Allee Willis, Hall of Fame songwriter and beloved L.A. eclectic, dead at 72
Musical collaborators, friends and fans took to social media on Christmas Day to pay homage to songwriter Allee Willis, who wrote or co-wrote such hits as Earth, Wind & Fire’s party anthem “September,” the Pointer Sisters’ “The Neutron Dance” and the Emmy-nominated theme to the long-running TV series “Friends,” a.k.a. “I’ll Be There for You,” after news surfaced that she had died on Christmas Eve at 72.
The cause of death was cardiac arrest, according to her publicist.
“Allee Willis was a one-of-a-kind creative genius,” Earth, Wind & Fire tweeted on Wednesday. “Her love, spirit and artistry are forever woven into the fabric and legacy of Earth, Wind & Fire. She will be sorely missed.”
The group’s lead singer, Philip Bailey, separately tweeted, “It would be like Allee Willis to take flight at a time of the most holy of days. You will be missed my friend. Until we meet again. Love And Light.”
Willis was inducted last year into the Songwriters Hall of Fame for her decades of work crafting songs that stretched from pop and rock to R&B and soul and were recorded by myriad artists also including Ray Charles, Sister Sledge, Bonnie Raitt, Bryan Adams and Pet Shop Boys.
A Renaissance woman, Willis also delved deeply into visual art as a painter, wrote comedy, housed a renowned collection of kitsch memorabilia at her home in Valley Village in the San Fernando Valley, and in recent years had mounted a one-woman theater production she called “Allee Willis’ Love ’N Latkes Chanukah Christmas Shopping Extravaganza Show!”
Her wide-ranging interests and talents prompted Roots member Questlove to post on his Instagram page, “You were a strange beautiful soul Allee Willis. We are all the better for your words.”
Allee Willis was born Nov. 10, 1947, in Detroit, where as a youth she was captivated by the music emanating from the headquarters of Motown Records.
In September, at a gathering celebrating the label’s 60th anniversary, Willis shared memories of sitting on the lawn outside Motown’s offices, watching musicians, songwriters and employees come and go, despite her father’s admonition to “stay away from black culture.”
Six decades later, she described the event as “the ultimate fulfillment of my childhood fantasy to be up on stage at Motown 60 in the finale singing ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ with [Motown co-founder] Berry Gordy dancing right in front of me!”
She also had her own exhibit at the Motown Museum, placed between those highlighting the lives and careers of Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela. “I cry just thinking about it,” she said at the time.
After studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she moved to New York and landed a job as a secretary at Columbia Records, working first as a copywriter before turning her attention to songwriting and performing.
Her only album, “Childstar” in 1974, flopped commercially, but did catch the ear of Bonnie Raitt, who became the first artist to record one of her songs, “Got You On My Mind.” She subsequently became a songwriter at A&M Records, and after being introduced by a mutual friend to Earth, Wind and Fire bassist Verdine White, she met his brother, Maurice, and began collaborating with him as a writer, scoring her first hit with “September.”
Earlier this year, the Library of Congress added the song “September,” which Willis wrote with EWF co-founder Maurice White and guitarist Al McKay, to its National Recording Registry honoring historic and culturally significant recordings.
She liked to tell of her initial resistance to the nonsense syllabic refrain “ba-dee-yah” that White repeated at various points while they were working up the number.
“I just said ‘What the [heck] does ‘ba-dee-yah’ mean?” she told NPR in 2014. “He essentially said, ‘Who the [heck] cares?’ I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”
It went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart in 1978, and peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 ranking. The opening line “Do you remember/The 21st night of September” was subject to debate over the years, White claiming it simply sounded good to him. Willis, however, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year that White’s wife, Marilyn, told her that was the due date of their son, Kahbran.
Perhaps even more widely recognized than “September” was the “Friends” theme “I’ll Be There for You.” She was one of several collaborators on the song, along with series creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman, composer Michael Skloff (Kauffman’s husband) and songwriters Phil Solem and Danny Wilde of the Rembrandts, whose recording was featured in the series and subsequently became a standard at weddings, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs and other special occasions.
The song was nominated in 1995 for an Emmy Award in the category of main title theme music, but lost to Jerry Goldsmith’s “Star Trek: Voyager” theme. Pop singer Meghan Trainor recorded a new version that was released in September for a 25th anniversary celebration of the show’s premiere.
Willis won a Grammy Award for her contributions to the soundtrack of “Beverly Hills Cop” and was nominated for musical show album for “The Color Purple,” the latter also earning her a Tony nomination in 2006.
“With all of her accolades, Allee Willis was most proud to be recognized for her extreme, over-the-top party-throwing at her famously kitschy Pink Streamline Moderne house known as ‘Willis Wonderland’ in Los Angeles,” her spokeswoman, Ellyn Solis, said in a statement.
“I always had a music career, an art career, set designer, film and video, technology,” she told the New York Times last year. “The parties really became the only place I could combine everything.”
Among her other songs that became hits were “Boogie Wonderland” for Earth, Wind & Fire with the Emotions, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” by the Pet Shop Boys and “Lead Me On” by Maxine Nightingale.
Singer Bette Midler tweeted on Wednesday, “My condolences to all her friends in the music community, and in Los Angeles, where she was so beloved.”
Willis is survived by her partner of 27 years, animator and producer Prudence Fenton.
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