Photo: Bill King
Photo: Bill King

Earth, Wind & Fire!

I was recently asked what my all-time favourite charted track is. I instantly responded Earth, Wind & Fire - September. There are many reasons I explode with bliss when I hear the opening strains. First, I know I’m in for a good time; second, I’m being transported to a place beyond my designated office chair. Although I don’t dance, my brain is on fire, choreographing my next thought. Finally, if I’m near a loved one, the shoes get tossed, and my feet roll effortlessly into a sublime romp—a Soul Train extravaganza. It’s the big glee party.

Let’s get technological first. I found this online.

“September” is the key of A major with a tempo of 126 beats per minute in common time. The vocals span from A2 to E5. The stuff looping and sampling geeks need to know. If you are around party-goers—the key varies, but never the tempo.

Using a chord progression written by Earth, Wind & Fire guitarist Al McKay, vocalist Maurice White and songwriter Allee Willis, wrote the song over one month. The gibberish initially bothered Willis's “ba-dee-ya” lyric White used through the song and begged him to rewrite it: “I just said, ‘What the fuck does ‘ba-dee-ya’ mean?’ And he essentially said, ‘Who the fuck cares?’ I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the groove.” The song was included in the band’s first compilation—The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1—solely to boost sales with original content.

Although several theories have been suggested about the significance of the date, the songwriter Maurice White claimed he simply chose the 21st due to how it sounded when sung. His wife, Marilyn White, however, claimed September 21 was the due date of their son, Kahbran, according to lyricist Allee Willis.

I’m so jaded these days, when someone pitches me with the next greatest band foolishness and the most undervalued song, the sign of the times rubbish, I say, “but have you heard September by Earth, Wind & Fire?” Most respond, “more times than I’ve heard White Christmas”. But have you really listened?

Let’s start at the top. Jangling guitar, funky bass picking a sweet melody – a few bars in the bass drum drops on two and four—suddenly out of nowhere the horns turn a quick sixteenth note riff over a D/E chord.

“Do you remember the 21st night of September? Love was changing the minds of pretenders. While chasing the clouds away, our hearts were ringing, in the key that our souls were singing. As we danced in the night, remember how the stars stole the nights away.”

Sweet, sweet words riding a bouncing bassline, semi-staccato—it rolls, it pauses. We sense fall is in the air. Then comes...

Ba de ya - say do you remember

Ba de ya - dancing in September

Ba de ya - never was a cloudy day

Ba duda, ba duda, ba duda, badu, Ba duda, badu, ba duda

Ba duda, badu, ba duda, badu.

I do not know what this means, but I’m buying—because there are few cloudy September days other than in those faces seen staring at classroom laptops. Just before the next verse—the way in the background, the horns kick in again with another one of those tongue-snapping riffs.

“My thoughts are with you, holding hands with your heart to see you. Only blue talk and love, remember how we knew love was here to stay. Now December found the love we shared in September, only blue talk and love. Remember the true love we share today.” Only blue talk? Hmmmmm …

Then more Ba Duda, dancing in September. So far – so good! Next verse – let’s take liberties with vocal and cap it with a “Yowl.” And then repeat for a good minute the theme Ba Duda and build on that – layer more vocals and vary the horn riffs to the exit—total elapsed time, 3:35 minutes well served and a billion plus plays on Spotify.

This is from Song Facts...

“According to Maurice White, he got the idea for this song in an unlikely place: a hotel room in Washington DC, while there was some kind of protest going on below. Said White, “There’s all these cats screaming and throwing things and going crazy, and this tune just evolved.”

There are many theories as to the significance of the “21st night of September” in the opening lyrics. But until 2018, even the song’s co-writer, Allee Willis, was in the dark. Maurice White told her it had no real significance and was chosen because it sang well phonetically.

White died in 2016; two years later, Willis was having lunch with his widow, Marilyn, who told her that September 21 was the due date for their son, Kahbran, and that Maurice put that specific date into the song as a secret message. Kahbran was born early on August 1, which wouldn’t have the same ring as a lyric.

Although many people hear the first words in the chorus as “Party On,” it’s really “Bada-Ya.” Allee Willis explained in her Song facts interview: “I absolutely could not deal with lyrics that were nonsensical or lines that weren’t complete sentences. And I’m exceedingly happy that I lost that attitude. I went, ‘You cannot leave bada-ya in the chorus, that has to mean something.’ Maurice said, ‘No, that feels great. That’s what people are going to remember. We’re leaving it.’ We tried other stuff, and it always sounded clunky - thank God.”

“Ultimately, it’s the feel that is the most important, and someone will feel what you’re saying if those words fit in there right," Willis added.

It’s September 1, and it’s an FYI Music News.ca Labour Day weekend party! Coming back, all those contented campers. Hanging close – the rest of us until summer is spent. Not so fast. September is still summertime according to the calendar—a solid 21 days.

Let’s not forget those born on this day. Of course, Boxcar Willie – gone since 1999, Conway Twitty, Barry Gibb, Gloria Estefan, Billy Preston, Steve Porcaro, Freddy King. Now hit the player - “Do you remember?”

Bill King

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