Allee Willis, Hall of Fame songwriter and beloved L.A. eclectic, dead at 72
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Do u remember…the 24th day of December….when the Queen of our jam called “September” was suddenly called away…..so no one told us life was gonna be this way (clap furiously 4 times) we burned doing the Neutron Dance in Boogie Wonderland…..she was an All American Girl from The D ….where another notable Motown resident in 98 made his mark Gettin This Money sampling her “Just Come Running To Me”…I guess it’s written In The Stone that we must Stir It Up now & scream “I’m Alive”!?? What have we…what have we….What Have We Done To Deserve This? She was truly the Best! Around! And no spirit will ever keep your songs down…your words Lead Us On all night long….& thats All That Matters To Me….you were a strange beautiful soul Allee Willis we are all the better for your words. Rest in melody #AlleeWillis #September #BoogieWonderland #InTheStone #CantLetGo #NeutronDance #StirItUp #JustComeRunningToMe #YoureTheBest (Karate Kid) #WhatHaveIDoneToDeserveThis #AllAmericanGirls #IllBeThereForYou
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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