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She'll Be There For You — 'Friends' Theme Songwriter Allee Willis Dead At 72

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How Did Allee Willis Die? New Details On Death Of 'Friends' Theme Songwriter At 72

Grammy-winning songwriter Allee Willis died on Christmas Eve at 72 years old. Willis was known for writing a number of hit songs but is perhaps best known for "I'll Be There For You," the theme song from the long-running sitcom Friends. 

How did Allee Willis die?

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Willis was nominated for an Emmy in 1995 for writing the Friends theme song. She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018. Willis struggled to compose "I'll Be There for You," because she said she was "used to writing lyrics that are funkier and not so plain sounding."

The wholesome song was in stark contrast to Willis's other hits, which include the popular Earth, Wind, & Fire song "September." Let's take a look at the life, career, and death of songwriter Allee Willis. 

1. Who is Allee Willis? She was from Detroit.

Willis was born on November 10, 1947, in Detroit, Michigan to Jewish parents. She developed a love for black culture and music early and hung out outside of the Motown Records offices as a teenager to listen to the music coming through the walls.

She majored in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1969, after graduating from college, she moved to New York City to work as a secretary at Columbia Records. Eventually, she started writing copy, liner notes and advertising, which led her to songwriting.

2. She had a long collaboration with Earth, Wind & Fire.

Willis is well-known for her collaboration with Earth, Wind & Fire. Patti LaBelle and Herbie Hancock recommended Willis to Verdine White, who, as legend has it, called her and said, "I want you to come write the next Earth, Wind & Fire album."

She met up with him the next day and co-wrote the band's smash hit song "September." That was the first of several hits she wrote for the band. Others included "Boogie Wonderland" and "In the Stone."

3. What songs did she write?

Willis wrote songs for a number of artists including Gladys Knight and the Pips, Cyndi Lauper, Crystal Gayle, Sister Sledge, Jennifer Holliday, Rita Coolidge, Debby Boone, Crystal Waters and Taylor Dayne. She wrote Maxine Nightingale's "Lead Me On," the Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance," "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" by Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, and, of course "I'll Be There for You," by The Rembrandts — which gained eternal fame as the Friends theme song — among many other songs.

She jokingly called the Friends theme song "the whitest song I ever wrote."


A post shared by alleewillis (@alleewillis) on Sep 18, 2019 at 3:36pm PDT

4. She wrote film and Broadway scores, too.

Willis won a Grammy for her contribution to the soundtrack of Beverly Hills Cop in 1986. She was nominated for a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album for The Color Purple in 2006. That same year, she was nominated for the Tony Award for The Color Purple for Original Musical Score.

She won the Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album for The Color Purple in 2016. She also wrote the theme song for the Karate Kid "You're the Best."

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5. She objected to Donald Trump using one of her songs on his campaign trail.

In 2015, Willis spoke out against Donald Trump using her Karate Kid song "You're the Best" at his campaign rallies. She was absolutely furious about it, saying, “This guy’s mouth would get us into a nuclear war in three seconds."

She continued, "He is opposite of everything I stand for. So I'm not happy that it's promoting someone who treats people the way he treats people." Trump played the song during a campaign rally in suburban Detroit, Willis' hometown. 

Unfortunately, Willis didn't control the rights to the song, so there wasn't anything she could do about it. She originally co-wrote the song with Bill Conti for 1982's Rocky III, but the filmmakers replaced it with Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" at the last minute. In 1984, it ended up in The Karate Kid. 

"I do not endorse this, but I don't control the rights to this song," Willis said. She said she could see why Trump chose the song: "Do I think it fits Trump perfectly? Without a question. It's all about bravado and fighting. And Trump is the giant who comes and stomps on the village. I can see why he picked it."

6. She was working with rapper Big Sean before her death.

In the months before her death, Willis was working on songs with rapper Big Sean at her home. The two Detroit natives met at the 60th-anniversary celebration for Motown.

7. She was the "Queen of Kitsch."

A profile of Willis from her 2018 induction into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame called her “a queen of kitsch who made the whole world sing.” She lived in a 1937 Streamline Moderne home in Los Angeles that she called Willis Wonderland. The home is a museum of pop culture.

In 2009, Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch opened in Los Angeles to exhibit her extensive collection of kitschy and pop culture items.

8. How did Allee Willis die?

Willis died of cardiac arrest in Los Angeles on Tuesday, December 24th around 6 PM. She is survived by her partner and soulmate, Prudence Fenton, who was reported to be "in total shock" over the sudden death of her best friend.

Willis and Fenton had been together since 1992. Willis is also survived by her brother, Kent Willis, sister, Marlin Frost, and niece, Mandy Becker.

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Amy Lamare is a writer covering entertainment, pop culture, beauty, fashion, fitness, technology, and the intersection of technology, business, and philanthropy. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook.