"Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove."
Do you remember? It's been a few years since I've shared the story behind the lyrics of Earth, Wind & Fire's big hit "September." But, it's a good one and it's that time of the year. So, in memory of two late-greats, Allee Willis and Maurice White, here it is again:
The story of the song begins in 1978. Allee Willis was a struggling songwriter in LA — until the night she got a call from Maurice White, the leader of Earth, Wind & Fire. White offered her the chance of a lifetime: to co-write the band's next album. Willis arrived at the studio the next day hoping it wasn't some kind of cosmic joke.
"As I open the door, they had just written the intro to 'September.' And I just thought, 'Dear God, let this be what they want me to write!' Cause it was obviously the happiest-sounding song in the world," Willis says.
Using a progression composed by Earth, Wind & Fire guitarist Al McKay, White and Willis wrote the song over the course of a month, conjuring images of clear skies and dancing under the stars. Willis says she likes songs that tell stories, and that at a certain point, she feared the lyrics to "September" were starting to sound simplistic. One nonsense phrase bugged her in particular.
"The, kind of, go-to phrase that Maurice used in every song he wrote was 'ba-dee-ya,' " she says. "So right from the beginning he was singing, 'Ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember / Ba-dee-ya, dancing in September.' And I said, 'We are going to change 'ba-dee-ya' to real words, right?' "
Wrong. Willis says that at the final vocal session she got desperate and begged White to rewrite the part.
"And finally, when it was so obvious that he was not going to do it, I just said, 'What the f- – – does 'ba-dee-ya' mean?' And he essentially said, 'Who the f- – – cares?'" she says. "I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove."
[FULL STORY on NPR: The Song That Never Ends: Why Earth, Wind & Fire's 'September' Sustains, September 19, 2014]
image via Allee Willis, screengrab via Earth, Wind & Fire