Do you remember? The 21st night of September?
Detroit native Allee Willis can never, ever, ever forget it. Because despite all her other impressive accomplishments, this Grammy Award-winning notorious party hostess and recent inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — she wrote the theme song for Friends, for goodness' sake — may still be best known for the opening line of the lyrics she wrote for the Earth, Wind & Fire smash hit "September" more than four decades ago.
"For me personally, it's such a given performance night," Willis says by phone from her home in California, which has become a shrine to Motor City memorabilia. "So I have been doing bigger and bigger gigs on that night, and because I'm so known for my party-throwing it's really become, like, my favorite night to gig on. But this year pulls it way back, since it's a relatively smaller bar."
Here's the good news: that small bar is in Detroit. With Sept. 21 falling on a Saturday this year and coinciding with the big "Motown 60" anniversary weekend, Willis is returning home to celebrate the date at — where else? — Willis Show Bar, the legendary 1940s Cass Corridor jazz club and cabaret resurrected last year as a swanky nightspot.
Was Willis the star aware of Willis the bar growing up in the city? "I had always heard of it, because you know you always want to know stuff with your last name," she says. "I knew it was a really famous jazz club, and I knew a lot of Motown players came out of there. And also, my parents met in the 1930s when they lived kitty-corner from each other on Willis Street."
"So I was always aware of that street for 1,000 different reasons, and for me it's very exciting to be there," she adds. "You know, it just seemed perfect. 'Motown 60' falls on the 21st of September, Motown asked me if I would do something at the Willis Show Bar. When the synchronicity gets that insane, you gotta go ahead."
"But literally every single person I tell about it goes, 'Oh, I didn't know you owned a club in Detroit,'" she says. "I wish!"
Willis will own the bar for one night, at least, with a wild mix of "September"-themed entertainment.
"I'm used to throwing major, all-'September' nights, like that's literally the only song you hear all night," she says. "You see it performed by animals. It's a whole extravaganza. But because this is 'Motown 60' weekend, we'll do things a bit differently."
Willis Show Bar "is a scene unto itself," she says. "I'm going to tell scattered little stories about having written 'September.' All my stories are funny. We're going to do a sing-along to 'September' once an hour. You know, sing-alongs are kind of my thing. There'll be 'Boogaloo Wonderland' sandwiches, peach cobbler, even a burlesque dancer. I've made all kinds of little souvenirs to try and personalize it as much as possible without me taking over the entire evening. And of course, it being 'Motown 60' weekend, the band will be playing Motown songs, as well as some of mine."
That Allee Willis playlist could include another EW&F classic, "Boogie Wonderland," as well as the Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance," Patti LaBelle's "Stir It Up," or "Lead Me On" by Maxine Nightingale. In theory, Willis Show Bar patrons might even hear selections from the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical version of The Color Purple, for which she co-wrote the music and lyrics with singer Brenda Russell and fellow Detroiter Stephen Bray.
Ah, but to the question you really want answered by now — how did a nice Jewish girl from Detroit wind up writing hits for Earth, Wind & Fire? As you might expect, Willis remembers every detail of the "September" experience.
"A friend of mine put me together with Verdine [White, bassist and brother of the late EW&F leader Maurice White] because his wife, Shelly Clark, was hosting a TV show and they needed a theme song for it," Willis says. "Verdine said, 'I'm going to tell my brother about you,' but you know, when you're starving you don't think, 'Oh, yeah I'm going to be writing with Earth, Wind & Fire tomorrow!'"
But it happened. "Out of the blue one night, the phone rang," she says. "I remember sitting there when I hung up saying, 'This shit can't be happening.' Maurice told me to come to the studio the next day. It was really close to my house, so the whole thing was so convenient and it just felt completely right."
"But it was overwhelming, because they were so huge at the time," Willis adds. "But they wanted to cross over to a wider audience, so they actually brought me and [renowned songwriter] David Foster in at the same time to work on their album. It was a pretty amazing time."
Of course, she notes, as soon as "September" hit big, "then everybody in the world wants to write with you," she says. And 40-plus years later, her signature song continues to have a remarkable life of its own.
"Next to New Year's Eve, September 21 has become one of the biggest party nights of the year," Willis notes. "Spotify did a story last year on why the song is still so huge, and they told me stuff I never knew."
For instance, every September the song spikes on Spotify. "On September 21 it goes to No. 1, every single year since Spotify launched," she says. "Last year on Billboard it jumped back into the charts after 40 years, and the week of September 21 it knocked Eminem out of the No. 1 spot on the hip-hop charts. And this year it was inducted into the Library of Congress Registry of historically and culturally significant recordings. It has become a permanent part of American history. It is insane."
The "21st Night of September" party hosted by Allee Willis, part of the kickoff to Motown 60 anniversary weekend, happens Saturday, Sept. 21 at Willis Show Bar, 4156 Third St., Detroit; 313-788-7469; willisshowbar.com. Doors open at 7 p.m., with sets beginning at 8, 10 and 11:30. Tickets are $8 in advance, $12 day of show. Reservations are required.
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