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Why did Earth, Wind & Fire sing about 21st night of September?

“Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ lyrics: The surprising story behind the ‘Ba-dee-ya’ mystery”

Update:
"Earth, Wind & Fire's 'September' Lyrics: The Surprising Story Behind the 'Ba-dee-ya' Mystery"
Ed Perlstein / Redferns Getty Images

“Do you remember the 21st night of September?”

That’s the question Earth, Wind & Fire asks in their chart-topping 1978 hit, “September” – an irresistibly catchy tune that continues to be cherished by generations of fans due to its infectious bassline and cheerful chorus, even four decades after its release.

Since its debut as a single on the band’s initial greatest hits album, this song has transformed September 21st into an unofficial holiday, playfully known as “Earth, Wind & Fire Day.” This iconic track was originally released as a single in 1978, later featured on the group’s album “The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1,” where it claimed the top spot on the US R&B chart, reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100, and secured the third position on the UK singles chart.

However, it appears that those seeking a deeper meaning behind the date “Sept. 21″ don’t need to look too far.

Why the 21st of September?

Allee Willis, the Grammy-winning songwriter who collaborated with Maurice White (the founder and former lead singer of Earth, Wind & Fire) and Al McKay (the group’s guitarist) on this song, clarified before her passing in 2019 that there is no particular significance attached 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.

This implies that it is unrelated to the common assumption of celebrating the final fleeting moments of summer, especially considering that September 22nd marks the official start of fall. Additionally, it is not a hidden reference to any historical event or a treasured 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!”

Related: What is the meaning behind Green Day’s song ‘Wake me up when September ends’?

That’s not the only part of “September” that confuses fans. In the chorus, they keep saying “Ba-dee-ya,” which is one of the most misunderstood lyrics in a song. When people dance at weddings, you’ll hear all sorts of guesses, like “Ariel,” “Barbie Doll,” or “Bloody Hell.”

Willis explained that White, who passed away in 2016, is responsible for those lines. It turns out he came up with those silly sounds when the three of them were writing the song’s words.

“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.’ "

Frustrated and concerned that the song seemed too simple, Willis sought one last bit of clarity from White. She recalled, “Finally, when it became clear he wouldn’t explain, I just asked, ‘What does ‘ba-dee-ya’ mean?’” His response expanded her musical perspective. “He basically said, ‘Who cares?’” she jokingly recounted.

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 song’s main goal is to make people feel happy and celebrate, and its “Ba-dee-ya” lyrics do just that for the listeners.