Why Earth, Wind and Fire Chose ‘The 21st Night of September’
The ear-catching opening line of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” poses a simple question: “Do you remember the 21st night of September?” Though many have analyzed the meaning of the date, its origin is quite innocuous.
Allee Willis was a struggling songwriter in 1978, but she’d managed to forge friendships with remarkable talents. Through Patti Labelle and Herbie Hancock, Willis was introduced to Verdine White, bassist of Earth, Wind & Fire. As the legendary funk band was prepping a greatest-hits compilation later that year, Willis got a call.
“‘Is this Allee Willis?’” the songwriter recalled being asked. “‘Yeah.’ ‘This is Maurice White [the band's co-lead singer and primary songwriter]. I want you to come write the next Earth, Wind & Fire album."
Willis was ecstatic. “I absolutely loved them. I always loved them, they were my favorite group,” she admitted years later to Songfacts.
When she arrived at the studio for his first day with the band, a catchy riff was emanating from the room. “I opened the door and I heard that little guitar intro,” Willis recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh, God, please let this be what they want to work with me on.’ Because it was so obviously a hit.”
Indeed, it was the early stage of “September,” a new song the group planned to include on The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1 as a means of boosting sales for the compilation LP.
Watch Earth, Wind & Fire's 'September' Video
Willis immediately began crafting lyrics with the band, working to assemble an upbeat song that also contained a slight sense of nostalgia. Maurice White already had a concept for the chorus, a catchy refrain that didn’t yet have any real words.
"The kind of go-to phrase that Maurice used in every song he wrote was 'ba-dee-ya,' " Willis explained in a 2014 interview with NPR. "So right from the beginning he was singing, 'Ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember / Ba-dee-ya, dancing in September.' And I said, 'We are going to change 'ba-dee-ya' to real words, right?'"
The song progressed, verses were laid out and the band prepared to record its new track. Still, the chorus hadn’t changed, and Willis began to realize it never would.
“Finally, when it was so obvious that he was not going to do it, I just said, 'What the fuck does 'ba-dee-ya' mean?' And [White] essentially said, 'Who the fuck cares?'" Willis recalled. "I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove."
As for that opening phrase, the band tried out many other dates. "We went through all the dates: 'Do you remember the first, the second, the third, the fourth ... ' and the one that just felt the best was the 21st," Willis confessed. "I constantly have people coming up to me and they get so excited to know what the significance was. And there is no significance beyond it just sang better than any of the other dates. So ... sorry!"
Despite its titular month, “September” was actually released in November 1978. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B Songs chart and No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and became one of Earth, Wind & Fire’s most beloved tunes in the process.
According to Verdine White, the band never expected to track to have such a lasting legacy. “When it came out, it was a really good song, but it wasn't as big then,” the bassist explained. “People now are getting married on Sept. 21. The stock market goes up on Sept. 21. Every kid I know now that is in their 20s, they always thank me because they were born on Sept. 21. They say it's one of the most popular songs in music history.”