September has many meanings for songwriter Allee Willis, a Detroit native and promoter. Besides being the name of one of her many megahit tunes, it also is the month that she will return to her beloved hometown to give “The D” new life.
“The D” is not only a reference to Detroit; it is the name of her song, video and feature-length documentary she’s putting together. On Monday, Willis and a crew of 15 people will descend on the city to record and film groups of people singing the city’s unofficial theme song as she calls it, “The D,” a soulful tune that Willis and her co-creator Andrae Alexander put together about 18 months ago.
“We’ve been working every day; it’s been constant,” Willis said by telephone this week. “There’s going to be huge participation. I’ll pull it off, but I don’t know how!”
For example, she just learned that many of the spots where they’re shooting, such as her beloved Heidelberg Project, don’t have electricity. And to record music and singing, you kinda need power.
“This whole thing is being put together with string and Scotch tape,” Willis laughed. But when you’re making a documentary film, chaos is good. It creates drama, and drama has always been a part of her life. She just hopes that her directors have the same sense of humor.
As you can tell, all of this record- and film-making magic is happening on a shoestring budget. Even without money, everything seems to be coming together in an organic and amazing way, Willis said. A project of this scale involves thousands of people, and it will be shot over 20 days. (If you do want to donate, there is a link here and at the end of this blog post.)
The idea, Willis said, is to show off the city’s spirit through more than 40 unique locations. While there will be multiple opportunities for the public to sing along – those sites will be 10:30 a.m. Friday, Sept. 13 and 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21 at the Heidelberg Project to start – other generous folks are allowing Willis to shoot at places including The Dossin Maritime Museum, the Detroit Historical Museum, D-Hive, Detroit Yacht Club, Temple Israel, Eastern Market, College for Creative Studies, Mosaic Youth Theatre, Henry the Hatter, Lafayette Laundry, The Fisher Building, The Whitney and many, many more.
“Everything has come together in the last month – it’s like someone performed a miracle,” Willis said. “We’ve gotten every location we’ve wanted to get. And I never thought we’d be in this position where we’re turning down people because the location slots are 100 percent filled.
But don’t worry if you cannot make it out to Heidelberg for those first spots, Willis said. They’re going to be doing a lot of spontaneous filming, running here and there to fill in shots they need.
More importantly, they are putting together the largest number of people EVER on a record. These will be listed as the original artists on “The D,” joining legends including former Supremes Mary Wilson and Scherrie Payne and musicians such as Ray Parker Jr. (Yes, he can do more than look for some guys who are busting ghosts; he’s pretty amazing on the guitar, Willis tells me. And he did throw in a few signature lines on the song, such as “I’m not afraid of going broke…” Come on, Detroit. That’s funny. And while I’m digressing, Wilson adds a few, “OoooOOOooohs,” just like you heard on“Baby Love.” Epic.)
So why music? Well, we are known for it around Detroit. But, more importantly, a hit song can connect with people in a way that plain words never will, Willis notes. Just think of what the television show “Friends” would have been without her iconic, “I”ll Be There for You” at the beginning. That set the tone for the rest of the series, which ran a successful 10 years.
“I’m doing this because you know I love Detroit. But I hate the media depictions. I hate that someone asked you where you’re from and you say, ‘Detroit,’ they groan. That’s not the Detroit that I see. That’s not the Detroit that’s actually happening in Detroit. I want to draw attention to that in any way I can,” Willis said.
Some of the track has been recorded at Willis’ LA studio, where some of the Motor City’s finest singers and performers have visited in recent months (including the incredible comic actress Lily Tomlin). She felt shy about calling anyone from the Supremes; yet when she reached out, she got two of them. Having one singer or doing a blog post about her event always seemed to lead to another singer, another discovery. That’s very Detroit – it’s the biggest small town in the world.
“I’m discovering all these people (in L.A. and elsewhere) are from Detroit that I didn’t know before,” Willis said. “There is an exceptional Motown representation on here.”
Growing up at her father’s salvage yard, Willis says those days in Detroit inspire everything she does today: art, music and party throwing. Big parties. Specifically, big musical parties. And if you miss her (how could you?), don’t worry.
“This is not meant to be a one-off. If you think this is good, wait until you see the next one,” Willis promised.
To donate, click here. Otherwise, see you there.