When the classic NBC sitcom Friends was about to debut in 1994, no one wanted to be bothered writing or recording its theme. In fact, composer Allee Willis revealed last night at an event in West Hollywood, no one thought the show would survive anyway.
Sitting down for an interview with Beth Lapides, the writer, performer and host of the podcast “Life and Beth,” Willis — a songwriter, visual artist and even early Internet pioneer, whose works include Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” the Pet Shop Boys’ “What Have I Done to Deserve This” and the music in the Broadway musical “The Color Purple” — spilled the details about the creation of the now-beloved theme.
As Allee recalls, as the fall of 1994 rolled around, this new show, Friends, didn’t have a theme.
“They didn’t think the show was a hit. Then, about three weeks before it aired, they decided, ‘Well, if we can get a very commercial-sounding song, and if we have a hit, it can help promote the show.”
At that time Willis was coming to the end of her song publishing contract, and having set her sights on becoming a pioneer in the burgeoning, brand-new Internet, wasn’t interested in tackling a TV theme.
But due to the way songwriting credits are determined — fractionally, with credit often divided among both co-writers and members of a band — “my label calculated that I still owed them 1/7 of a song. So I got a call from Warner Brothers saying, ‘Look, we just got a call about this Warner Brothers show. If you write this, you can be out of your deal.'”
“The bulk of the music had been written already,” Allee recalls, and so she set her sights on composing lyrics to what she calls “a very twangy, country-sounding thing — I was in agony.” Furthermore, “they told me that the show’s not going to be a hit.”
Working completely on a computer for the first time, Allee was able to note just how much material she came up with as she collaborated back and forth with the Friends producers.
“We were constantly going back and forth. ‘I like that line, but no, what about this?’ Because originally the song was supposed to have each line about a different character. So ‘What do you think about this for Phoebe?’ ‘What about Rachel?'”
To end up with the 45-second ultimate theme, “I’ll Be There For You,” Allee and the producers winnowed down 34 single-spaced typed pages of lyrics. Then it was time to get a band to record the thing.
“And the Rembrandts, who sang it, were the only Warner Brothers group in LA at the time who weren’t out on tour,” Allee recalls. “They really didn’t want to do it. So everyone associated with the record really didn’t want to have anything to do with it!”
Cut to the night of Friends’ premiere, on September 22, 1994. A Nashville DJ loved “I’ll Be There For You” so much that “it was incredible — he made a cassette, 45 consecutive minutes of the theme, which he played for the first hour of his radio show,” Allee says. “And they got so bombarded with questions — ‘What is that song?!’ — that we decided to expand it to a full-length record.”
“I’ll Be There For You” ended up becoming, as Allee explains, the number-one airplay record of 1994.
But because “the Rembrandts didn’t want to be known for that song,” they consented to release it as part of their upcoming album, but not as a single.
Without release as a single, the song was ineligible to be placed on the Billboard charts, and the decision caused everyone involved to forsake an undoubted fortune in record sales.
Still, Allee says, “we are all so grateful that we actually were dragged into writing it. And it’s incredible when you write a TV theme because I still hear it all the time.”