Willis died after suffering cardiac arrest in Los Angeles, reports Variety. Her sudden death left partner Prudence Fenton in “total shock,” according to the outlet. On Instagram, Fenton posted a snapshot of Willis, captioning the photo, “Rest In Boogie Wonderland.”
The news of the artist’s passing was confirmed on her personal Instagram page, where a spokesperson wrote, “We are extremely shocked and devastated to share this news.”
Among Willis’ best known works is the iconic theme song to the popular TV sitcom Friends, titled “I’ll Be There for You.” She earned an Emmy nomination in 1995 for the track, as the song grew a life of its own.
Among her other accolades are Grammy and Tony nominations for her musical contributions to the Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple, as well as a Grammy win for her soundtrack entries for the 1984 film Beverly Hills Cop.
Willis grew up in Detroit, where the city’s Motown roots inspired her to pursue music as a career. She graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin before landing a job at Columbia and Epic Records in New York City where her songwriting career began to take shape.
According to her official bio, she never learned to read, notate or play music, even though she led a successful career in the music business.
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Speaking on the unlikely success of the theme song, Willis told Songfacts that it showed just how wide-ranging her musical talent was.
“It was the last thing I ever thought would be a hit — the whitest song I ever wrote,” she joked to the outlet in 2008. “I’m very, very grateful for it, and when they were promoting The Color Purple, all of these newspaper reviews … I mean, here I’ve written for Earth, Wind & Fire, I’ve written with James Brown, and the only song they would ever mention that I wrote is this Friends theme. Could any song prepare you less to write The Color Purple?”
She added: “But I actually loved it, because it’s that incongruity that I cherish the most in what I do.”
Willis was an artist across many media, according to her official website, as she also dabbled in works as a painter, stand-up comedian, director and memorabilia collector.
In 2018, Willis was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, at which time she reflected on her career to the New York Times, as well as shared her upcoming goals, in a profile from the newspaper.
“I want to do more things that involve everything I do: the music, the art, the technology, the social aspect of things,” said Willis at the time. “I want to be able to move quicker, so no more huge, self-funded projects.”
She added: “Life is too short, and I am too tired!”