It is one of the most recognizable songs in the world. At the beginning of the TV show Friends, now a global phenomenon, viewers hear the stirring power pop of The Rembrandt’s “I’ll Be There for You.” It begins with a memorable guitar lick, and heads into the indelible lyrics, “So no one told you life was gonna be this way. Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA.” The song was co-written by legendary songwriter Allee Willis, who died today of cardiac arrest at 72.
Willis, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, also co-wrote classics like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” as well as the Pet Shop Boys “What Have I Done to Deserve This.” She collaborated on the Tony Award winning musical The Color Purple and the Grammy Award winning score for Beverly Hills Cop. Her songs have sold over 60 million records, though she had no formal musical training.
In 2012, she spoke to an audience about how “September” came about.
Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Willis was inspired by the music that came out of Motown Records in 1960 and 1970s. Like Motown greats Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Willis had a knack for combining a catchy melody with a propulsive rhythm. In addition to writing songs, a 2018 New York Times profile of Willis points out that she was also an artist, furniture maker, set designer and videographer.
Despite her many accomplishments, Willis’s most long-lasting legacy is likely to be “I’ll Be There for You,” despite it being a song she “really didn’t like” when she wrote it. In 2018, Netflix subscribers watched 54.3 million hours of Friends, making it the second most popular show on the streaming site. In late 2018, Netflix paid $100 million to for the rights to stream Friends. It is also the most popular streaming show in the UK, and among the highest rated English-language shows in India and Pakistan. Some credit the show’s continued popularity to nostalgia for a time before cell phones, when friends hung out out in person rather than digitally. As a result of Friends continued prominence, Willis’s work continues to be a part of millions of people’s live every day.
Willis didn’t mind that just a few of her songs were more popular than the rest. “I, very thankfully, have a few songs that will not go away,” Willis told the New York Times, “but they’re schlepping along 900 others.”