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Allee Willis, songwriter who wrote ‘Friends’ theme, dies

Allee Willis, the Grammy-winning songwriter who wrote the “Friends” theme song and several smash hits for Earth, Wind & Fire, including “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” died Tuesday at the age of 72.

Willis died of cardiac arrest, according to Variety. Willis’ official Instagram page also shared the article.

Animator and producer Prudence Fenton, Willis’ partner, paid tribute to Willis on her own Instagram page: “Rest In Boogie Wonderland Nov 10,1947-December 24, 2019.” Fenton then wrote, “She was my North, my South, my East and my West.”

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Allee Willis

Willis, a prolific and versatile songstress whose compositions wold more than 60 million records, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018. Her catalog includes hits such as the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” the Pet Shop Boys’ and Dusty Springfield’s “What Have I Done to Deserve This?,” Maxine Nightingale’s “Lead Me On,” and the theme from “The Karate Kid,” “You’re the Best.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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OK, I am VERY excited about this new writing collaboration goin’ on here at Willis Wonderland! BIG SEAN is a rapper, singer, songwriter I’ve loved and admired since I heard his mixtape in 2011. The fact that he’s from Detroit and cares and shows his love for the city constantly was always an added bonus. We finally met in Detroit a couple weeks ago at Motown 60 and now back in LA it’s been fun and games and INSANELY GREAT MUSIC ever since. Been plowing through the last few days and we pick up again on Monday to begin yet another one. As witnessed in a couple of these pics, our soul sustenance is Detroit’s finest, Vernors Soda for BIG SEAN and Faygo Red Pop for me. Cannot wait for everyone to hear what we’re doing! There’s so much freedom for me writing this genre of songs and I am as thrilled doing it as I was when I first started writing songs in my 20’s. MUCH more to come! #detroit #bigsean #alleewillis #williswonderland #september #faygo #vernors #songwriting

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Willis had been working with rapper Big Sean for the past few months. Willis shared a photo of the two of them inside her Los Angeles area home studio in October on Instagram, expressing her excitement.

The intergenerational Detroit natives had met at Motown’s 60th anniversary celebration.

‘Willis Wonderland’

Willis was also known as the “queen of kitsch.” Willis was legendary in L.A. for her over-the-top retro style, not only in her outfits, but also in Valley Village home.

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The pink, 1937 Streamline Moderne house is known as “Willis Wonderland,” which is named for “Boogie Wonderland.” The home, which is itself a museum of pop culture history, and was recently the setting of the photo shoot for Variety’s Billie Eilish cover.

Early years

Willis has credited her Detroit hometown — and Motown Records — for creative inspiration. After earning a journalism degree at the University of Wisconsin, Willis moved to New York City in 1969 and worked at Columbia Records and Epic Records in a copywriting position. She  turned to music and songwriting in 1972.

Willis’ 1974 Epic album “Childstar” made a fan of Bonnie Raitt, who became the first artist to cover Willis’ songs.

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After moving to Los Angeles, Willis secured a publishing deal at A&M in 1977. 

‘Queen of kitsch’

But Willis is also a renowned performer, visual and multimedia artist, director, collector, social artist and party host, and even managed to apply her journalism background in 1987 in a column for Details magazine in which she introduced her discovery, The Del Rubio Triplets — then in their 60s and a prime example of another Willis specialty, kitsch.

Willis had assembled one of the world’s biggest collections of kitsch — tacky popular art — and she became famous for showing it at the parties she threw at her architecturally historic home.

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@barrymanilowofficial was one of the first musicians/singer songwriters I met when I started to write songs in the early ‘70s. My very first musical clique was largely made up of folks who worked with the newly-burst-on-the-scene @bettemidler, who Barry was musical director for. Especially Bette’s back up group, The Harlettes – @charlofortier, Ula Hedwig, Robin Grean, the late great Sharon Redd, Gail Kantor, and later @jeniferlewisforreal and @kateylous. This shot with Barry was taken at an art opening of mine in 1988. The big fancy art gallery food featured my favorite foodstuff, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which were made by my art assistant, the ever-wonderful, creative, and at-the-time teenage @pamelaadlon. She was SO excited to serve Barry such a high end snack! #BarryManilow #MelissaManchester #theHarlettes #TBT#ThrowbackThursday

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Awards, songs

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 in 1985 — and was nominated for a Tony (“The Color Purple” theme) and Emmy (“Friends” theme).

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One of Willis’ most memorable hits is the Earth, Wind & Fire smash “September.” She co-wrote the song with Verdine White, the band’s bassist.

“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,” Willis said. “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.”

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Willis survived by her partner, Prudence Fenton; a brother, Kent Willis,; sister, Marlin Frost; and niece, Mandy Becker.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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