On this Earth Wind and Fire Day, remember "September" as a beautiful case of accidental magic

On the 21st night of September, an examination of the appeal of Earth Wind and Fire's everlasting groove

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 21, 2022 7:02PM (EDT)

Earth Wind & Fire (David Redfern/Redferns)
Earth Wind & Fire (David Redfern/Redferns)

September 21. That's today! If you count yourself among the millions for whom the pandemic has ruined all sense of time, you're welcome for the nudge. Many others need no such reminder because is September 21 is Earth Wind and Fire Day – a reason to get down to the iconic R&B band's unsinkable 1978 hit "September." 

Nearly 44 years after its release, it's easy to understand why the track refuses to go the way of other late '70s cultural fevers broken by shifting trends. Bellbottoms and leisure suits might be dead and buried, but "September" remains a wedding reception and class reunion staple. For Black and brown folks, the song evokes memories of house parties and cookouts. It has been endlessly remixed, sampled, and covered.

Others might recognize "September" from movie soundtracks and countless commercials; as with many funk anthems, it has been licensed to sell Subway sandwiches, Gap clothing, and Google products. The Extremely Online celebrate the song as the fuel for five flawless dance videos from Demi Adejuyigbe, who released them annually between 2016 and 2021 and always at 9:21 a.m. on the dot.

Long before Adejuyigbe made the song into a meme, "September" was the unofficial theme to the end of summer, with its lusty refrain of "ba-dee-ya!" pulling us into one last dance with sandal weather. 

Bellbottoms and leisure suits might be dead and buried, but "September" remains a wedding reception and class reunion staple.

It is, to call forth a cliche, one of the few works of art nearly everyone can agree on: certified six times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, and added to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2018.

That makes it worth appreciating the fact that the song's staying power is, in significant ways, a case of accidental magic. You can say that about most hit songs that achieve some level of ubiquity. But knowing the story of "September" is key to understanding why its appeal crosses generations.

Although cultural analysts and culture have taken to viewing nostalgia as a potentially dangerous narcotic in recent years, this song's invitation to think of better times is one example that's unproblematic and fulfilling.

Earth Wind and Fire's late founder and lead singer Maurice White spent a month co-creating the song with lead guitarist Al McKay and songwriter Allee Willis beginning in September 1978. It didn't debut until November 18, 1978, on the cusp of the holiday season. Think of the gray skies and bitter cold of the Thanksgiving season – especially in Chicago, where the band was founded. 

Placed in that context, the song's opening lines hit differently:

Do you remember

The 21st night of September?

Love was changin' the minds of pretenders

While chasin' the clouds away…

"September" launched as a winter party banger, and with its release, Earth Wind and Fire had a December hit that wasn't about Christmas. White and Willis, its lyricists, courted that potential with the verse that begins, "Now December/Found the love that we shared in September…" Nevertheless, it would take a few weeks after the new year to peak at #1 on the Billboard R&B charts, which it did on January 13, 1979. It hit eighth place on the Hot 100 days four days before Valentine's Day 1979.

Earth Wind and Fire was always an established hitmaker, which meant "September" joined the ranks of Top 10 hits like "Shining Star," which went to #1 on the Top 100 in 1975, along with "Sing a Song" and the group's popular 1979 follow-up "After the Love Has Gone."

Chart data doesn't capture the feeling "September" evokes from the first licks of McKay's rhythmic guitar riff, which struts for a measure or two before cannonballing into the brass section's fog-splitting blast, all before White begins singing about memories of late summer grooving.

Earth Wind & FireEarth Wind & Fire perform at Music for UNICEF Concert at The United Nations in New York, on January 9, 1979. (Michael Putland/Getty Images)

But then, the words that you can find in a dictionary aren't the ones that get people to sing along. It's the "Ba-dee-ya!" that gets everyone on the same page. Famously Willis admitted to NPR in a 2014 interview that she initially objected to including the phrase in the refrain because it had no meaning. 

"I just said, 'What the f*** does 'ba-dee-ya' mean?'" she said. "And he essentially said, 'Who the f*** cares?'"

Now, apply that same songwriting logic to their decision to cite September 21 out of all the possible dates on the Gregorian calendar: "There is no significance beyond it just sang better than any of the other dates," she explained.

Maybe September 21 sang better because the date represents the final deep breath of summer's ease before we leap into fall. 

"Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove," White said.

The popularity of "September" doesn't make the song immune to being played out or sullied in some fashion. The 2005 Emmys, for instance, were barely memorable save for Earth Wind and Fire's opening with a criminal version of "September" with lyrics rewritten to list that year's popular TV shows and events. Among the name thuds: "24," "Everybody Loves Raymond," and Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' nascent coupledom. The Black Eyed Peas also swoop in to rap out a bridge.

You can be forgiven for having forgotten that happened. We apologize for reminding you that it did.

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But this also proves that, like every great song, the charms of "September" can wear thin. "Thanks for ruining September by Earth, Wind, Fire Google" a Reddit user posted nine months ago. "That is a great song and this unskipple [sic] ad I get 5 million times is annoying!"

Even Adejuyigbe made it known on September 1 that he was serious about last year's "September" video, a true mic dropper, being his last.

"okay, i'm already starting to get a bunch of these countdown tweets so lemme say once again that i am not doing september videos anymore! last year's was a finale. tried to make that very obvious last year! Sorry," he tweeted, adding a request not to tag him whenever the song is mentioned. 

"please let me be free," he concludes.

A simple enough request to fulfill, since many other folks have taken up the task of commemorating Earth Wind and Fire Day, and "September," with their efforts. There are tweets, TikToks, and Instagram tributes aplenty, along with your own sound system — mementos that remind us not only of the date, but of the wisdom White bestowed on Willis so many seasons ago: never let the lyric get in the way of the groove. 

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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