There were many elements of the seventies that introduced teenagers to the wild world of sex. Looking back at the period, most men will recall Farrah Fawcett's mega-selling poster, "The Bionic Woman," halter tops, and Marcia Brady. Women fondly remember Shaun Cassidy, Erik Estrada, chokers, and Keith Partridge. Add to this the sexy, soulful, seductive bass voice of Barry White and the picture is complete.
The music of Barry White conjures up many images. His low, sultry voice, combined with lavish production and romantic lyrics provided the perfect accompaniment to any amorous encounter. Simply put, his music was sex. The incessant beat fell into the disco category, but to label it in that manner is unjust. Throbbing, undulating, heartfelt soul music perhaps best describes the recordings of Barry White. An unlikely sex symbol, Barry weighed over 300 pounds, sported a goatee and long, curly hair. His rise from the Watts region of Los Angeles to multi-platinum artist, producer, arranger, and songwriter, seems almost miraculous.
Barry White began life in Galveston, Texas, in 1944. Immediately after his birth, the family moved to the East Side of Los Angeles where Barry spent his youth getting in and out of trouble with his younger brother Darryl. Barry was expelled from high school after hitting a teacher and both siblings served time in juvenile hall for varied crimes such as car theft and robbery. After Barry's first incarceration, he vowed to straighten up his act. It was this pledge that led White to the musical career which followed. From that point on, Barry spent much of his time using his influence to help inner city kids choose a career path and not a life of crime.
Musically, White began playing the piano at the age of five, joining the church choir at eight. His mother taught him to harmonize while Barry listened intently to her record collection. Astonishingly, although he went on to become a masterful musician, Barry never learned how to read music. Everything that would follow came directly from his head, initially dictated to a producer or arranger. At eleven, White played piano for Jesse Belvin on the fifties R&B classic, "Goodnight My Love."
In his teens, Barry sang bass and wrote songs for a series of rhythm and blues groups, including the Upfronts in 1960. During these early dabblings, White realized that music was his ticket out of the ghetto. Although he began as a singer, Barry wanted to be in the background as creator, producer, and arranger, not in the forefront as a recording artist. Dropping out of high school at seventeen, White concentrated on his goal, working for Rampart records as an arranger.
His first taste of success occurred as a songwriter just one year later. "Harlem Shuffle," recorded by Bob and Earl, missed the Top 40 in 1964, but became a sizeable R&B hit. (In 1986, it was a Top 5 hit for the Rolling Stones.) Earl then changed his name to Jackie Lee, and White wrote and arranged his 1965 #14 solo hit, "The Duck." The 1965 race riots in Watts strengthened Barry's commitment to get out of the neighborhood, so he joined Jackie Lee's 1966 tour as arranger, drummer, and tour manager. By this time, Barry was married to his high school sweetheart and had four kids to support.
Following the tour, White joined Bronco records as producer, working his way up to head of Artists and Repertoire before the company folded in 1969. During this period, Barry learned all the facets of the record industry, from the business side to production. While working for the label, he was responsible for hits by Felice Taylor and Viola Wills. Barry also discovered three back-up singers who would change his life. Sisters Linda and Glodean James, along with Diane Taylor, soon became the focus of White's energies and talent.
"I met Love Unlimited in a studio," White remembers. "I was producing a record on a friend of theirs and they were the back-ground singers for her. They asked me would I produce them as a group. I saw that they were serious, that they really wanted to do it and we came together."
White groomed them as Love Unlimited, from 1969 until 1971, when the trio signed with Uni records. The debut single from the group, written and produced by White, became a million seller in 1972. "Walking in the Rain with the One I Love" featured a cameo appearance on the telephone by Barry himself at the end of the record. The thirteen spoken words marked the first time his booming bass voice was heard on vinyl by millions of people. From the very start of the record, with its weather related sound effects and opening monologue, it was obvious that something special was being created. The breathy voices, heavy bass line, and soaring strings became the trademark of White's seventies product.
The Love Unlimited song, inspired by Barry's love for the Supremes and the songwriting/production talents of Motown's Holland/Dozier/Holland, established White as a new force in the record industry. Backed by a roster of twenty musicians (later augmented to forty-one) dubbed the Love Unlimited Orchestra, the girls were a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
As 1972 drew to a close, Barry was working on the debut album for Love Unlimited while recording a few of his songs himself to use as demos for other artists. He went on to become one of the biggest selling solo singers of the seventies. The amazing part is that White never intended for it to happen:
"I never wanted to sing. My career that I was reaching for was writer, composer, arranger, and producer. That's what I always wanted to do. I went into the studio to put down these three songs I wrote, to find a male artist to sing them. I always write the songs, finish them, then I go into the studio and lay them down-make a good cassette on them and then find an artist and teach it to him. But when I came out of the studio on these three songs and sat behind that big console mixer and heard that voice and those songs with just a piano-I knew that the voice for those songs-I was listening to it. That's how 'Barry White' came about."
