Willis’s death was announced by her long-term partner Prudence Fenton. She shared a photo of Willis next to the caption, “Rest in Boogie Wonderland 10 Nov 1947 – 24 December 2019” in reference to one of the Earth, Wind & Fire hits Willis co-wrote.
Fenton, an animator and producer, was described as being “in total shock” over Willis’s sudden death, which was reportedly caused by cardiac arrest and occurred just after 6pm on 24 December.
Willis was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018 for her work on hits such as “Neutron Dance” by the Pointer Sisters, Patti LaBelle’s “Lead Me On,” EWF’s “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” and the theme from The Karate Kid, “You’re the Best”.
She composed “I’ll Be There for You” by The Rembrandts, which was used as the theme song for NBC’s hit sitcom Friends. It went on to become one of the biggest and most recognisable TV themes in history, and also earnt Willis an Emmy nomination.
She also co-wrote the Broadway musical The Color Purple, and the soundtrack for Beverly Hills Cop, winning Grammy awards for both.
“I’m someone that absolutely loves writing very joyful music,” she told Songfacts in 2008.
“And with everything else I’ve ever written, [“September” is] still that song that when people found out I’d written that, they just go, ‘Oh my God,’ and then tell me in some form how happy that song makes them every time they hear it.
“For me, that’s it. … I literally have never been to a wedding, a bar mitzvah, anything, where I have not heard that song play. So I know it’s carrying on and doing what it was meant to do.
“I would say the main lesson I learned from Earth, Wind & Fire, especially Maurice White, was never let a lyric get in the way of a groove.”
Willis is survived by her brother, Kent Willis, and sister, Marlin Frost; and her niece, Mandy Becker.