For “Song History Saturday” we take a song each week and break down some of the details about the writing, recording, and sometimes the legacy of the song. [Editor’s note: The personal stuff is mostly in the first couple of paragraphs if you want to skip it.]
Do you remember the 21st night of September?
Not necessarily Thursday night of this year, and not even any particular year. But is there a 21st night of September that you recall in-particular?
I remember the one in 2018. I was struggling with depression and not sleeping very well. The day before, I’d spent the day hanging out with coworkers, culminating in an evening trip to karaoke in Marysville. There, I met a guy and gave him my number. On the day of the 21st, I ended up working something like a fifteen-hour shift in which I could barely stop to breathe. But I managed to do so a few times, and when I did, I would text the guy I’d met the night before- just for fun. He shared my interest in strange instruments and expressed interest in getting together to play the Omnichord etc. It was late when I got home from work, but he called and asked if we could hang out anyway. Tomorrow, I marry that man.
Another crazy part of my personal connection to this song is that I’d never really been a fan of Earth, Wind & Fire, but I had been to one of their concerts (sans the late Maurice White) a few months earlier in 2018 at an international conference for my job at the time (where I also officially received a promotion). It’s almost like a seed was planted to direct my life’s storyline. Chekhov’s Earth, Wind & Fire. 2018 was also a big year for “September.” It was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry as a song that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
In 1978, Earth, Wind, and Fire were coming up with new material for their greatest hits album, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, which would end up featuring three new recordings. Alongside their existing catalog of hits like “That’s the Way of the World” and “Shining Star,” the band recorded a cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life” and wrote two new songs. How very fitting that one of the brand-new songs recorded for the “Best of” album ended up being a bigger hit than the existing “Best of” songs.
“September” was written by Earth, Wind & Fire guitarist Al McKay who supplied the initial chords, vocalist Maurice White, and songwriter Allee Willis (who would go on to co-write additional Earth Wind and Fire hits like “Boogie Wonderland” and co-write classic songs for other artists like The Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” and The Rembrandts’ Friends theme song “I’ll Be There For You”).
Al McKay started the track on his own. He told Spotify in 2018:
“I came downstairs feeling really good,” the musician continues. “Went to my studio, set up a groove, and it just came piece by piece by piece. I brought it to Maurice, and he liked it right away.”
After listening to McKay’s portion of the song, Maurice White asked to hear it again before coming up with the “I remember” line.
“September” was the first song Allee Willis wrote with the band and her first big hit. She described her initial introduction to the song and the band:
“‘September’ was fantastic and thrilling, and they had started the intro of it by the time I had walked into the studio to meet everyone. Just as I opened the door and I heard that little guitar intro, I thought, Oh God, please let this be what they want to work with me on. Because it was so obviously a hit.”
Although she began working on the song with Maurice White within five minutes of meeting him and the band, Willis identifies the process as a learning experience for her. She told Songfacts:
“Here was a group that had a very particular point of view, which, at that point, I was not largely familiar with. Their stuff was very much based on Eastern philosophies, an incredibly positive outlook on life; the lyrical content of their songs was not typical of what would have been in soul music at that time.”
The significance of September 21st to Earth, Wind & Fire, or even to Allee Willis is a popular question. Many interpret the lyrics to either be about a specific relationship or simply the joys and celebrations associated with one of the last days of summer as the seasons change. Unfortunately, though there are a couple of conflicting stories, odds are, it was a date chosen for how it sounded rather than what it symbolized. Willis remembers going through nearly every day in September with White before they settled on the 21st, which they decided sounded the best. White’s widow Marilyn White told Willis a different story after Maurice White’s death. Marilyn White stated that September 21st was the due date of their son Kahbran, though he ended up being born early, in August. It’s impossible to know if the truth is that it was a coincidence or a combination of the stories but there’s something that just feels perfect about the lilt of the words.
Recorded in September and released in November of 1978, “September” was not created with a click track in the background and the band plays subtley faster over the course of the song [Source: musicradar].
Willis was opposed to using the filler lyrics of “ba-dee-yah” before each chorus and expected Maurice White to fill in the “real” lyrics at some point. But as she tells it:
“Finally, it’s the last day of recording. The deadline is midnight and it’s 10 minutes to. And I was literally in the studio, on my knees, because I thought, ‘Oh my God, this stupid phrase is going to ruin the whole thing.’ […] So I finally said to this incredibly calm, soulful, spiritual man, ‘WHAT THE F— DOES ‘BA-DEE-YA’ MEAN?’ And Maurice essentially said ‘Who the f— cares?’ And I learned the biggest lesson of my songwriting career at that moment: Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”
Truly, “ba-dee-ya” adds to the overall positive feel of the song. Willis herself has described “September” as “eternally uplifting,” and says “It’s impossible to be depressed when you hear it.”
“September” isn’t just a song of yesteryear. It’s a song that is still incorporated into our lives regularly today. It’s been featured in movies like Night at the Museum, The Nice Guys, and Polar, as well as being covered for Get Over It and Trolls. The Earth, Wind & Fire holiday version of “September”: “December,” is used in Kohl’s ads. It’s used as a football chant in the U.K., with the 2018 World Cup seeing fans of England chanting “Wo-ooh-ah, England are in Russia/Wo-ooh-ah, drinking all the vodka/Wo-ooh-ah, England’s going all the way!”
Taylor Swift raised eyebrows when she did a banjo-laden acoustic version of “September” for a Spotify promotion. Swift’s version (Ha) included a date change to September 28th, along with some additional changes that created a tone of reminiscence about a past relationship as Swift reported that she had been through an important breakup during the month of September. While Swift’s cover had a slightly more somber tone, it couldn’t take away the inherent joy of the song. Those affiliated with the original song had a mixture of things to say, with Allee Willis saying that Taylor Swift had “…cut a very calm and somewhat boring take of one of the peppiest, happiest, most popular songs in history” while Phillip Bailey (vocalist and congo player on the original version) Tweeted that “Music is free like that… Ain’t Got Nothing But Love for Ya.”
To further explain the timelessness of “September,” we must remember that the original release of the song only made it to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Yet today, it’s got over 1.3 billion streams on Spotify (nearly a billion streams more than Earth, Wind & Fire’s second most popular song on the platform).
Willis stated that when people find out she co-wrote the song, they “tell me in some form how happy that song makes them every time they hear it. For me… that’s it.” Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White has received plenty of positive feedback on the song, claiming “People now are getting married on September 21st […] The stock market goes up on September 21st. Every kid I know now that is in their 20s, they always thank me because they were born on September 21st.”
The city of Los Angeles even declared September 21st “Earth, Wind & Fire Day” in honor of the band’s connections to the city…and the date, of course.
Not many things pull us together as a society anymore, but I sure hope “September” is one of them.
-Just Emma (JustEmma@CD929FM.com)
Written by: Emma Sedam
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