Songwriter Allee Willis, famous for her work with Earth, Wind & Fire as well as the Friends theme and the The Colour Purple Broadway song score, has died in Los Angeles aged 72.
The cause of death was cardiac arrest.
Prudence Fenton, the animator and producer who is described by a family friend as Willis’ “partner and soulmate,” was said to be “in total shock” over her best friend’s sudden death on Tuesday.
Willis was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018 for a catalogue that included hits like EWF’s September and Boogie Wonderland, the Pointer Sisters’ Neutron Dance, the Pet Shop Boys’ and Dusty Springfield’s What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Maxine Nightingale’s Lead Me On, Patti LaBelle’s Stir It Up and the theme from The Karate Kid, You’re the Best.
“I, very thankfully, have a few songs that will not go away,” Willis told The New York Times, “but they’re schlepping along 900 others.”
Willis had been working with rapper Big Sean, at her home for the last few months. The intergenerational Detroit natives had met at Motown’s 60th anniversary celebration.
The Times profile tied to her Songwriters Hall of Fame induction called her “a queen of kitsch who made the whole world sing.”
Willis was legendary in L.A. for her outlandishly retro style sense, in her outfits but especially her home, the pink, legendarily kitchsy 1937 Streamline Moderne L.A. house known as “Willis Wonderland.” The home, which is itself a museum of pop culture history, was recently the setting of the photo shoot for Variety’s Billie Eilish cover.
Among her many awards, Willis was a two-time Grammy winner — for The Colour Purple as best musical theatre album in 2016, and her contribution to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack three decades earlier — and was nominated for a Tony (for The Colour Purple) and Emmy (for the Friends theme).
Her most fruitful collaboration, with Earth, Wind & Fire, began in 1978 after Patti LaBelle and Herbie Hancock recommended her to Verdine White, who, she said, called her up and said, “I want you to come write the next Earth, Wind & Fire album.” The next day, she said, she met up with him and co-wrote the enduring smash September, the first of several hits she co-wrote with or for the band, including Boogie Wonderland.
“I’m someone that absolutely loves writing very joyful music,” she told Songfacts in 2008. “And with everything else I’ve ever written, [September is] still that song that when people found out I’d written that, 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. … 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.”
Of EWF, she added, “They were my favourite group, and remain so. I cowrote all but two of the songs on the next album, I Am, which was the album that really crossed them over to a white audience.” The group’s African American fans were sometimes surprised to find that September and other iconic black hits were partly the creation of a “nice Jewish girl.”
Willis wrote I’ll Be There for You on assignment as a 60-second theme song for Friends. When the Rembrandts came on board, they wanted to expand it into a complete song, so contributed a bridge and a lyric for the second verse for the full-length version.
“It was the last thing I ever thought would be a hit, the whitest song I ever wrote,” she told Songfacts.
Willis grew up in Detroit, where, she told The New York Times, she would sit on the lawn of Motown’s headquarters and study what she heard coming through the walls. In the 1970s, she recorded her lone album, Childstar, which helped introduce her as a songwriter to other singers of the era.
Her vocation later in life was raconteur as much as songwriter. She was also a visual and social artist, painter, director, collector of odd artefacts and memorabilia, and a stand-up comedian and performance artist.