Allee Willis, the prolific pop songwriter behind hits like Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” and the Friends theme “I’ll Be There for You” died Tuesday at the age of 72.
Willis’ publicist confirmed the songwriter’s death to Rolling Stone, adding that Willis died of cardiac arrest at a Los Angeles-area hospital. Willis’ “partner and soulmate” Prudence Fenton is “in total shock” over the sudden death.
Following the failure of her lone studio album Childstar in 1974, Willis soon turned her talents toward songwriting, first collaborating with Bonnie Raitt — a fan of Childstar — on 1974’s “Got You on My Mind.” Over the next four years, Willis balanced odd jobs with songwriting before linking up with Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White in 1978, a collaboration that resulted in “September.”
“I literally have never been to a wedding, a bar mitzvah, anything, where I have not heard that song play,” Willis told the New York Times of the Earth, Wind and Fire single, which sold more than 10 million copies in its first year of release.
Over a Songwriter Hall of Fame-worthy career that spanned 50 years, Willis wrote or co-wrote hits like the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This,” Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” and perhaps her most enduring track, “I’ll Be There for You.” The latter song — performed by the Rembrandts and now one of television’s most iconic themes — was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music, but lost to Star Trek: Voyager.
Willis did win a pair of Grammys: One in 1986 for her contributions to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack (“Neutron Dance,” Patti LaBelle’s “Stir It Up”), and another in 2016 for Best Musical Theater Album for her work on the music and lyrics for The Color Purple’s stage adaptation. The Color Purple musical, starring Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson, won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2016.
“Allee Willis was a world-renowned creative multi-disciplinary artist and visionary thinker whose imagination and productivity knew no bounds. Inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame in 2018, this Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Webby award-winning and the nominated artist had been hailed in the press for more than 40 years,” Willis’ rep Ellyn Solis said. “Allee’s incredibly prolific talents were unmatched… not only as a visual and social artist, but as a painter, director, world’s largest pop and soul kitsch collector, and a raucously hysterical funny one-woman stand-up comedian/sing-along performance artist. Yet 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, California.”
As Willis told the New York Times in 2018, “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.”