Do you remember the 21st night of September?
That's the question Earth, Wind & Fire asks in their 1978 No. 1 hit, "September" — an irresistible and catchy song that, four decades later, remains beloved by generations of fans hooked on the tune's funky baseline and cheerful chorus.
Since its release as a single on the band's first greatest hits LP, the song has turned Sept. 21 into an unofficial holiday, fittingly dubbed "Earth, Wind & Fire" day. Check social media anytime during the day and one is sure to see the song's lyrics plastered somewhere, accompanying memes, polls and, of course, the official "September" music video.
But it turns out, listeners looking for meaning in the "Sept. 21" date needn't look too much into it.
Before her death in 2019, Allee Willis — the Grammy-winning songwriter who all collaborated with Maurice White (Earth Wind & Fire's founder and former lead singer) and Al McKay (the group's guitarist) on the song — revealed that there's no significance to the "21st night of September."
"We went through all the dates," she recalled to NPR in 2004 of the writing process, which took nearly four months. "'Do you remember the first, the second, the third, the fourth ... ' and the one that just felt the best was the 21st."
That means it has nothing to do with embracing the last fleeing moments of summer, as often assumes, with Sept. 22 being the first official day of fall and all. And it's not a secret shout-out to any historical event and cherished personal memory.
"I constantly have people coming up to me and 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," Willis said. "So ... sorry!"
That's not the only lyric in "September" that fans are confused by.
Its chorus features the repetition of the words "Ba-dee-ya" — no doubt three of the most misquoted lyrics in the history of song. (Walk onto a dance floor at any wedding and one is bound to hear a range of options, from "Ariel" to "Barbie Doll" to "Bloody Hell.")
Willis said that White, who died in 2016, is to blame for the lines. Turns out, he used the nonsensical sounds when the trio were penning the song's lyrics.
"The, kind of, go-to phrase that Maurice used in every song he wrote was 'ba-dee-ya,' " she told NPR. "So right from the beginning he was singing, 'Ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember / Ba-dee-ya, dancing in September.' "
Gems/Redferns/Getty Earth, Wind & Fire
Willis never imagined the words would stay. "I said, 'We are going to change 'ba-dee-ya' to real words, right?'" she said, recalling how she begged him to ditch the lyric up until the final hour, when she finally gave up at their last vocal session.
Frustrated and worried the song sounded too simplistic, Willis turned to White for one last spot of clarification. "Finally, when it was so obvious that he was not going to do it, I just said, 'What the f-- does 'ba-dee-ya' mean?'" she said.
His answer taught opened her mind up to the possibilities of music. "He essentially said, 'Who the f--- cares?'" she teased.
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"I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove," said Willis, who would go on to write hits like "Neutron Dance" for the Pointer Sisters and "I'll Be There For You" (the theme for Friends) for the Rembrandts.
"If the melody, beat and spirit are there then everyone will know — emotionally, they will know — what you're saying," she told American Songwriter. "Lyrics can be clunky sometimes because someone is trying to make too much sense or fit in a four-syllable word when a two-syllable one feels better."
In the case of "September," the message the song ultimately hopes to achieve is one of celebration — one its "Ba-dee-ya" lyrics easily achieves for listeners.
"I think the song's just eternally uplifting," Willis told the outlet. "It's impossible to be depressed when you hear it."