Guy’s Time: Dancing in September

The lasting meaning of meaningless lyrics

written by CARL DANBURY, JR.

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“There are four chords in the chorus that just keep moving forward and never seem to land anywhere — much like the four seasons,” he said a few years ago. “It’s the end of summer. It’s the beginning of fall. It’s that Indian summertime. It’s the transition from warm to cool,” Peretz said.

When originally released, the song also marked a transition for then unknown songwriter Allee Willis, who was summoned by EWF’s bandleader at the time, Maurice White and guitarist Al McKay, to help write the song’s lyrics. Prior to then, Willis had written songs for Patti LaBelle, Bonnie Raitt, Debby Boone, Herbie Hancock and Rita Coolidge, but “September” became her springboard to the mainstream pop audience.

“I think the best compliment a songwriter can get is that a song has changed someone’s life, or that it makes someone so happy whenever they hear it,” Willis told Angie Romero for Broadcast Music, Inc. in 2015. “I get both of those a lot. Every single weekend, I get sent at least a couple videos of people at parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. dancing to ‘September,’ [which] makes me feel great. That song seems to defy the laws of gravity and gets bigger every year. That, ultimately, is the best compliment a songwriter could ever receive.”

According to a post on Willis’ Facebook page, Justin Timberlake has recently cut his version of “September” for the upcoming DreamWorks film “Trolls.” “Dat’s ba-de-ya to my ears!” she wrote in the post.

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Willis grew up in Detroit and was heavily influenced by the Motown sound she often heard. Interestingly, she had no formal training and never really learned to read or compose music. She felt her way through it, much like she later would do as Bubbles the artist, and as an Internet guru with partner Mark Cuban. But those are stories for a different day.

“Do you remember,
the 21st night of September?
Love was changing the mind of pretenders,
While chasing the clouds away …”

This opening line of “September” harkens us to whimsically remember, and then provides us with a very specific date, which according to Willis, had no specific meaning at all. It just sang best of all of the dates they tried, starting with the first day of the month. The chorus didn’t have much meaning either. “Ba de ya, say do you remember Ba de ya, dancing in September Ba de ya, never was a cloudy day …”

Willis became frustrated after a month or so with the song’s memorable chorus, and finally summoned the courage to ask White about the meaning of the lyrics that he contributed. White curtly dismissed the questioning.

And thus, Willis learned her greatest lesson ever in songwriting from White, which was simply, “Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.” And from then on, she didn’t. She wrote many songs that became part of popular culture, including EWF’s “Boogie Wonderland,” “In The Stone,” “the Pet Shop Boys,” “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” as well as co-wrote “Stir It Up” and “Neutron Dance” for the 1985 film “Beverly Hills Cop.” She also co-wrote the contagious theme for the popular NBC sitcom “Friends” titled “I’ll Be There For You,” which was performed by The Rembrandts in 1994 and became a No. 1 hit. Although it received a ton of airplay, it was never officially released as a single, so Willis received no royalties from its sales. Willis also co-wrote the songs for the Broadway musical “The Color Purple,” with Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray and Marsha Norman, which had an impressive three-year run in New York.

“The great thing about Allee is, she writes for the actual artist. It’s not like one shoe fits all,” EWF singer Philip Bailey once said.

Writing a song for a particular artist and not getting hung up on one ingredient of an entire recipe enabled Willis to write songs for 41 years, including her most recent “The Little Things,” co-written with Toto’s Steve Porcaro.

So, it really doesn’t matter if you’re a gal or a guy, one project in your life doesn’t define your entire body of work. If that were so, you might have missed Willis’ point: “Ultimately, it’s the feel that is most important … there’s no such thing as failure. Use everything as a lesson. If it’s not working, change course and never do it like that again. But you had to go through it once to learn.”

It might be on the 21st of September. Ba de ya.