The Song That Never Ends: Why 'September' Sustains It begins, "Do you remember?" — and we supply the memories. Dan Charnas tells the origin story of the Earth, Wind & Fire hit that still unites generations on the dance floor.

The Song That Never Ends: Why Earth, Wind & Fire's 'September' Sustains

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This Sunday, September 21 is Independence Day in Armenia and Founder's Day in Ghana. But for some in this country, September 21 means one thing...


EARTH, WIND AND FIRE: (Singing) Do you remember the 21st night of September? Love was changing the minds...

INSKEEP: Yeah, that's Earth, Wind & Fire - their classic "September" which ruled radio from late 1978 into 1979, hitting number one on the R&B chart and the Billboard Top 10. But that was only the beginning. "September" has had an afterlife. Dan Charnas reports.

DAN CHARNAS, BYLINE: The 1997 movie "Soul Food" opens at a wedding reception.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Now let's give it up for the last sister in the Joseph family to get married - Bird and Lem.

CHARNAS: Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" is not only perfect for dancing at weddings, it's good for dancing elephants in the 2006 movie "Night At The Museum."


EARTH, WIND AND EARTH: (Singing) Do you remember the 21st night of September?

CHARNAS: And it was good for two guys fooling the cops in the 2011 French film "The Intouchables."


EARTH, WIND AND EARTH: (Singing) Ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember? Ba-dee-ya...

CHARNAS: It's made its way into TV shows, commercials, sporting events and video games. HBO named a movie after the song. In 2008, it played at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions.


EARTH, WIND AND EARTH: (Singing) Ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember? Ba-dee-ya...

ALLEE WILLIS: Much better dancing on the Democratic side, let me say.

CHARNAS: That's Allee Willis who wrote the lyrics to "September." Back in 1978, Willis was a struggling songwriter in L.A. until she got a call from Maurice White, the leader of Earth, Wind & Fire. White offered her the chance of a lifetime - to co-write the band's next album.

WILLIS: As a white, Jewish girl getting a break, you could not get better than Earth, Wind & Fire.

CHARNAS: Willis arrived at the studio the next day hoping it wasn't some kind of cosmic joke.

WILLIS: And as I opened the door, they had just written the intro to "September." And I just thought, dear God, let this be what they want me to write because it was obviously the happiest sounding song in the world.

CHARNAS: The music was composed by Earth, Wind & Fire's guitarist Al McKay.

AL MCKAY: I cut a track at my house. And I brought it to Maurice. I kind of figured it was cool 'cause he gave me that grin. When - if he likes something, it's a smile. And he said, play it again, play it. So I played it again. And when we got around to that break, the first words he said was (singing) do you remember?


EARTH, WIND AND EARTH: (Singing) Do you remember the 21st night of September? Love was changing the minds of pretenders while chasing the clouds away.

CHARNAS: Maurice White and Allee Willis wrote the song over the course of a month, conjuring images of clear skies and dancing under the stars. Willis liked songs that told stories, so she feared the lyrics on "September" were starting to sound simplistic. One nonsense phrase really bugged her.

WILLIS: The kind of go-to phrase that Maurice used in every song he wrote was ba-dee-ya. Right from the beginning, he was singing, you know, 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?


WILLIS: I remember at the final vocal session pretty much being down on my knees next to him begging, please change ba-dee-ya. And finally, when it was so obvious he was not going to do it, I just said, what the [bleep] does ba-dee-ya mean? And he essentially said, who the [bleep] cares?


EARTH, WIND AND EARTH: (Singing) Ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember? Ba-dee-ya, dancing in September. Ba-dee-ya, never was a cloudy day.

WILLIS: I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which is never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.

CHARNAS: Allee Willis went on to write a number of hits, including the theme for the TV show "Friends." But she says "September" is one song that sticks with her.

WILLIS: I used to always say it was the happiest song in the world until Pharrell Williams came out with the song "Happy."


PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) It might seem crazy what I'm about to say. Sunshine, she's here, you can take a break.

WILLIS: He was on Oprah maybe three months ago. And Oprah asked him, when you want to get inspired to write, what are the songs that you always go back to? And he had his iPad there. And, you know, he goes, you know, 5, 4, 3, 2 and then number 1...


OPRAH: Oh, my God.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Oh yeah.

OPRAH: We all - (Singing) Do you remember...

CHARNAS: It turns out that "September" is the song to put the happy in "Happy." But why? I asked my colleague Jeffrey Peretz, professor of music theory at New York University's Clive Davis Institute. He says that "September's" very structure is an endless cycle that keeps us dancing and wanting more.

JEFFREY PERETZ: There's four chords in the chorus (guitar strumming) that just keep moving forward and never seem to land anywhere, much like the four seasons that exist that this is alluding to.

CHARNAS: Peretz says that this song links us to emotions that are more complex than just happy.

PERETZ: The 21st night of September - it's the end of summer. It's the beginning of fall. It's that Indian summer time. It's the transition from warm to cool.

CHARNAS: And its trigger is the song's opening line - do you remember?

PERETZ: I can remember the smell of the cigarettes in the backseat of my parents' car while that song was on the radio.

CHARNAS: "September" is a song that can bring all the generations together, perfect for family gatherings where we supply the memories and fill in the song's meaning. As for songwriter Allee Willis...

WILLIS: I do remember we went through all of the dates. Do you remember the first, the second, the third, the fourth? And the one that just felt the best was the 21st. And I constantly have people coming up to me. 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 (laughter) you know?

CHARNAS: Maybe Maurice White was right. It doesn't matter what it means. When we hear it, it's September 21st, and we're dancing again with our families to a song that never really ends. For NPR News, I'm Dan Charnas.


EARTH, WIND AND EARTH: (Singing) And we say, ba-dee-ya-dee-ya, say, do you remember?

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