Allee Willis, songwriter behind the Friends theme, Earth Wind & Fire hits, is dead at 72

Peter Weber

Allee Willis, a Grammy winner whose sole 1974 album led to a successful song-crafting career, died Tuesday at a Los Angeles hospital. She was 72, and her partner, Prudence Fenton, attributed the unexpected death to cardiac arrest.

After writing and "fixing" songs, often without credit, for artists including Bonnie Raitt, Ray Charles, and James Brown in the mid-1970s, The Washington Post reports, Willis got a call in 1978 from Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White. Her first collaboration with the group produced the enduring hit "September," and she went on to write most of their next album, including the Top 10 single "Boogie Wonderland."

"As a white Jewish girl getting a break, you could not get better than Earth, Wind & Fire," Willis told NPR in 2014. "They had just written the intro to 'September.' And I just thought, dear God, let this be what they want me to write because it was obviously the happiest-sounding song in the world." White insisted on keeping the repeated phrase "ba-dee-ya" in the song over her strident objections, Willis added, and she learned to "never let the lyric get in the way of the groove."

Willis co-wrote "Neutron Dance" for the Pointer Sisters (1985), "What Have I Done to Deserve This" for the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield (1987), and the Friends theme "I'll Be There For You" (1994), a hit for the Rembrandts. She won two Grammys — in 1986, for her work on the soundtrack to Beverley Hills Cop, and in 2015 for the soundtrack to the Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple. Willis was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018.

Still, her "No. 1 skill" was as "a serious party thrower," 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." Read more about "the most interesting woman you've never heard of" at The Washington Post.

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