Who is Allee Willis?
Chances are you have heard at least one of her songs she’s written as she has been credited for many classic cultural hits including Earth, Wind & Fire’s hit “September” and the Friend’s Theme song “I’ll Be There For You” by The Rembrandts.
I had the incredible honor of meeting Allee and attending one of her parties at her LA home when she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The following day, she wrote a song with Butterscotch, as I documented the songwriting session. It was definitely one of the coolest experiences in my music career so far.
Unfortunately, Allee passed away on Christmas Eve (12/24/19). I was planning to reach out to her and do an interview for one of my blogs about songwriting and ask about tips to help other songwriters.
Since that can no longer happen, I decided to do a short blog in honor of her contributions to music regarding the most important advice she was given on songwriting which she applied in her hall of fame career. She’s mentioned this advice in various interviews, but also told the story when she was recording her work with Butterscotch.
This won’t be as informative as some of my other blogs, as it’s more of an honorary for Allee, but I hope you still find something of value out of it.
The Most Important Songwriting Advice She Learned
You can easily search for songwriting tips on Google, but I wanted this blog to focus on a very particular piece of songwriting advice that Allee Willis learned from Maurice White, founder and former leader of Earth, Wind & Fire. And that is…
Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.
This advice was something Allee was told early in her songwriting career and says it impacted her for the rest of her life. What does this mean exactly?
The Story Behind This Advice
As I mentioned, Allee Willis co-wrote “September,” which was her first breakout songwriting hit. It was her first time working with Earth, Wind & Fire and there was one particular lyric Marice White used that bothered Allee.
Here’s what she said:
“The whole goal of ‘September’ was to be very, very simple. So I largely followed Maurice’s lead there. The one, kind of big story that came out of ‘September’ was that I didn’t want to keep the phrase ‘Ba-de-ya,’ which is the substance of most of the chorus. It’s mentioned three times in every chorus. I wanted to replace it with words, and Maurice kept saying, ‘We’ll get to it, but we’ll leave it for now.’ And then ultimately it wasn’t changed, and I asked him what [Ba-de-ya] meant. He said, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter what it means, if the spirit is there, and it goes so great with the groove. So never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.’ And that was just a huge lesson for me, that really impacted me for the rest of my life.”
She also explains this story in the below video that I captured during a recording session:
Another part of the song that demonstrates this advice has to do with the opening lyric:
“Do you remember the 21st night of September?”
Out of the 30 days in September, the only reason why they chose the 21st was because it sounded the best. You would think that including a date in a song would have some important significance, like the change in seasons from summer to fall as some have speculated. They sang the lyric with the first, second, third… night of September, all the way up to the 30th to settle on the 21st because it flowed the best with the groove.
Keep in mind, I am not a songwriter or musician, nor do I have any interest in learning that side of music. From the perspective of a fan of music who doesn’t know the technicalities, if the lyrics don’t flow right on a song, whether the words, syllables or delivery, it doesn’t sound right. It sticks out in a bad way.
Doesn’t matter if you’re a singer or rapper. Doesn’t matter if the lyrics are nonsensical or aren’t real words (i.e. ba-de-ya). The music, the groove, the feeling, the emotion, the flow of the song, should always dictate the lyrics and not the other way around.
Once in awhile, musicians will email me their music unsolicited. I actually will listen to it sometimes, and I hear this very issue on occasion where the words feel forced into lines. They let the lyrics get in the way of the groove because they communicate their message in a way that doesn’t go with the flow of the music. Sometimes simple is better.
On Another Note: Never thought I’d ever say this, but I actually have a greater understanding of what us “older” hip hop music fans call “mumble rap.” The common complaint is that a lot of these rappers aren’t saying anything with substance and often sound like they’re just mumbling. I understand now that it’s not necessarily about the lyrics, it’s about the musicality of the lyrics and how it rides the beat or groove. In other words, it’s not about “making sense” because it’s their “ba-de-ya”, if you will. I thought that was an interesting perspective that this piece of advice helped to explain.
Hopefully, you found this advice helpful for your songwriting.
More About Allee Willis
Allee was a very unique individual and I recommend reading about her story because it might be something you can relate to or find inspiration in.
- She faced a lot of rejection before getting the chance to work with Earth, Wind & Fire.
- Despite being a songwriter for both lyrics and music, she doesn’t know how to read music or play any instruments.
- Her visual artist alter ego is Bubbles.
- She has one of the largest kitsch collections in the world.
Her Most Famous Songs
Earth, Wind & Fire – September
Earth, Wind & Fire – Boogie Wonderland
The Rembrandts – I’ll Be There For You (Friend’s Theme Song)
Allee Willis Links
If you’re interested in learning about Allee and her legacy, check out the links below.
I documented my experiences at her home for one of her notorious parties and songwriting session with Butterscotch on Instagram Stories: Watch Here
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One of the coolest moments for me doing this music thing for 2 years now has been meeting Allee Willis (@alleewillis) last week. Most people won't know who she is (I didn't either), but she's such a fascinating and interesting person. Butterscotch and I were invited to her private party to celebrate her induction into the songwriter’s hall of fame this month with the cast of The Color Purple and some of her Hollywood friends. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ She's a songwriter most known for writing 2 of the most popular Earth, Wind & Fire songs September and Boogie Wonderland. She's also a writer for the Friend's theme song I'll Be There For You. In addition to Earth, Wind & Fire, she's worked with James Brown, Bob Dylan, Patti LaBelle and Herbie Hancock. More interestingly, she has never learned to read, notate or play music, despite writing both music and lyrics! ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Her songs have sold over 50,000,000 records! ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ She co-wrote the The Color Purple musical and won a Grammy and Tony for it. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ We got to hear her talk about her visual art, who she does so under her alter-ego Bubbles. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ We got to see her collection of Atomic 50's, Soul and Kitsch artifacts that she's been collecting since the late 1960s. She has one of the oldest and most documented collections in the world. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ The coolest thing is I got to witness her write a song with Butterscotch. It’s always interesting to me to see how different artists approach the music writing process. Thank you again @butterscotchmusic for bringing me along to meet such cool people! ??