How much is too much? Sex and seduction can be a difficult issue in music. In the 70s, not many artists could get away with being explicit about sex. Donna Summer; reggae singer Max Romeo, on occasion; Marvin Gaye on the likes of ʻYou Sure Love To Ball’, but they walked a thin line between taste and ridiculousness. Romeo took to denying that his jokey 1969 hit ʻWet Dream’ was about sex. Donna Summer abandoned the abandonment that made ʻLove To Love You Baby’ her breakthrough hit. And Marvin only got away with his sexy stuff because he was a handsome musical genius who could do what he liked. Barry White’s romantic soul, however, came from a different place entirely.
When you are a guy who is not conventionally handsome, not given to joking about intimacy, whose musical ability remains unknown to the public, and who is actually quite reserved and not remotely desperate for fame, how do you become the lord of bedroom soul? When you are, to use a sporting term, a big unit, yet highly romantic and sincerely passionate, how do you convince an audience to take you seriously as creator of sultry grooves to fuel the population boom?
The answer is: you stay dignified. You make damn fine soul music. And you express your vulnerability in song. Look at me, you say. I am a big, strong fella, but my desire for you has brought me to my knees. This is a feeling any lover could understand. This is a message to make female fans swoon. This is the magic of the truly great Barry White, the most underrated of all of the icons of African-American music.
Love coming on
Barry White may have been a lover, but he was also a fighter. Born on 12 September 1944, he grew up on the streets of South Central Los Angeles, and while he could play the piano and sing from a young age, Barry’s teenage years were marked by crime and violence. His beloved elder brother was murdered, and Barry was jailed at the age of 16, for theft.
In prison, he heard Elvis Presley singing ʻIt’s Now Or Never’ on the radio. The song affected the young Barry deeply and he resolved to use his musical talent to escape the thug life. His dream was to become a backroom maestro, though he cut a sprinkling of solo singles through the 60s, revealing his Elvis influence in a fierce funky 1970 version of ʻIn The Ghetto’.
In the second half of the 60s, Barry White scored some success as a writer-producer for Felice Taylor (ʻIt May Be Winter Outside (But In My Heart It’s Spring)’, ʻI Feel Love Comin’ On’) and Viola Wills (ʻI Got Love’), and caught a lucrative break when one of his songs was chosen for The Banana Splits’ kids’ TV show in 1968. In 1970 he began working with a girl group, Love Unlimited. Two years later, their symphonic ʻWalkin’ In The Rain With The One I Love’ was the first of their eight years of chart entries overseen and written by Barry. Meanwhile, their producer cut demos of songs intended for a male artist, but when his manager heard them, he insisted that Barry record them himself. The backroom boffin was reluctant, preferring life behind the scenes, but he eventually agreed. This capitulation would change music history.
So much to give
You could feel the need in every note of Barry White’s debut hit, ʻI’m Gonna Love You A Little More Baby’. Released in April 1973, it was a love machine, mixing the symphonic soul Isaac Hayes had hit with, a touch of Motown lushness, and the rising disco groove which had yet to be named. The song made No.3 US pop and No.1 on the R&B charts.
Committing himself to a move out front had made Barry White a star. ʻI’ve Got So Much To Give’, his second hit, became the title of his first album, which went Top 20 pop and hit No.1 on the album chart. Barry’s second album, Stone Gon’, appeared that same year, emulating the performance of his first. It was a tour-de-force, finding Barry, surrounded by crack Los Angeles session stars and a shimmering, dramatic orchestra, delivering two hits, ʻHoney Please, Can’t You See’ and ʻNever, Never Gonna Give You Up’.
Barry’s emphatic vocal style, presenting him as a man driven to the edge by passion, rode a throbbing, erotic pulse thanks to the groaningly funky rhythm section and sudden string swoops like a rush of adrenaline. Some record buyers were nonplussed – can this massive man really be a love god? – but fans totally got it. Barry revealed just how much emotion and intimacy really mattered to some guys. The same year, The Love Unlimited Orchestra scored a US No.1 with ‘Love’s Theme’, an instrumental that became part of a lasting side-project for Barry and which helped shape the sound of disco.
Sex and symphony
White’s third album, 1974’s Can’t Get Enough, was a US No.1 and brought two big hits, ʻCan’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe’ and ʻYou’re The First, The Last, My Everything’. There was something ironic in the album’s title, however, as other artists were picking up on his formula. Bobby Wilson’s 1975 single ʻDeeper And Deeper’ owed plenty to Barry’s mix of sex and symphony; Motown production legend Johnny Bristol charted twice in 1974 with songs that followed Barry’s template, ʻHang On In There Baby’ and ʻMemories Don’t Leave Like People Do’. But nobody had the Barry White voice: deep, dark, dripping with desire. Even when he talked through verses, Barry represented unashamed, deeply soulful sensuality.
After four US No 1 R&B albums, things slipped slightly with 1976’s Let The Music Play, but the title track was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and ʻYou See The Trouble With Me’ made UK No.2. His second album of the year, Is This Whatcha Wont?, didn’t sell so well, its more explicit sexual imagery (ʻYour Love Is So Good, I Can Taste It’) perhaps killing Barry’s romantic side somewhat. But he was back at his peak with 1977’s Sings For Someone You Love, which, unusually, was mostly penned by other composers. ʻIt’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me’ was a smash in the US, and the album’s second single, the bare-boned thriller ʻPlaying Your Game, Baby’, was as good as anything he ever did. The Man, his 1978 album, was another gem.
Back in the mix
Barry’s 80s were initially lean. He was disappointed that his duets album, Barry And Glodean, recorded with his talented wife, Glodean James of Love Unlimited, was not bigger. His albums were still R&B hits but didn’t break the US pop listings after 1980’s Sheet Music.
A three-year break ended with Barry signing to A&M. Chart-wise, Barry’s records did not perform much better at first, but deft marketing lifted his considerable profile. While he never sold his loyal fans short by mocking himself, he did play on his unlikely love-god status a little, as the title of The Right Night And Barry White hinted. Pop hits remained evasive until 1994’s ʻPractice What You Preach’, but his R&B positions were highly respectable, and 1991’s ʻPut Me In Your Mix’ made No.2.
The era’s stars paid tribute to this elder statesman of silk’n’soul. Barry worked with modern R&B hitmaker Gerald Levert, Simply Red covered his ʻIt’s Only Love Doing It’s Thing’ (from The Man), Lisa Stansfield swore she’s ʻNever, Never Gonna Give You Up’, and rapper Big Daddy Kane, always a fan, invited Barry to guest on ʻAll Of Me’ in 1991.
Love Unlimited grooves produced and written by Barry were sampled heavily, and records he produced for his arranger Gene Page, and for Jay Dee (actually Earl Nelson of ʻHarlem Shuffle’ fame), Tom Brock, Gloria Scott and The Love Unlimited Orchestra, et al, were all excavated by beat miners. These glorious records had been cut while Barry’s own career was at its peak: this man had soul and funk pouring out of him.
His gigs were celebrations of a kind of passion that had fallen from fashion, but when it returned to favour only Barry could deliver it. Barry made his final album, Staying Power, in 1999. The title track was an R&B hit and won two Grammy awards. He passed away in 2003, leaving his music and love unlimited to remember him by.
There will never, never, be another quite like him.
Looking for more? Discover the best Barry White songs.