“Producers had used strings in soul music before, but not the way Barry did,” says manager and old friend Ned Shankman. “He played these big string sections like it was an individual artist. He had a brand-new sound that was so intoxicating.” Shankman and White had been in business since the day Barry walked into his law office in 1972 looking for representation. “Barry had all the talent and intelligence, but he was pulling himself out of the ghetto,” Shankman recalls. Barry, who was raising four children with his first wife, Betty, whom he had lost his virginity to in Exposition Park when he was fourteen, often hitchhiked into Hollywood looking for studio work. “He had holes in his shoes the size of silver dollars.”
With gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs describing him as a “molasses-voiced monument,” White reluctantly released his first hit single “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby” in 1973. Although White sang in a few doo-wop groups in the ’60s and played drums for Jackie Lee on the road, after working as a producer, arranger, and A&R man, he preferred being behind the scenes.
“I like to be in the background,” Barry said later. “Plus, I don’t have a lot of respect for artists, because they want to be babysat. They want to call you at four in the morning, and if they don’t have certain things in their dressing room, they [say] they’re not going on. Most artists are babies, and I never wanted to be part of that.”
Signed to 20th Century Records as a solo artist in 1972, seemingly overnight the former Watts street gang member transformed himself into one of the most popular performers on the planet. Joining forces with the late orchestrator/string arranger Gene Page—who that same year had done the Blacula soundtrack as well as fine-tuning White’s “soft-porn, aural-chocolate sound,” as critic Barney Hoskyns described it—White released successive gold and platinum albums over the next seven years.
Page, along with drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Plas Johnson, was one of the few Blacks down with the California posse of musicians later known as the Wrecking Crew. The collective played with producers Brian Wilson, Quincy Jones, Phil Spector, and Bones Howe, among others. White and Page met in 1963 when they were paired as co-arrangers on Bob & Earl’s addictive Marc Records single “Harlem Shuffle,” a song the Rolling Stones remade in 1986. In the ’60s, when White worked for Bob Keane’s labels Del-Fi, Mustang, and Bronco, he hired Gene Page to do arrangements. During that same period, Page was recruited by Phil Spector to arrange strings for the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” in 1964; he also worked with producer Lou Adler on “California Dreamin’ ” in 1965.
With a name that became synonymous with romance, Barry White’s music was the aural equivalent of wine and roses, Jacuzzis and satin slippers. Combining simplistic soul grooves with lush arrangements, White created his own version of the California-soul style as popularized by Dionne Warwick and the 5th Dimension. Like the cool jazz of West Coast players Chet Baker, Art Pepper, and Gerry Mulligan, this was cool soul created by artists who were as at home with symphonic music as they were with R&B.
Influenced by the walls of sound Phil Spector constructed before losing his mind, the classical records his mom played in their Watts home, and the beauty of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s many Motown jams, White’s version of pop was bigger, Blacker, and sexier than anything that had come before it.
White’s hits include “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up,” “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” and “Your Sweetness Is My Weakness.” In 1974, he did the soundtrack for the underrated blaxploitation feature Together Brothers, which was funkier than his usual albums. Still, he didn’t seem to think highly of the film. “I’m not interested in police chases and guys selling dope on the corner,” he said. “The only reason I did Together Brothers was because 20th Century led me to believe the movie was important to them, but it really wasn’t. The movie didn’t do nothing, but the album went platinum.”
In addition to his own material, White penned and produced hits for offshoot groups Love Unlimited and the Love Unlimited Orchestra. He also produced various artists signed to his Soul Unlimited Productions including the following albums, mostly from 1974: Tom Brock’s I Love You More and More (20th Century), Jay Dee’s Come on in Love (Warner Bros.), Gene Page’s Hot City (Atlantic), Gloria Scott’s What Am I Gonna Do? (Casablanca), and White Heat’s 1975 self-titled debut (RCA).
“None of those acts made any hits,” says former White Heat member Greg Williams, who later cofounded the romantic Motown group Switch alongside keyboardist/vocalist Bobby DeBarge. Via telephone from his home in Los Angeles, Williams chuckles, “I can still see Barry now, walking into the studio wearing Bermuda shorts with his ashy legs.”
Writing about White and Page’s masterful “Love’s Theme,” which became the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s signature song, author Alice Echols notes in Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (Norton, 2010), “White’s single was remarkable for the way it upended the conventional wisdom about the marketing of music, and, like his recent R&B hits, it also underscored a trend in soul music away from the gritty and the raw.”
After years of struggling, Barry White began creating the perfect ’70s soundtracks for assimilation into the mainstream. This was the post-protest music for a new generation of Black folks who didn’t demand the death of whitey, but instead Hustled with his women on integrated dance floors.
In fact, though Barry White hated being labeled a disco artist, his soul symphonies were the strobe-light highlight of any club night in the ’70s. “What made Barry White the perfect Hustle music was that it wasn’t too fast,” says New York City teacher and Hustle champion Bryan Scott, who once danced to White’s music at Leviticus. “Though a lot of dancers liked ‘Love’s Theme’ best, my favorite was ‘You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.’ Although the song still had a pulsating beat, there is still a coolness to it.”
