WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Allee Willis, one of the music industry's most colourful figures, whose eclectic credits as a writer and co-writer included Earth, Wind & Fire's September and the Friends sitcom theme song, died on Tuesday (Dec 24) at a hospital in Los Angeles. She was 72.
The cause was cardiac arrest, her publicist, Ellyn Solis, said.
Animator and producer Prudence Fenton, Willis' partner of 27 years, posted a photo on Instagram with the caption: "Rest in Boogie Wonderland," referring to the Earth, Wind & Fire disco hit that Willis wrote with Bob Lind.
Willis, who grew up in Detroit, never learned to play music. But she was drawn to Motown as a child, and said she learned how to become a songwriter by sitting on the lawn outside the record company's studios and listening to the rhythms seeping through the building's walls.
"A lot of times I would learn a bass line and then I'd hear the records and I'd go, Oh, that was I Heard It Through The Grapevine," she told The New York Times last year.
She attributed her career to her love of Motown.
"I'm so insanely attached to Motown and all the music that was coming out of Detroit, and it gave me a love for that kind of music," she told The Detroit Free Press last year.
"There's no question: Had I grown up anywhere else, I would not ever have been a songwriter. Because I certainly don't have the skills to be it."
She started her career writing advertising copy and liner notes, and while her first foray into making her own music - an album called Childstar - didn't get far, it brought her to the attention of Bonnie Raitt, who asked Willis to collaborate. (Willis and David Lasley wrote Raitt's 1974 song Got You On My Mind.) September, released in 1978, was an instant smash and went on to become a staple at wedding receptions, with its driving beat and its opening lines, "Do you remember/The 21st night of September?," all but guaranteed to propel people onto the dance floor.
She told NPR in 2014 that while she was working on the song with Maurice White, the leader of Earth, Wind & Fire, she was annoyed by the recurring nonsense phrase he had written, "Ba-dee-ya." She asked White what it meant, and he said: "Who cares?"
That led her to a revelation: "I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove."
Later songs included Top 10 hits for the Pointer Sisters (Neutron Dance) and Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield (What Have I Done To Deserve This?), as well as tracks for Ray Charles, Sister Sledge, Cyndi Lauper, Nona Hendryx, Taylor Dayne and Toni Basil.
"I, very thankfully, have a few songs that will not go away," she told The Times of her successes, "but they're schlepping along 900 others."
Willis won her first Grammy in 1986 for writing (with Danny Sembello) Patti LaBelle's Stir It Up for the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop. In 1995 she was nominated for an Emmy for I'll Be There For You, performed by the Rembrandts, best known as the theme song for the sitcom Friends. She lost to the main title theme music from Star Trek: Voyager.
But I'll Be There For You was arguably more indelible in the culture, as it played during the opening credits of Friends for 10 seasons plus years of reruns over images of the cast frolicking in a water fountain.
The lyrics also captured the angst of their lives: "So no one told you life was gonna be this way/Your job's a joke, you're broke/Your love life's DOA."
Willis called it "the whitest song I ever wrote". Along with Stephen Bray and Brenda Russell, she wrote the music for the Tony-winning musical adaptation of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, which ran on Broadway from 2005 to 2008. When it was revived on Broadway in 2016, she was part of the team that earned a Grammy for best musical theatre album.
In 2018 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But songwriting was far from her only passion. She was well known as a collector of kitsch, and her pink 1937 Los Angeles home housed her collection of candy-coloured ephemera, catalogued online at her Museum of Kitsch.
Her passions also included making art (the walls of her home are lined with works by Bubbles the Artist, her alter ego), the Internet (in the '90s she developed her own social network of sorts, called Willisville), and hosting wild parties that drew a fascinating cross section of Hollywood.
Last year she told The Times that putting together parties was "my No. 1 skill." She explained: "I always had a music career, an art career, set designer, film and video, technology. The parties really became the only place I could combine everything."
Willis was born on Nov 10, 1947, in Detroit, where she was raised. Her father, Nathan, was a scrapyard dealer; her mother, Rose, was a schoolteacher. Her mother died suddenly in 1964, when Allee was a teenager.
In addition to Fenton, Willis' survivors include her brother, Kent, and her sister, Marlen Frost.
Willis went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she majored in journalism and graduated in 1969. The upheaval of the 1960s transformed her, she told the university's alumni magazine this year.
"I started off a sorority girl," she said, "and ended up marching and demonstrating."
After college, she moved to New York City. Within a month of starting as a secretary at Columbia Records, she was promoted to the advertising department, where she worked with artists she idolised, among then Barbra Streisand, Laura Nyro and Janis Joplin.
Childstar, Willis' first and only album as an artist, was a disappointment. She realised she hated performing, and Columbia dropped her.
For nearly four years, Willis checked hats at a comedy club and hung posters for a cabaret.
At the beginning of 1978, she was living on food stamps. But then she met White of Earth, Wind & Fire, and she helped him write the lyrics to September. It reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart and No. 8 on the pop chart. By the end of the year it had sold 10 million records.
In recent years, she shifted gears to performing one-woman shows and curating her museum-home, known as Willis Wonderland.
She never lost her curiosity and ambition to do as much as possible.
"I want to do more things that involve everything I do: the music, the art, the technology, the social aspect of things," she said last year. "Life is too short, and I am too tired!"
Of all of her hits, Wills seemed most awed by the enduring power of September.
"I'm someone that absolutely loves writing very joyful music," she told the website Songfacts in 2008. When people learn she co-wrote September, she said, "they just go, 'Oh my God,' and then tell me in some form how happy that song makes them every time they hear it. For me, that's it."
She added: "I literally have never been to a wedding, a bar mitzvah, anything, where I have not heard that song play. So I know it's carrying on and doing what it was meant to do."