Fire [1984]. It very thankfully wasn’t accepted for that film. Then the Pointer Sisters cut it for their Break Out album [1983]. Jerry Bruckheimer, who was making his second film Beverly Hills Cop, used “Neutron Dance” as temporary music as they were putting the film together. Then they sent a copy of the song to a zillion songwriters including me to try and copy. I couldn’t believe they had the balls to send it to me, so I thought if anyone was going to rip me off it was going to be me. So I called Danny up and we wrote an almost identical song called “Stir It Up”. We never heard anything back. A few weeks before the film was released I got a call saying that Bruckheimer had gone into his wastebasket looking for a cassette to tape over. He played the first few seconds of the cassette and it happened to be our song. He liked it so much he put it into the film, recorded by Patti LaBelle, who was the first artist to regularly do my songs. And he never found anything he liked more than “Neutron Dance” so that stayed in, too.

Neutron Dance” was first included on the 1983 Pointer Sisters album Break Out, but it wasn’t released as a single until right around the same time Beverly Hills Cop was released in theaters in late 1984. It was also included on the soundtrack for the film and became the group’s fourth Top 10 single in a row after it peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Willis co-wrote the song with Danny Sembello, who is the brother of Michael Sembello of “Maniac” fame. I read in another interview that the lyric from the song “Someone stole by brand new Chevrolet” came about when she looked out the window while recording, saw someone in front of her house trying to steal her little pink 1962 Chevy Corvair and she yelled that before running out to stop them. Very funny that the lyric remained in the final song. The song had an official video, but here is the scene from Beverly Hills Cop featuring “Neutron Dance” by The Pointer Sisters…

Q: Does “Neutron Dance” make any intended reference to nuclear war?

Allee: As I mentioned, “Neutron Dance” was originally written for a scene in Streets of Fire, which is about a post-nuclear world. The song is really about the fact that someone could push the button at any time and we could all go up in smoke, so if your life isn’t working get off your ass and do something about it. But about a year after Beverly Hills Cop came out I was named one of the most dangerous subversives living in the United States when the Russian newspaper Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist government, mistranslated “Neutron Dance” as “Neutron Bomb”.

Q: Did you have any feeling that “Neutron Dance” was going to be something special when you wrote it? What were your feelings when you heard the final recording of your song by The Pointer Sisters? Do you agree that it worked perfectly for the scene it was used in for the film?

Allee: I definitely did NOT feel that the song was going to be anything special. We wrote it in under an hour and it was at a time in my career when I was going through my first lull after not being off the Hot 100 for a few years. So I had no confidence that I was ever going to have a hit again let alone with that song. I originally didn’t like the recording by The Pointer Sisters. It felt too rigid and programmed to me whereas the demo was really raw and soulful. But that is very typical for me. I usually think the records have squeezed all of the soul out of the demos, which I like to keep very raw and spontaneous. I did however think it worked perfectly for the scene in the film. And also typical of me, once I heard the song played as an oldie a few years after it came out I realized what a great record it was.

Q: What are your feelings about “Neutron Dance” now 28 years later?

Allee: I’m exceptionally proud to have written it. Also I just recently started performing after almost four decades long terror of performing live. Much to my surprise it’s one of my favorite songs to sing. (watch her performance)

Q: I saw you went to Mumford High School in Detroit and I know that “Axel Foley” wears a shirt in the film that says Mumford Phys. Ed. Dept on it. Any direct connection to you on that or is that just a coincidence?

Allee: There was no direct connection until many years after the film was out. But one of my favorite moments of my music career was sitting in Jerry Bruckheimer’s office at a small screening of the film, realizing that it was Detroit in the opening scene where “Neutron Dance” was played and bursting into tears when Eddie Murphy jumps out of the back of the cigarette truck he’s been hiding in wearing that T-shirt.

In 2008, I went back to Detroit when my musical, The Color Purple, opened there for the first time and I went to speak at Mumford. I got very involved with the school after that, did a big project with some of the teachers and students on public radio during Black History Month the next year. We also did a concert in the lobby of the theater I grew up in, The Fox, with the Mumford marching band doing a medley of my greatest hits the second time The Color Purple came back to Detroit. (watch here) Then I went again this last April right before they bulldozed this gorgeous Deco high school and hosted the “Last Call Before The Wrecking Ball” concert where the kids from the dance class, choir, and marching band performed my songs while I told stories about how they were written. (photos here)

Q: I absolutely love the movie The Karate Kid and the song “You’re the Best” is just perfect for the tournament montage. When did you write this song and did you write it specifically for the film? What inspired it for you? What were your feelings regarding Joe Esposito’s version of the song and its use in the movie?

