Songwriter Alee Willis best known for her work with Earth, Wind & Fire as well as the Friends theme and the The Color Purple Broadway song score, died yesterday in LA. 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 described as being
“in total shock”
over her best friend’s sudden death, which occurred just after 6 p.m.
Willis was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018 for a catalog that also included hits like the Pointer Sisters’ Neutron Dance, the Pet Shop Boys’ and Dusty Springfield’s What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Patti LaBelle’s Lead Me On, EWF’s September and Boogie Wonderland and the theme from The Karate Kid, You’re the Best.
Willis told the New York Times,
“I, very thankfully, have a few songs that will not go away, but they’re schlepping along 900 others.”
Willis was legendary in L.A. for her retro style, in her look but especially her home, the 1937 Streamline Moderne house known as “Willis Wonderland.” The home 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 Color Purple as best musical theater album in 2016, and her contribution to the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack two decades earlier — and was nominated for a Tony for The Color Purple and Emmy for the Friends theme).
According to Variety,
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.”
As for the significance of the Sept. 21 date singled out in the song, she said there was none.
“I would say the main lesson I learned from Earth, Wind & Fire, especially Maurice White, was never let a lyric get in the way of a groove.”
Willis wrote I’ll Be There for You on assignment as a 60-second theme song for Friends. When the Rembrandts came on board as the band to play it, they wanted to expand it into a whole song, so they contributed a bridge and a lyric for the second verse for the full-length version.
She told Songfacts,
“It was the last thing I ever thought would be a hit, the whitest song I ever wrote, I’m very, very grateful for it, and when they were promoting ‘The Color Purple,’ all of these newspaper reviews… I mean, here I’ve written for Earth, Wind & Fire, I’ve written with James Brown, and the only song they would ever mention that I wrote is this ‘Friends’ theme. Could any song prepare you less to write ‘The Color Purple’? But I actually loved it, because it’s that incongruity that I cherish the most in what I do.”
Willis grew up in Detroit, where she would sit on the lawn of Motown’s headquarters and study what she heard coming through the walls. In the 70s, she recorded her lone album, Childstar, which helped introduce her as a songwriter to other singers of the era.
Willis was also a visual artist, painter, director, collector of odd artifacts and memorabilia, and a stand-up comic and performance artist.
She told the Times,
“I’m a serious party thrower. I’ll tell you, that’s my No. 1 skill. 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.”
Her last post on her “Diary” on her website, dated Oct ’19 says,
“Hitting the high note last night, writing and recording with BIG SEAN as Patrice Covington, Squeak in my #TheColorPurpleMusical, and in the upcoming #ArethaFranklin tv series, not to mention my incredible friend overall, nails it!
Willis survived by a brother, Kent Willis, and sister, Marlin Frost; and niece, Mandy Becker.
Alee Willis was 72.
(Photo, Avalon; via Variety)