Allee Willis, one of the music industry’s most colorful figures and a musician whose eclectic credits as a writer and co-writer included Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and the “Friends” theme song, died Tuesday at 72.
The cause of death was a cardiac event, said her publicist, Ellyn Solis.
Willis, who grew up in Detroit, never learned to play music. But she was drawn to Motown studios as a child and said she learned how to become a songwriter by listening to the rhythms seeping through the building’s walls.
“A lot of times I would learn a bass line and then I’d hear the records and I’d go, Oh, that was ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’” she told The New York Times last year.
She started her career writing ad copy and liner notes at Columbia and Epic Records, and while her first foray into making her own music — an album called “Childstar” — didn’t get far, it brought her to the attention of Bonnie Raitt, who asked Willis to collaborate. (Willis co-wrote Raitt’s 1974 song “Got You on My Mind.”)
“September,” released in 1978, went on to become a smash; later came “Neutron Dance” for the Pointer Sisters, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” a duet by the Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, and tracks for Ray Charles, Sister Sledge, Cyndi Lauper, Nona Hendryx, Taylor Dayne and Toni Basil.
“I, very thankfully, have a few songs that will not go away,” she told The Times of her successes, “but they’re schlepping along 900 others.”
Willis won her first Grammy in 1986 for co-writing Patti LaBelle’s “Stir It Up” for the soundtrack to “Beverly Hills Cop.” In 1995, she was nominated for an Emmy for “I’ll Be There for You,” performed by the Rembrandts, best known as the theme song for the sitcom “Friends.” (She lost to the main title theme music from “Star Trek: Voyager.”) Along with Stephen Bray and Brenda Russell, she wrote the music for the Tony-winning musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” which ran on Broadway from 2005 to 2008.
In 2018 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. But songwriting was far from her only passion. Willis was well known as a collector of kitsch, and her pink 1937 Los Angeles home housed her collection of candy-colored ephemera that is cataloged online at her Museum of Kitsch.
Her passions also included making art (the walls of her home are lined with works by Bubbles the Artist, her alter ego), the internet (in the ’90s she developed her own social network of sorts called Willisville) and hosting wild parties that drew a fascinating cross-section of Hollywood.
Last year she told The Times that putting together parties was “my No. 1 skill,” explaining, “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.”
She is survived by her partner, Prudence Fenton.
While Willis continued writing songs, she shifted gears in recent years to performing one-woman shows and curating her museum-home, known as Willis Wonderland. But she never lost her curiosity and ambition to do as much as possible.
“I want to do more things that involve everything I do: the music, the art, the technology, the social aspect of things,” she said last year. “Life is too short, and I am too tired!”