Songs and Art Make '50s Freak Allee Willis a Creative Monster

updated 03/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

When James Brown visited songwriter-artist-video director-designer Allee Willis recently, he was so amazed by her living quarters that he bumped his head on her vintage moon-rocket gum-ball machine. "Lord, Lord," cried the King of Soul when he had recovered. And a little later: "Ten million dollars! Ten million dollars! You should have it tomorrow!" He was offering to buy the place.

Willis, 36, laughs. "I think it's great," she says in her low, nasal voice, "when someone gets into the trip."

The Allee Willis trip (it is widely known in L.A. but not, curiously, outside it) is like no other. It is so overwhelming it can be dealt with only in parts. First there is the house. It is très '50s. Willis sits smiling in '50s attire at a table whose top was the windshield of a B-52 bomber and whose base was a spring from a '57 Chevy. A '55 Studebaker and a '55 De Soto are parked in her driveway amid a small flotilla of 6-foot plastic Godzillas, the '50s monster. There are multicolored bowling balls in her cactus garden. In the downstairs rec rooms are the Annette Funicello makeup kit and I Love Lucy shower set, along with 100 '50s board games and 123 lunch boxes from the same period. This is part of what impressed James Brown.

But not all. Willis is not a narrow-cast obsessive like the postman who builds a life-size sphinx out of Nehi bottle caps or the bicycle messenger who owns all the pointy ears Leonard Nimoy ever wore. Her decor is merely one expression of a multithreat creativity that itself seems like a Godzilla out to conquer Lalaland. While so many people in Hollywood appear to be struggling to do just one thing well, Willis' problem is to condense her kaleidoscopic talents into the semblance of a single career. As one of the town's most respected and successful songwriters, she just shared a Grammy for Neutron Dance, the Pointer Sisters hit that was part of the Beverly Hills Cop sound track. She is also a much-in-demand artist, whose motorized artworks grace the city's swanker homes and bistros. She designs furniture and clothing. She throws parties that are works of art in themselves. Says Pee-wee Herman, with whom she created an MTV video version of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, "She's really creative. If she called me in the middle of the night and asked me to make her a peanut-butter sandwich, I'd go right over to her house." If that testimonial leaves you nonplussed, here's Willis' own evaluation. "I see myself as a combination of Andy Warhol and Gloria Vanderbilt," she says, brandishing a '50s teacup. "Also the illegitimate child of the Pointer Sisters and David Byrne. None of it goes together, but all of it works together." Lord, Lord.

It is hard to recollect, given Willis' astounding diversity, that three years ago she was merely one of the most prolific of published songwriters in the West. She was born in Detroit in 1950 and remembers playing a violin her father gave her during the week and spending Saturdays in his scrap yard "climbing 40-foot piles of old toilets, springs and fenders and thinking I was in heaven." In 1972 she graduated from the University of Wisconsin and went to New York hoping to break into journalism. Instead she ended up in the music business, first as a secretary and advertising copywriter at Columbia Records and then, as the result of a bare-bones demo tape made on a whim, as an instant recording artist for Epic. A tepidly received solo album called Childstar and a brief stint on tour convinced her that she would prefer a "more private life" as a tunesmith, and she moved to California.

There, Bonnie Raitt ("probably the only person outside my family who bought my album,") recorded one of Willis' songs and took her on the road as a backup singer. The next year found her a staff songwriter for A&M Records, and as word of what was obviously a big talent got around, she provided material for practically every artist ever to scratch vinyl, from Tina Turner to Melissa Manchester to Cher to Bob Dylan. Nicknamed "Rock Doc" for her ability to fix an ailing tune, she penned as many as 200 songs a year, including Earth, Wind and Fire's Boogie Wonderland and Patti LaBelle's Stir It Up—songs that ended upon records selling some 30 million copies.