In 1973, Russ Regan, the president of Uni records, became head of 20th Century records, bringing Love Unlimited and Barry White with him. The line-up was now complete for five future years of gold and platinum albums. White would achieve this feat with three different musical entities: himself, Love Unlimited, and the Love Unlimited Orchestra.
The avalanche of hits began quickly in April of 1973, upon the release of White's first solo single, "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More Baby," which reached #1 on the R&B charts and #3 pop before selling a million copies. The song became the fastest selling single in 20th Century records history. His follow-up, "I've Got so Much to Give" (which was dedicated to Glodean James, whom he married in 1975) made the Top 40 during the summer while "Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up" hit the Top 10 at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Love Unlimited charted with "It May Be Winter Outside (But in My Heart It's Spring)," a song with a long history.
"Paul Politi and I wrote that in 1966," Barry explains. "We first recorded it on an artist by the name of Felice Taylor. We had a Number One record in England. The next time I cut 'It May Be Winter Outside' was on Love Unlimited in 1973. They also had a Number One hit with it in England. So I've had a lot of success with that song."
In addition, the trio's debut album was finally released in 1973, featuring an instrumental track which led into the title number, "Under the Influence of Love." The two songs were often played together by disc jockeys in dance clubs, creating a demand for a release of the prelude tune performed by the Love Unlimited Orchestra. By now a forty-one piece ensemble headed by conductor White, the smooth instrumental "Love's Theme" hit #1 early in 1974. By the end of 1973, White had sold over $16 million worth of records. He was voted Top New Male Vocalist of the year by Billboard. At one point early in 1974, he was represented on the charts simultaneously with all three performing entities.
"At that time, in '74, the girls album was in Billboard's Album 100 at number three," White recalls. "They were the first female artists in history to go to the Top 5 in Billboard's pop album charts. It wasn't the Supremes, it was Love Unlimited. I've always loved music, forget singers. Even with my own tracks and other people's songs that I record, I make a private copy that doesn't have any voice on it. It just has the music. So I've always been instrumentally inclined. [Love Unlimited Orchestra] was my opportunity to create an orchestra of enormous size and play beautiful music, man, and that's what I did! I moved the song from their album to a single. Next thing I knew, the Love Unlimited Orchestra album was sitting right up there with me [he laughs]. It was incredible!"
White continued his string of hits with solo releases like "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe," his only #1 record and "You're the First, the Last, My Everything," which peaked at #2 in 1974. Nineteen seventy-five brought the Top 10 "What Am I Going to Do with You" and "I'll Do for You Anything You Want Me To." Love Unlimited climbed into the Top 40 with "I Belong to You" and the Orchestra hit again with "Satin Soul." By the end of 1975, White had amassed six gold singles and seven gold albums.
Married to Glodean James of Love Unlimited, White moved in 1975 into a new home, complete with a movie theater and production facility, overlooking the San Fernando Valley. He had become one of the record industry's most successful businessmen, running two corporations and a publishing empire. Never forgetting the poverty from which he came, White spent money and time helping various youth organizations throughout Los Angeles.
In 1976, "Let the Music Play," an often overlooked Barry White tune, squeaked into the Top 40. It had all the makings of a huge hit. Unfortunately, Russ Regan, who signed White to 20th Century records, had left to form his own label. Suddenly, the company showed little interest in the artist who had put them on the Top 40 map.
"That song would have been a #1 record, had the record company not [fallen] apart," reveals White. "There were a lot of things happening. 20th Century became so big in three years, there was a lot of internal fighting. If the company could have been more sound, 'Let the Music Play' would have probably been the biggest record of the year. I do it in my shows today. That is my closing song, 'Let the Music Play.'"
Love Unlimited didn't make the singles chart again after "I Belong to You" in 1975. The Orchestra continued to have moderate success, with White using it to record his score to the Dino DeLaurentis version of King Kong in 1977. Also that year, "It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me" became the final Top 10, million selling pop smash for Barry White thus far. It was a sexy song, gently teasing and taunting while a steady beat pulsed throughout. The record was so hot, it was banned at many stations, a fact that did not bother White at all:
"Everyone has to do what they must do. They must run their house the way they want to. 'Ecstasy' was an honest song. I did not write that song as far as credit. I wrote it, but I gave it to the writers as a gift. It's a song that people do when they go out on the dance floor. It's things that they go through when they see somebody they like. It's things they feel when they're with somebody they are interested in. That's what 'Ecstasy' is about. [He sings:] 'When we met, it wasn't quite clear to me, what you had in store was there for only me...'"
Except for his initial chart acts, Barry did not produce any other artists during the seventies, even during the time when his artistry was most in demand.
"I never was the writer/composer/producer who goes around producing a lot of artists," White comments. "I was offered the world. I could have produced every artist in the industry had I been a whore. I made enough money as a writer/composer. I made enough money as a musician and arranger. I made enough money as an artist and a record producer. So I made enough money not to sell my talents that way."
