The disco classic from Earth, Wind & Fire might have sounded very different if it wasn’t for Allee Willis’ insistence
To sum up the career of Allee Willis is a daunting task. Her life in songwriting is impressive enough, having sold over 50 million records with tracks for Earth, Wind & Fire, Patti LaBelle, The Pet Shop Boys and more, as well as co-writing I’ll Be There For You, the theme to the television behemoth Friends. But Willis’ achievements don’t end there.
She has also co-authored a Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple and worked as an artist and designer (often under her alter ego ‘Bubbles’). Her most recent project was to create a new theme song for Detroit, the city of her birth. Called The D, it was recorded over the course of five years and features contributions from over 5000 of the city’s natives.
To focus on just one of those achievements seems slightly wasteful, but that’s exactly what we’re doing in order to learn the story behind the disco classic Boogie Wonderland. Though the song is now synonymous with Earth, Wind & Fire things could have been very different had Willis and co-writer Jon Lind liked the version originally cut by Curtis, The Brothers. Thankfully though, it was left to Maurice White and his band to create the version of the song that we all know and love.
So it’s over to Allee to take us through the creation of her disco anthem and the struggles she had with a hi-hat-happy drummer!
“I co-wrote the song with Jon Lind. I’m a fanatical archivist and I save everything, so I know it was actually written on March 27th and 28th of 1978 and we demoed it the next week. We wrote it at my place in LA. I’ve always collected a lot of pop culture stuff from the 50s, 60s and 70s, so the atmosphere in my place is always a very fun environment to write in. I always wrote both music and lyrics and like working with people who would also write both music and lyrics and you just sit there and pound it out. I don’t play an instrument though, so I hear everything in my head, but it was definitely written on Jon’s acoustic guitar.
“The word ‘boogie’ was everywhere in pop and dance music and we wanted to write a song for Earth, Wind and Fire which used that word but not in the way that everyone else was using it – which meant to shake your booty. I had just seen the movie Looking For Mr Goodbar with Diane Keaton. She’s a lost soul who doesn’t really have a great sense of herself. She goes out to the disco and picks up a different guy every night. At one point in the movie, she’s so reckless that she brings home a guy who the audience is led to believe could be a serial killer.
“We decided to make the song about someone who does not have it together during the day but at night they walk into the disco and their life miraculously changes. They can lose themselves in dance for as long as they’re at the club. I felt like that was a fairly typical situation for a lot of people who were going out to dance every night.
“In our heads, it wasn’t really a club but a state of mind, but we got out the phone book and started looking up names of clubs and bars to try and get a cool name. The original one that we used was ‘Johnny’s Casino Lounge’ and that actually was the first line of the chorus. We thought that the song sounded so incredible but didn’t have an incredible title. Neither one of us remembers who stumbled on Boogie Wonderland first, but it was one of those things where the second someone said it, it was like, ‘Oh my God!’
“We decided to make the verse very dark, like there was something haunting about it, and then when it gets to the chorus it should sound happy, bright and uplifting. It’s almost like a very profound mood shift. People tell me that it’s a song which makes them very happy. I always say to them ‘well have you listened to the lyrics because it’s actually a very deep and depressing song?’
“I always loved to take very poppy dance music and put really heavy lyrics into it. It never really mattered to me whether people got that or not. I’m proud because it really is a song that appears to be one thing but is actually something else. And I think the mood that we wanted to convey is definitely there.
“When we went into the studio to make the demo I was adamant that I did not want that typical hi-hat anywhere in the song as I didn’t want it to sound like a typical disco record. The drummer we had was pretty famous and he would not keep his stick off the hi-hat. He would not listen to me even though I said it 15 times, ‘Do not go to the hi-hat!’
“Finally, Jon got up and walked into the studio and physically removed the entire hi-hat so the guy could not play it. So the whole rest of the session he was giving me the evil eye. When that song became a hit without that stupid hi-hat on it I thought ‘I showed him.’ I only realised years later that he wasn’t listening to the women, that the women couldn’t be the producer, it had to be the guy!’”