So was she happy? Nope. By 1981 she was bored and getting cynical. "I'd start with my best idea," she remembers, "and then reduce the quality 10 steps to the lowest common denominator. I might as well have been packaging baloney." Nor, despite her monstrous productivity, was she getting rich. "I was generating a lot of money," she says. "What I was making was a different story." One day she felt so frustrated that she cut down all the trees in her front yard.

That did not help much. So the Rock Doc prescribed some rest and relaxation for herself (reducing her pace to a paltry 25 songs a year) and searched for a creative cure. It came on a warm evening in 1984 when she went out and bought some paint, tore off a big piece of paper and painted a picture of three huge bright-pink faces. Catharsis! "I didn't even know if I liked it," she says, "but I felt like the alien had popped out of my body."

But Willis was not satisfied to have developed a therapeutic hobby; soon she began synthesizing it with her professional life. To painting she added collages and then gigantic (up to 20 feet tall) motorized works with as many as 200 whizzing, whirling and twirling parts, all synchronized to move to the beat of music—hers, naturally. Word of the witty, hip constructions leaked out, and suddenly Willis found she was selling them as fast as her songs—an astonishing 60 in her first year—for up to $10,000 each and to patrons such as former Go-Go Jane Wiedlin, producer Rusty Lemorande and Hard Rock Cafe owner Peter Morton.

She called her style nuclear art. One of its early exemplars was an art-and-song piece she dubbed Neutron Dance, whose message, she says, is, "Okay, the nuclear blast is coming, you are all about to get blasted so you can sit here and complain that you got no money, no love, no anything. Either that, or you can have a great attitude—and dance."

The Pointer Sisters liked the concept, or anyway the song. They recorded it in 1984, and the Beverly Hills Cop producers put it in their film. Finally, last month, accompanied by Herman (in black tie), Willis (in white pants ensemble with dalmatian spots, by Willis) picked up her Grammy. Never really cold, by then she was a red-hot property. Following the completion of Pee-wee, she collaborated with rocker Thomas Dolby on the music for George Lucas' next feature, Howard the Duck, a celluloid version of Marvel Comics' hard-boiled and decidedly base canard.

It was not exactly her first experience with film. For many years Willis and some of her high-powered friends—including Herman, actress Karen Black and Tracey Ullman—had been gathering regularly at the songwriter's house to watch bad movies. Or not just bad movies, but the very dregs of the dregs, the yuck classics, the dogs, such as Monster-a-Go-Go and Plan 9 From Outer Space. "The films are hysterical, hysterically trashy," says Willis. "But you can also sense the integrity and ambition that went into making them." She means that, so it was but a small step from such admiration to her next move: making "the worst movie ever made." The full-length opus, They Must Be Told, came in under budget at around $300 and stars her friends Linda Ronstadt, Teri Garr, Lesley Ann Warren, Karen Black and Bud Cort, among others. Willis herself admits to playing Indira Gandhi "in blackface." Perhaps fortunately, aside from an art-gallery opening, the film will never be screened. Not because of lack of demand—cinemas and colleges, to which word of it has leaked, clamor for it—but rather out of compassion for its performers: "For some," notes Willis, "it would be artistic suicide."

In any case, her own career, or perhaps one should say careers, are gloriously, extravagantly alive and sometimes even in sync. "My best moments seem to be when I'm totally naive," she says, critiquing her various arts. Outside the pink house an evil gust of wind has just blown one of the Godzillas into the swimming pool. "Oh, no," Willis mutters, but inside all is alive with positive energy, creative excitement and anticipation. She has just signed on to do the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth {the first version was released in 1959). Not only is she writing four songs for the picture, she is also designing the car that will take the characters on their fateful voyage. Moreover, the merchandising rights have already been sold to Mattel, "so there'll be millions of cars," beams Willis. "That's what I see in my future. I don't want to be in a gallery. I want the cars. I don't want the rules of how to be a fine artist; I don't want the rules of how to be anything." As to what she does want, one need only refer back to her song—just continue "burning, doin' the neutron dance."

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