When Star Wars became a huge album release for 20th Century, they relied less on the product coming from Barry. His final chart entry in the seventies, "Oh What a Night for Dancing," stalled at #24 in 1978. After five years and over one hundred million records, White left 20th Century.
Signing with CBS later in 1978, Barry created his own label division, Unlimited Gold. It was during the height of the disco boom and White felt that the multi-platinum times were coming to an end along with the decade.
"From 1972 to 1978, I was on the charts every year," says White. "We made a deal with CBS in '79 and the first album was platinum. Then the industry crashed. That's the way it was. I was there five years."
The entire music industry was riding a huge wave, which surged to a peak during the Saturday Night Fever/Grease period of 1978, then crashed late in 1979 as the anti-disco backlash hit. Sales were down across the board as the eighties began. Barry White released nine albums on his Unlimited Gold label over the next five years, distributed through CBS. Some of the albums were with the Love Unlimited Orchestra, one was a collection of duets with his wife Glodean in 1981. None of them proved successful.
The early half of the eighties turned into a new educational period for White. Innovative technology and ideas created a "new wave" of artists who took over the pop charts.
"It was a new school coming in. You had to stop doing it conventionally and learn how to do it yourself. Computers, computers, computers. In 1985, we made a decision to go back into production. I made a deal with A&M. We had an album out called The Right Night and Barry White. We had a lot of problems with that album because when we signed with them, two weeks later the staff quit."
1989 saw the release of Barry White: The Man is Back, once again on A&M records, which returned him to the R&B charts. White sang a track off of Quincy Jones' album, Back on the Block in 1990, "The Secret Garden." The single became a #1 R&B hit and even made the Top 40 pop charts. White shared vocals on the song with then current hitmakers like James Ingram, Al B. Sure, and El DeBarge. His 1992 Put Me in Your Mix album signaled a return to even more mass acceptance on the charts.
"That was very exciting, man," White exclaims. "We took in yesterday and today and created tomorrow. The knowledge and wisdom of yesterday, the knowledge and wisdom and technology of today, and merged them into an album."
In 1992, White appeared on a BBC television program in England with Lisa Stansfield. Her big debut hit, "All Around the World" was basically a throwback to the seventies/Barry White school of production and style. They re-recorded the song together to release as the B side for Lisa's single, "Time to Make You Mine." The resulting record demonstrates how viable the sound of Barry White remains today and how much he has influenced the current generation.
When asked to chose a favorite solo single from his large catalogue, White responds:
"I love all my charted hits. I love them all. I don't 'like' anything I do, I have to love it to record it. There's a difference between me and other people. Most other people 'like' the work that they do. I love mine."
To Barry White, always the philosopher, the future is something he does not want to predict. Looking back at his impoverished childhood, White continues to use his power and influence today to help the next generation:
"The thrill to me in life is what you don't know is going to happen. That's why it's important that young people are busy thinking about something they can do. We're not taught in America that we should start gearing our children up for things that they want to do at a very early age. We're taught that you go to school and then when you get eighteen and graduate, somebody asks you, 'What are you going to do now, Barry?' and you look at them and say, 'I don't know.' I didn't have anything either. I came from the low poverty area of Los Angeles. I'm talking about Watts. We were on welfare, my mother, my brother, and myself. So I know what not having is. I know what it is to go and graduate school and you don't have a new suit to graduate in. I know what that's like. So, suit don't make you, house don't make you, money don't make you, car don't make you-only you can make you; because you make money, you buy cars, you buy homes. Without you, there is nothing. It's how you look at yourself. It's what you think about you that counts. Not what somebody else thinks about you, it's what you think about you. Because if you don't see yourself as a being, as someone important. someone that can be a serious contribution to society, then you're right. You are nothing. That's what you will be is nothing. Whatever you think it, so are you."
These days, Barry White is very active on the music scene. He continues to tour the globe and would like to become involved with films. He also hints at the possible rebirth of his two Love Unlimited creations from the seventies.
As for a message to his fans: "To all my brothers and sisters, be [they] Black, White, Latino, Asian, whatever color [they are], it doesn't matter. If you are a fan of mine, I love you. If you appreciate my craft enough to spend your hard earned dollars, I love you. I appreciate you appreciating me. With all of my heart, I can't wait to see my fans. That's everybody."
Barry White suffered from hypertension and chronic high blood pressure and was hospitalized for kidney failure in September of 2002. He was undergoing dialysis treatment, but the combination of illnesses proved too much and he died July 4, 2003 at a West Hollywood hospital. Nicknamed "The Maestro" for his multi-faceted career, White has assured himself a place in Top 40 history. For anyone who was in any way sexually active in the seventies, or for those too young to be active but old enough to dream, Barry White was a big part of the decade. The tunes were erotic and honest. You always knew he was singing the joy of love for one special person and what better lyric exists? Although constantly lambasted by critics, Barry's music stands with most of the great soul tunes from the decade. That's a pretty big accomplishment. So the next time you are ready for seduction, leave the black-light poster lit and throw on a Barry White record. It's a proven combination.