Allee: I wrote “You’re the Best” with Bill Conti, known more as a conductor and film composer than a songwriter. But he was a great guy and I always had a good time working with him. We originally wrote that song for Rocky III but it was replaced by “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor when Sylvester Stallone took a personal interest in them. “You’re the Best” is another song I didn’t think was particularly good and truthfully only got into it last year when every time I would tell someone in their 20s or 30s what songs I had written that was the one they freaked out over. I’ve really only included it in my greatest hits since then. I was good friends with Joe Esposito and was thrilled when Bill cut the song with him.

You can’t help but get pumped up when you hear “You’re the Best” and it was the perfect song to play during the montage while “Daniel-san” advanced from round-to-round through the All-Valley Karate Championships in 1984’s The Karate Kid. Here is that awesome montage from The Karate Kid featuring “You’re the Best” by Joe Esposito…

Q: How did you end up teaming with the Pet Shop Boys to write “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” which was a 1987 hit for them? What can you tell us about Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe and your experience working with them?

Allee: I had just started painting and was hired in 1984 to go to London to paint their portrait for their fan club stationery. “West End Girls” was about to be released in the United States. We were talking while they were posing for me and Neil put together that I was the A. Willis on a lot of Earth, Wind & Fire songs. I stayed an extra week to write it and record the demo with them. I liked working with them because they were both incredibly intelligent guys. Chris wasn’t used to collaborating with anyone other than Neil so it was a little rocky at times. But I was elated with the results and think they’re a great, great group.

What Have I Done to Deserve This?” was released as a single in August of 1987 and became a worldwide hit. It reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 becoming the Pet Shop Boys’ fourth Top 10 hit. It also reached the Top 10 in at least 13 other countries. Here is the music video for “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” by Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield…

Q: What is the back story about how that song was conceived and written? Any other interesting stories or details about how “What Have I Done to Deserve This” came together? How did Dusty Springfield end up joining them to perform this song? Was it written with her in mind to sing that part?

Allee: We wrote the whole song together but the B rap section was way more them and the chorus was actually a melody I had already previously written but it seemed to go well with what we were doing. I love that the song was composed of a lot of different sections but it made them very nervous and they didn’t understand how things would connect. I always wanted to do a chant in a record and suggested the “What have I, what have I” part and thankfully they loved that.

From the very beginning they said they wanted to do it as a duet with Dusty Springfield, who I had already written quite a few songs for and was friends with. But, it took at least a couple years of phone calls from both me and them to convince her to record it because she absolutely hated the music business. It ended up being her second biggest U.S. hit after “Son of a Preacher Man”.

Q: Is it difficult as a songwriter to relinquish your song to another artist who will undoubtedly take artistic liberties and/or put their own spin on you work?

Allee: It’s very exciting to get the songs cut but usually very painful to hear them when they’ve changed so much from the demo. I try not to think about it as it’s an inevitable part of being a songwriter. Every now and then there’s one that I think actually made the song better. And every now and then, as with “Neutron Dance”, it takes me a few years of distance from the demo to realize what a great record was made of my song. This was definitely the case with “Boogie Wonderland” [1979] by Earth, Wind & Fire as well.

Q: I know you were art director on several music videos. What impact do you feel the growth of MTV and the music video had on the success of certain songs/artists and on music in general during the '80s?

Allee: In the '80s, I was art directing videos for Debbie Harry, The Cars, Heart and Robbie Neville among others. I think music videos definitely gave hits to artists who might not otherwise have had them if it was just dependent on hearing them sing the song.

Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s music? What lasting impact do you feel music from the '80s has made?

Allee: Truthfully, in the '80s I was much more into creating art – which went from stationary pieces to large scale motorized ones, sets, furniture, and integrating the music into the art – than I was into songwriting itself. If you ask me about a historic music decade, I’m going to say the '60s and '70s before I say the '80s. But that’s purely my taste. The lasting influence of '80s music was the synthesizer and the serious beginning of the electronic music scene beyond inventors who were experimenting with it in earlier decades.

Q: I read that you helped with set and furniture design for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. What can you tell us about working with Paul Reubens and the team that created that wonderful show?

