Songwriter Allee Willis thinks big. Case in point is her latest project: “The D.” That’s the title of a song Willis — known for Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and the theme from “Friends,” among many others — co-wrote about Detroit that has morphed into a month-long singalong party in the Motor City.
It all started when Willis and co-writer Andrae Alexander penned “The D,” an exuberant tune in the vein of “September.” Following Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing, Willis wanted to showcase Detroiters’ indomitable spirit, and raise funds for two arts organizations.
“Detroit is totally alive, filled with artists who are completely reimagining the city,” Willis says. “And I love hosting massive events. So coupled with my party-throwing skills, I decided the best way to record this song was with every single person in the city who wanted to be on the record.”
From the week of Sept. 9 through Sept. 30, Willis will be in Detroit recording and shooting a series of singalongs at some 40 locations. She and a 25-person crew will work with groups of 50-1,000 (including 14 gospel choirs) at locales ranging from businesses and landmarks to churches and her alma mater, Mumford High. The project will also feature Detroit and Michigan-area luminaries (some shot earlier in Los Angeles), including singers Mary Wilson and Martha Reeves; songwriter Lamont Dozier; actress Lily Tomlin; and musicians Greg Phillinganes, Ray Parker Jr., the remaining Funk Brothers and Narada Michael Walden. “We’d love some rappers, techno — we’re open to anything,” Willis adds.
Proceeds from the resulting record, video and feature-length documentary go to the Heidelberg Project and Mosaic Youth Theater. Willis is also starting to look for sponsors. Other than a short Indiegogo campaign that raised $20,000, she has thus far financed everything herself. “The pockets may be bare,” Willis says with a laugh, “and we have no idea what’s about to happen. But we’re doing it.”