He was a gigantic man with a gigantic voice. He made largeness his calling card. He was the Walrus of Love, the Sultan of Soul, the Buddha of the Bedroom. He couldn’t really sing, sounding more like a horny Orson Welles doused in Brut 33, but oh, how women yearned for his crushed velvet pillow talk, love croons, swoons, and lullabies. He was the sound to get down with, whatever that means to you. I know what it means to me. It means changing into something comfortable like a velour sweat suit and puttin‘ the needle into the groove of a Barry White album.
Ladies, you better fry up some bacon because Barry’s coming over to get his wobble on. And he’s not leaving until after breakfast.
Sadie Carter had tried to be an actress in Hollywood, even appearing in the 1931 movie Trader Horn, but ended up pregnant, unmarried, and raising two sons in South Central Los Angeles. But she was a good mom and devoted to the two boys who were in turn best friends and absolutely devoted to each other. They had to be in a place like Watts. Brought up in a musical household, Barry was taught to harmonize by his Mother. That’s when music came into focus for him. Drawn by the mystery of sound, he stayed glued to the record player when his Mama played her albums, all those symphonies, sonatas, melodies soaring right through him. Darryl loved fighting, but Barry loved violins.
Convinced that music would be his life, Barry left school at the age of fifteen. He was ready to start making millions so he could buy the family’s way out of the ghetto, but first he had to tame his rebellious streak and found himself sitting in jail for seven months for stealing $30,000 worth of tires. Elvis Presley on the radio and the dehumanizing experience of incarceration both affected him deeply. When he finally got out, he made up his mind to be a musician and to never hand his freedom over to anyone else again.
Barry White was eager to make a living in the music industry. Spellbound by the magic of the recording studio, he spent the decade of the 1960’s touring the L.A. clubs and learning his craft as a sound engineer, producer, songwriter, and all-round session musician. He graduated to a job as A&R man for the Mustang label where he searched for new acts, but when the label folded, he went back to the trenches as a songwriter. He enlisted three female backing singers, provided them with material, rehearsed them for two years, and then delivered the finished package to the industry as Love Unlimited. Their hit single Walkin’ In the Rain With the One I Love was a success. A second album featured an instrumental piece called Love’s Theme. DJ’s flipped out over the track and the label issued a single, now credited to The Love Unlimited Orchestra. The song smashed it’s way to Number One on the charts.
He wrote several more songs and shopped his demos around, hoping to find a male singer to perform them, but the deep baritone of his voice sold the tunes. A deal was struck. Barry White, against his better judgment and nervous about taking the microphone himself, would issue a solo album.
Barry’s growling introductions becoming a trademark and provided the blueprint for many of his classic albums to come. He reached the stratosphere with his lead off single Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe. The song became his signature.
During the 1970’s, Barry White was all over the radio. Between Love Unlimited and his own solo career, he released twenty albums during that decade alone, all of which achieved at least Gold status. He was the biggest-selling artist of 1974 and was held responsible for the baby boom in the mid-seventies. There was no mistaking a Barry White song, with all those lush strings and rhythm sections.
“Hello, I’m Barry White. Come into my boudoir for some delicious cake and penis.”
Barry White formed his own label, Unlimited Gold, in 1979, but the tide was turning on him. There was a public backlash at anything with a four count disco beat, and Barry saw the writing on the wall. The business he had built was being sidelined with internal wrangling and politics when he learned that his younger brother Darryl, who never escaped the ghetto, was murdered in a meaningless homicide over two dollars. Devastated, he closed the doors of his company with hardly a murmur from the industry.
Hip-hop, rap, and swing beat was the new flavor. He locked himself in the studio and tried to learn how to program new drum machines and synthesizers. He was used to working with a dozen people. Now, he only had himself, and he was locked into one style of recording. Nearing fifty, he couldn’t shift his mind without losing his soul.
The days of Barry White were over.
During his time away from the limelight, Barry White’s huge influence on music became acknowledged by fellow artists and music critics alike. His talking introductions were the forerunners to Rap. His long play album versions of songs predated the “12” single by several years. His instrumental B-sides became the blueprint to Dub mixes twenty-five years later. His backing tracks were being sampled by everybody.
In 1992 Barry met long-time admirer Lisa Stansfield at the Hammersmith Odeon and performed his classic All Around the World with her on the BBC.
She went on to have another hit with Barry’s Never, Never Gonna Give You Up in 1997 and sang duet with Barry on his last album in 1999, earning the Maestro his only two Grammy awards. In 2003, chronic obesity, hypertension, and diabetes took their toll and Barry White died while awaiting a kidney transplant.
Barry, me and my velour track suit salute you.