However, by the late ’70s, Black music was going through a technical transformation, and, for he and his contemporaries Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, the reign of seasoned soul men soon ended. Although White signed a multimillion-dollar deal with CBS Records in 1979, releasing the ill-fated album The Message Is Love, the hits simply stopped coming, and it appeared that the maestro had lost his mojo.
In a crazy year that included the suicide of Donny Hathaway, rap music bubbling to the surface in the Bronx, Rod Stewart screeching about being sexy, and newcomers Shalamar zooming up the charts, the sound of young America was once again changing. Certainly, the same was true on the rock side, where surf music had evaporated and Hotel California had burned to the ground.
Yet, being a scamp from the time he was a boy, Barry White refused to stay down. Taking a hiatus from the business for a few years, he traveled around the world and worked in his RISE (Research in Sound Excellence) studio with musical director Jack Perry.
“Barry and I first met in 1969,” Perry told me in 1994 as we stood backstage at the Vorst Nationaal, the venue where White was to perform. “He borrowed a Roberts reel-to-reel two-track to record the demo for Love Unlimited’s ‘Walkin’ in the Rain with the One I Love,’ and I didn’t see him again until 1980.”
Perry helped Barry build RISE, where the first album he recorded was a duet disc with his second wife and former Love Unlimited singer Glodean James. The studio was built in a separate house across from his residence and became Barry’s home away from home from 1981 until 1993, when it was destroyed by an earthquake. One of the last songs recorded there before the earthquake was his 1994 comeback song, “Practice What You Preach.”
Signing with A&M Records in 1987, he released The Right Night & Barry White, which contained the single “Sho’ You Right.” Still, it wasn’t until three years later when White’s old friend Quincy Jones recruited him to be part of a quartet that included El DeBarge, James Ingram, and Al B. Sure to sing on the stellar ballad “The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)” that a real comeback effort was launched. As far as soul fans were concerned, that was when it became obvious that big daddy wasn’t about to be ignored.
During this same period, Barry White began slipping back into our consciousness with television appearances, including a bugged episode of The Simpsons from 1993 called “Whacking Day.” It wasn’t the first time White had been animated, having appeared in Ralph Bakshi’s controversial classic Coonskin (1975) as country-ass Sampson/Brother Bear.
Although White was a self-proclaimed “movie freak,” with beautiful customized screening rooms in his mansion as well as RISE studio, he vowed never to make another film after Coonskin. “Bakshi is an animation genius, the way he mixed real life with the animation,” White said. “I really respect him, but I didn’t like being woken up at three in the morning to shoot something at one in the afternoon. Oliver Stone wanted to cast me in The Doors movie, but I told him, ‘I’m a music person. Give that part to somebody striving to be an actor.’ ”
Not above making fun of his lover-man persona, Barry made a few guest appearances on the Late Night with David Letterman TV show, the funniest being an entire episode titled “Camping with Barry White” in 1983. When Letterman finally interviewed burly Barry, he admitted that his wife Glodean introduced him to the great outdoors. “Where I come from,” White said, referring to the tough South Central, Los Angeles, neighborhood, “we camped on your chest or your doorstep.” Although White was smiling, it was also his way of showing the world the badass behind the velvet jacket.
By the time I soared across the ocean and met the man who taught a generation of men how to talk shit but take it slow below the waist, Barry White achieved a Black pop coup by staging a comeback with his 1994 hit on A&M Records “Practice What You Preach,” which was cowritten by Gerald Levert, who had had success beginning in the ’80s with the R&B group Levert and whose father, Eddie, is a founding member of the O’Jays. Six years before our meeting inside his Four Seasons suite in Philadelphia, I’d seen the Jheri-curled Levert trio (featuring little brother Sean Levert and Marc Gordon) opening a sold-out Bobby Brown concert, new-jack swinging and singing their hits “Casanova” and “Just Coolin’ ” on the stage of Madison Square Garden.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people in the music business dogged me when I said I had written songs for Barry White,” Levert said. “‘Why you want to give them tracks to Barry?’ they said. ‘He’s old!’ We forget that performers like Barry White have given us real music.”
People don’t even understand how gangsta Barry White is.–Snoop Dogg, 1999
Although White relied on Gene Page to write the charts, White communicated with the band musically by “humming it to them or playing the line on a piano.” He adds, “Like I told my mother, to know music isn’t to write it or read it, it’s about feeling it.” And, for the next ten years, Whitney was where Barry White felt it.
In 1999, Barry White released his last disc, Staying Power, which included duets with Chaka Khan and Lisa Stansfield; the album went on win two Grammy Awards. Four years later, on July 4, 2003, White died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was fifty-eight.
Seeing pictures in Jet magazine of his cremation ashes scattered from a yacht off the California coast, I thought about Barry telling me, “Music is sacred always. Music is the most powerful element to human peace, tranquility, heartaches, and heartbreaks. Music has something in it that if you’re up, it can take you higher, and if you’re down, it can take you lower.
“Shit, did she walk out on you? Took all the furniture and left you the toilet paper sitting in the middle of the floor? Get your favorite tune and play that son of a bitch. It will take you down lower than where you are. And through that same song, it’ll bring you back up.” Sho’ you right.