Born: November 10, 1947;

Died: December 24, 2019.

ALLEE Willis, who has died of a heart attack aged 72, used to sit on the lawn outside the Motown studio in her native Detroit when she was a child and listen to the music that was being recorded inside. “You could watch everyone come in, but most importantly you could hear through the walls, which is how I became a songwriter,” she said. “To this day those are the only music lessons I ever had.”

Having imbibed the sounds of Motown, Willis said she constantly heard melodies in her head. Those melodies included such classics as Boogie Wonderland and I’ll Be There for You, the theme song for Friends. Despite a stern warning from her white Jewish father to “stay away from black culture”, she linked up with the African-American soul and funk combo Earth, Wind and Fire, co-writing two of their biggest hits, Boogie Wonderland and September, in the late 1970s.

She probably reached her widest international audience after she knocked out a 45-second ditty for a new sitcom called Friends, 26 years ago. She was up against a deadline to get something written and the theme song was recorded just days before the first episode was broadcast.

Willis described the song as “the whitest song I ever wrote”. It was annoyingly catchy and people wanted to buy it. The Rembrandts recorded a full-length version, it was a US Top 20 hit and reached No 3 in the UK. Friends ran for ten years and is regularly repeated. “I very thankfully have a few songs that will not go away,” she told the New York Times last year when she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The continuing popularity of those songs (she also co-wrote What Have I Done to Deserve This?, with Pet Shop Boys) helped pay for a pink mansion in Hollywood, home to her extensive collection of kitsch and to her own artworks that she painted under the name Bubbles the Artist. “Willis Wonderland” was also the venue for lavish and eccentric parties. A larger-than-life character, who routinely dressed in ensembles of garish, clashing colours and designs, Willis said: “I always had a music career, an art career, set designer, film and video, technology. The parties really became the only place I could combine everything.”

She was born Alta Sherral Willis in Detroit in 1947. Her father was a scrap metal merchant, her mother a teacher. She studied journalism at university, worked as a secretary and then a copywriter with Columbia Records in New York before developing her career as a songwriter, initially as a singer-songwriter, very much the vogue in the early 1970s.

Her only album, Childstar (1974) did not sell well, but it attracted the attention of Bonnie Raitt who covered one of her songs, Got You on My Mind, on her album Streetlights.

The early years were a struggle, but after moving to LA she met Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire and they co-wrote September (with Al McKay). It was a Top Ten hit in both the US and UK and her career took off from there.

She co-wrote the Pointer Sisters’ Neutron Dance and Patti LaBelle’s Stir It Up, both of which featured in the 1984 film Beverly Hills Cop. She won a Grammy award for her score for the film, and a second Grammy award for her work on the Broadway musical, The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s novel. Willis is survived by her partner Prudence Fenton, who worked as an animation producer.