There's no dictionary definition for the term "badeya," but veteran songwriter-performer Allee Willis correctly insists that it means plenty to a lot of people. The vivacious and eternally young-spirited Willis, who is perhaps best known for the songs she wrote for the beloved rock-soul band Earth, Wind, & Fire, shared her 65th birthday during "Badeya Baby," a delightfully funky theatrical happening spread over two performances in North Hollywood.
She explained that in the craft of songwriting, if some device feels right, it takes on a significance all its own, leaving no explanation necessary. Proving her point, the refrain, "Badeya" along with the remainder of the sublime lyrics from Willis' beloved megahit "September," were belted out with unbridled glee, as a huge crowd joined the performers to stand, sing, clap and sway in unison during many of the classic numbers in Willis' standing-room only show on November 8 in North Hollywood.
Like the multi-talented Willis, her show is hard to categorize. Popping lozenges into her throat throughout the evening while apologizing for her allergy attack, the unpretentious and effortlessly hilarious Willis stood before her mike cracking jokes and spinning alternately hilarious and touching anecdotes, surrounded by musicians, a few backup singers and sublime projected images from her life and career.
She chatted about her long and unique career and her life journey, as if in the company of lifelong friends (which many in the audience apparently were), sharing humorous and often touching biographical details. Being billed as a "songwriter, live performer, visual artist, and iconic party thrower, Willis was also a pioneer in cyberspace endeavors since the advent of the Internet in the early 1990s. She still sponsors the Allee Willis Museum Of Kitsch (awmok.com), a virtual museum and social network.
The indefatigable and gifted Willis lives up to all of the hype, and more. Who else can one think of who created a marathon catalog of beloved chart-topping songs beginning in the late 1970s, wrote background score and songs for a 1980s movie blockbuster ("Beverly Hills Cop") and "I'll Be There For You," the theme for the iconic long-running sitcom ("Friends"), and ultimately added to her incredibly eclectic repertoire in late career by co-writing a wondrous Broadway musical in 2005 ("The Color Purple")?
Sporting her trademark pant suit, dark glasses and wild and crazy hairdo, which suggests something between Age of Aquarius hippie, quasi-21st century punker, and a touch of Phyllis Diller, Willis simultaneously projects counter-culture hipster and dearly beloved auntie. There's plenty of warmth and refreshing humility mixed in with her thumb-your-nose attitude. Sharing her remembrances of her beloved father while remarking that he never gave up urging her to write something other than "black music," Willis comes across as a kind and wise soul who is accepting, open-minded and perhaps above all, barrels of fun to be around.
This Detroit-born entertainer, who has been honored with wins and/or nominations by the Grammys, Emmys, Tonys and Webby Awards, begins her recollections circa 1978, when she was struggling to survive on food stamps, prior to the career breaks that changed her life. After earning a journalism degree, Willis moved to New York, becoming a copywriter for Columbia and Epic Records, where she wrote album liner notes, ads and commercials.
The ambitious dreamer managed to get her first 10 songs recorded in the album, "Childstar' on Epic, leading to her discovery by Bonnie Raitt and Patti LaBelle, who began recording her songs. As her career grew, she composed hit songs for the likes of Earth, Wind, & Fire, the Pet Shop Boys, the Pointer Sisters and Dusty Springfield to name but a few. Her collaborators have included Bob Dylan, James Brown, and Herbie Hancock.
To date, her songs have sold over 50,000,000 records. Besides "September," some of the greatest hits numbers performed by Willis and her ensemble (joined in by the exuberant audience), were "Boogie Woogie Wonderland," "In the Stone," and "Neutron Dance."
A famous barbeque sandwich, the Boogoloo, from Willis' favorite Detroit restaurant, was served at intermission, and slices of the huge birthday cake brought up to her at the end of the show were also offered.
In wrapping up the evening, Willis shared her life mantra for happiness: "Believe in yourself, love what you do." Her uplifting and richly entertaining show made a convincing argument for that philosophy and provided a testament to her remarkable human spirit and her still-unfolding legacy.
"Badeya, Baby!" was presented on Nov. 8 and 9 at the North Hollywood Performing Arts Studio, 11020 Magnolia Blvd, in North Hollywood. For info or tickets for future performances, call 818-763-0086 or visit www.nohopac.com.