NPR Music story by Dan Charnas
If you’ve ever been to a wedding reception in the U.S., you know there’s one question that can get a whole family on the dance floor: “Do you remember the 21st night of September?”
Earth, Wind & Fire‘s “September” even shows up at fictional weddings, as in the opening of the 1997 movie Soul Food. It’s made its way into TV shows, commercials, sporting events and video games. HBO named a movie after the song. In 2008, it played at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
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.