Allee Willis, colorful songwriter behind 'September' and 'Friends' theme, dies at 72

She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame for a sprawling catalog that included collaborations with Earth, Wind & Fire and the Pet Shop Boys.
2018 Songwriter's Hall Of Fame Induction and Awards Gala
Allee Willis attends the Songwriters Hall Of Fame 50th Annual Induction And Awards Dinner on June 13, 2019 in New York City.John Lamparski / WireImage

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/ Source: NBC News
By Daniel Arkin

Allee Willis, the eclectic and gleefully offbeat Grammy-winning songwriter behind Earth, Wind & Fire's "September," the theme for the sitcom "Friends," and the score for the Broadway production of "The Color Purple," died on Tuesday, according to her partner. She was 72.

Prudence Fenton, an animator and producer who has been described as Willis' long-term partner, announced the news in an Instagram post. "Rest in Boogie Wonderland," Fenton wrote in the caption to a photo of Willis standing in front of the famed Motown Museum in Detroit.

Willis, who dressed in candy-colored retro outfits and threw outlandish parties at her tastefully tacky home in Los Angeles, is best known for her collaborations with the band Earth, Wind & Fire, co-writing hits including the R&B earworm "September" and "Boogie Wonderland."

She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018 for a sprawling catalog that also included the Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance," the Pet Shop Boys' "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" (featuring soul star Dusty Springfield) and the Rembrandts' "I'll Be There for You," also known as the "Friends" theme.

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"I, very thankfully, have a few songs that will not go away, but they're schlepping along 900 others," Willis told The New York Times last year in a profile — headlined "A Queen of Kitsch Who Made the Whole World Sing" — tied to her induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Willis, who was born in the Detroit and earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin, launched her career in New York in 1969, working at Columbia and Epic Records as a copywriter before turning to songwriting in 1972, according to her biography on the Songwriters Hall of Fame website.

She occasionally ventured into the worlds of Hollywood and Broadway, nabbing her first Grammy for the "Beverly Hills Cop" soundtrack and her second for co-writing the music and lyrics for the Broadway production of "The Color Purple," based on the celebrated 1982 novel of the same name by Alice Walker. (Her "Friends" theme lost the 1995 Emmy for best main title theme music to "Star Trek: Voyager.)

Warner Bros. plans to develop a movie adaptation of the Broadway musical to be co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, and Scott Sanders and Steven Spielberg, who previously directed an adaptation of the novel in 1985. Willis proudly shared that news on the homepage of her official website.

Willis, a veritable renaissance woman who also created quirky paintings and ceramics, turned her architecturally distinctive Los Angeles home into an exuberantly crowded museum of kitsch — and oversaw an online community for aficionados of campy and deceptively lowbrow popular art, such as a Mr. T piggy bank.

"I think when most people say kitsch they think of something very gaudy or overwrought, sometimes in bad taste," Willis told The Los Angeles Times in 2009.

"Mine is a kind of glorification of pop culture where someone came up with an idea that was very original that probably a zillion people said, 'That’s ridiculous. You could never do that. No one will ever buy that.' And then you end up with something like the Snuggie ... that blanket thing. That to me is kitsch."

Willis' museum kicked off with a reception in 2009 — on the 21st night of September.