Born Viola Mae Wilkerson
in the Watts district of South Los Angeles, Wills was already married from her teens and was the mother of six children before the age of 21 when, in 1965, she was discovered by Barry White who signed her to Bronco Records and renamed her with the shorter stage surname of Wills. She started her career at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and, over the following years, in addition to working with White, also performed with Joe Cocker, Smokey Robinson and many other established recording artists of the era. It was while working in London as one of Cocker's backing vocalists (dubbed the "Sanctified Sisters") that she worked on and released her solo debut album of self-penned originals titled Soft Centres
, backed by Cocker's session players.
Wills' first major break into the mainstream came in 1979 with her cover version of "Gonna Get Along Without You Now" (the song's release date was May 14, 1979) which started a string of dance hits. All three of the songs would land Wills in the Guinness Book of Records
. In 1982 her cover of "Stormy Weather" hit #4 in the U.S. Hot Dance Club Play chart. Also, by this time she had divorced her first husband and, around 1982, married Robert Ashmun with whom, in 1983, she formed the record label RVA (Robert Viola Ashmun) and used it to release a number of songs, including "Wall", "Space" and "If These Walls Could Speak".A demand for 1980s music brought Wills back to Europe. Some of the UK venues Wills has appeared on, or at, were Top of The Pops
(October 11, 1979), Pebble Mill
, Soul Train
(October 30, 1971 [Season 1, Episode 5\] where she performed the song "Sweetback"), Later... with Jools Holland
, Ronnie Scott's, Never Mind the Buzzcocks
(February 17, 2003 [Season 12, Episode 7\]) and a residency at Joogleberry Playhouse in Brighton.Although Wills did not have a mainstream U.S. hit, she was popular among the nation's gay community and her singles are popular in dance clubs and a number of her recordings are found in various compilations, including "No News Is News", "A House Is Not a Home", "If You Could Read My Mind", "Up On The Roof", "Somebody's Eyes", "Love Pains", "Let's Love Now", "Take One Step Forward" (by Wills and Noel McCalla), and "Always Something There to Remind Me". Her vocals also featured on My Friend Sam's 1992 house track "It's My Pleasure" which later appeared on the seminal Renaissance: The Mix Collection
album.Wills died of cancer on May 6, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. Her funeral was held at the Macedonia Abbey Baptist Church in Los Angeles on May 15, 2009.