Allee: I always get credit for Pee-wee’s Playhouse but I actually had nothing to do with it. Paul and I were just best friends and had very similar tastes and therefore we were always associated together. I did record a duet with Paul which was supposed to be the title song in his first film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure [1985]. It was a limited edition picture disk and you can still find copies of it, albeit usually outrageously expensive. There was some kind of contractual junk going on and it didn’t end up in the film because everything had to be written by Danny Elfman. I still love the song and was heartbroken at the time that it wasn’t in the movie. Dumb if you ask me as they could’ve had a hit title theme song.

Q: Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since the '80s. How have your priorities or goals changed over the years? What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?

Allee: I was only interested in just being a songwriter at the very beginning of my career. Starting in 1983, when I started to paint, I was always more interested in being a multimedia artist. I concentrated way more on art in the 1980’s and in 1991 stumbled on the Internet and immediately recognized it as a social experience as well as a brand-new medium. I stopped everything I was doing and started conceptualizing the world’s first social network in 1992. I did that solidly until 1997 when I got so sick of trying to raise money as well as sick of the Silicon Valley scene where a whole crop of people emerged whose sole goal was to make a billion dollars, completely devoid of soul and usually a functioning technology or interface. But before that I pursued it for years and stopped writing songs completely in 1994 so I could focus completely on the Internet. I only wrote “I’ll Be There for You”, the theme from the TV show Friends, to get out of my publishing deal so I would never have to write a song to fill a song quota again and could concentrate on new media. I’m extremely proud of recognizing the importance of the Internet a full decade before most of the rest of the world did. I even addressed a congressional subcommittee in Washington DC on artists’ rights in cyberspace as early as 1997.

Most of the early 2000’s were taken up with co-writing the musical 'The Color Purple' which opened on Broadway in 2005 and is still touring to this day. I have no great desire to be a writer of musicals as the amount of compromising that you have to do is insane, but without question writing The Color Purple was one of the great experiences of my life.

After giving up being a performing artist soon after my 'Childstar' LP came out in 1974 to concentrate on songwriting, I decided in late 2006 that it was time to be an artist again. I did a series of songs, videos and web worlds as Bubbles & Cheesecake. Bubbles the artist was an alter ego I created in 1999 and sold over 1000 paintings under that name. Cheesecake was the alter ego of one of my favorite collaborators, Holly Palmer, who at that time was singing with Gnarls Barkley. Our first video, “It’s A Woman Thang” exploded on YouTube. We did a few more but Holly was primarily interested in being a singer/songwriter and I was way more interested in exploring online worlds using music as the basis of them. So we split up but that was a very crucial thing in my evolution as a solo artist.

I finally started performing a year ago. The first show I did was in October, 2011. It was pretty shaky as the show was largely based on visual cues and 99% of them didn’t work. It was all the fault of one disastrous tech guy whose lack of skill should’ve pulled me under so it would take four decades before I tried it again. But I got back up a few months later for a triumphant comeback called “Allee Willis’ Super Bowl Bounce Back Review”. That was followed by “BaDeYa, Baby!”, a show based around my very first hit, “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. I have a fantastic 10-piece band and 15 dancers, not at all used like dancers are typically used. The shows consistently sell out and it’s really all I want to do now as I can tie together every creative field I work in. I’m also known as a prolific party-thrower so I approach the shows as if I’m hosting a party. I never thought I would say all I want to do is perform but it’s what I started out wanting to do and I have finally fulfilled my dream. So I definitely want to keep on going.

Q: What else is Allee Willis up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? Hobbies? What can we expect in the future? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?

Allee: My website is one-stop shopping on what else I’ve been up to. As far as hobbies go, I have the world’s largest collection of kitsch and '50s, '60s and '70s artifacts, which are constantly influencing everything else in my career. I curate The Allee Willis Museum Of Kitsch at, a social network I built that features not only my collection but that of people all over the world.

I never have any regrets. That’s a waste of time. I don’t view anything as a failure, only a lesson that hopefully you’re bright enough to never repeat and smart enough to move on from. As far as remaining ambitions, it’s the same as it always has been: to combine everything I do into one artistic medium and function on larger and larger stages. I’m a social artist at heart and I love creating social events that incorporate everything I do. I’m not the kind of person who would ever say I’ve achieved my goals and it’s all cake from here. I’m constantly looking for ways to expand.

I am very honored and grateful that Allee was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. To find out a lot more and keep up with everything she has going on now, please check out her official website. I want to take this occasion to again thank Allee Willis for her contributions to '80s pop culture especially through her songwriting and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

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