Among the many enduring hits penned by the songwriter Allee Willis, who has died aged 72 after suffering a cardiac arrest, her song I’ll Be There for You may be the most ubiquitous. Performed by the Rembrandts, it was the instantly grabbing theme from the TV sitcom Friends during the show’s 10-year run from 1994. It also charted around the world, reaching 17 on the US Billboard chart, peaking at 3 in the UK and spending five weeks at No 1 in Canada. In 1995 it brought Willis an Emmy nomination.
But this was just one of the household-name tunes to flow from her pen. In the late 1970s she struck up a priceless professional rapport with Earth, Wind & Fire, co-writing the indelible funk singalong September (1978), which reached the US No 8 and UK No 3, and became an all-time party classic. She also co-wrote EW&F’s smash from the following year, Boogie Wonderland (US No 6, UK No 4).
Of September, Willis later commented: “I literally have never been to a wedding, a barmitzvah, anything, where I have not heard that song play. So I know it’s carrying on and doing what it was meant to do.” She credited EW&F’s leader, Maurice White, for teaching her a vital songwriting rule – “never let the lyric get in the way of the groove”.
Other career highlights included her collaboration with Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray and Marsha Norman on the musical The Color Purple, after the novel by Alice Walker, which opened on Broadway in 2005 and won a cluster of Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards. After its 2016 Broadway revival, Willis was part of the team awarded a Grammy for best musical theatre album. In 2006 the EW&F musical Hot Feet featured seven of her hit compositions, though the show survived for only three months on Broadway.
Born in Detroit, Allee (Alta) was the daughter of Nathan Willis, a scrap dealer, and his wife, Rose, a schoolteacher. She described how she learned the basics of songwriting by sitting outside the Motown studios in Detroit, where she was able to listen to the music vibrating through the walls. “Had I grown up anywhere else, I would not ever have been a songwriter,” she told the New York Times. She attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she majored in journalism, graduating in 1969. It was an era of social and political turmoil, and Willis later commented that “I started off a sorority girl, and ended up marching and demonstrating.”
She moved to New York and worked for Columbia Records, first as a secretary and then as a copywriter in the advertising department, where she came into contact with artists she admired such as Laura Nyro and Janis Joplin. She began to focus on her own songwriting and in 1974 released the solo album Childstar on Columbia’s Epic label. The album flopped and would be the only disc Willis made under her own name, though it did at least catch the attention of Bonnie Raitt. Got You on My Mind, written by Willis and David Lasley, featured on Raitt’s 1974 album Streetlights.
Having survived a period of low-paid jobs and living off food stamps, Willis moved to Los Angeles and in 1977 signed a publishing deal with A&M. Among other writing milestones, she wrote (with Danny Sembello) the 1985 Top 10 hit Neutron Dance for the Pointer Sisters, the song’s success hugely boosted by its inclusion in the movie Beverly Hills Cop. Another Willis/Sembello composition, Stir It Up, was performed by Patti Labelle in the film and won Willis her first Grammy award in 1986.
She collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys on What Have I Done to Deserve This?, the song that gave Dusty Springfield a late-career relaunch when it reached No 2 in both the US and the UK in 1987. In 2018 Willis was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In addition to her songwriting, Willis was renowned as a collector of kitsch, of which she had assembled an impressive collection at her pink-coloured Los Angeles home, dubbed “Willis Wonderland”, after Boogie Wonderland. She enjoyed throwing spectacular parties to show off the work. She inaugurated her Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch website in 2009, and also became renowned for her own artistic creations, for which she used the pseudonym Bubbles the Artist.
She was fascinated by video and film technology, and was feted by the 2008 Webby awards and W3 awards for her music-video collaboration with the singer-songwriter Holly Palmer. In recent years Willis had returned to performance, organising a string of fundraising events for her hometown under the title Allee Willis Marches on Detroit in 2011. In 2017 she launched The D, a documentary about massed singalongs in Detroit featuring 5,000 performers, and regularly appeared in shows at the comedy club Uncabaret in Los Angeles.
She is survived by her partner, Prudence Fenton, her brother, Kent, and sister, Marlin.
• Allee (Alta Sherral) Willis, songwriter, performer and art collector, born 10 November 1947; died 24 December 2019