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The Color Purple Composer Allee Willis Dies at 72

Willis is also well known for cowriting songs for Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as the iconic Friends theme song.

The Color Purple composer Allee Willis has died at the age of 72.
(© David Gordon)

Allee Willis, the Tony-nominated co-composer of the musical adaptation of The Color Purple, died on December 24 in Los Angeles following a cardiac arrest. She was 72.

Willis was raised in Detroit, Michigan, where she became inspired by the music of Motown. She earned a degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a copywriter before starting her career as a songwriter and performer.

She released one album Childstar, in 1974, which attracted the attention of Bonnie Raitt, with whom she later collaborated on the song "Got You on My Mind" along with David Lasley.

Willis had her first big hit cowriting the Earth, Wind & Fire song "September," and went on to also cowrite Earth, Wind & Fire's "Boogie Wonderland" and "In the Stone." In 1986, she won her first Grammy for writing Patti LaBelle's "Stir It Up" for the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop (cowritten with Danny Sembello).

She worked with several other notable artists including Debby Boone, Sister Sledge, Jennifer Holliday, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Patti LaBelle, and Cyndi Lauper, and in 1995, she earned an Emmy nomination for cowriting the Rembrandts song "I'll Be There for You," which was used as the theme song for the sitcom Friends.

Willis collaborated with Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray on the score for The Color Purple, which, in 2006, earned a Tony nomination for Best Musical and Best Original Score, and ran on Broadway from December 2005 to February 2008. The Color Purple was revived on Broadway in December 2015, and earned the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The revival cast album, featuring Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, also earned the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.

In 2018, Willis was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In addition to her career as a songwriter, she is well known as a collector of kitsch artwork.

Willis is survived by Prudence Fenton, her partner of 27 years, as well as her brother, Kent, and her sister, Marlen Frost.