Among my all-time favorite
experiences as an interviewer was the day I picked up the phone and heard
the low, rumbling basso profundo of Barry White. "Hey, baby, what's
on your mind?" he purred.
On my mind at the time was "The Icon Is Love," White's 1995 comeback
album. I asked him what the title meant. "That's easy," he said with a deep,
rolling chuckle. "Barry White's icon is love, and love is the icon. What
else can you say?"
What else indeed? The undisputed king of make-out music, who died July 4
at age 58, was a former boxer a.k.a. "the Maestro" (a nickname he earned by
conducting his 40-piece orchestra for the instrumental hit "Love's Theme")
or the "Round Mound of Sound" (so named for more obvious reasons--at his
largest, White tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds).
BARRY WHITE "The
Ultimate Collection" (2000)
The track list:
1. "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More"
2. "I've Got So Much to Give"
3. "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up"
4. "Honey, Please, Can't Ya See"
5. "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe"
6. "Baby Blues"
7. "You're the First, the Last, My Everything"
8. "What Am I Gonna Do With You?"
9. "I'll Do for You Anything You Want Me To"
10. "Let the Music Play"
11. "You See the Trouble With Me"
12. "My Sweet Summer Suite"
13. "Don't Make Me Wait Too Long"
14. "I'm Qualified to Satisfy You"
15. "Midnight and You"
16. "Love's Theme"
17. "It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me"
18. "Oh, What a Night for Dancing"
19. "Playing Your Game, Baby"
20. "Your Sweetness Is My Weakness"
21. "Just the Way You Are"
22. "Love Serenade, Pt. 1-2"
23. "Satin Soul"
24. "It Ain't Love, Babe (Until You Give It Up)"
25. "Love Makin' Music"
26. "Sho' You Right"
27. "Put Me in Your Mix"
28. "Practice What You Preach"
29. "Come On"
30. "Staying Power"
It always seems like cheating a bit to choose a best-of collection as a
"Great Album." But the singer and songwriter's ideal medium was the single,
and during the mid-'70s disco explosion, he racked up an impressive string
of Top 10 hits with his lushly orchestrated seductions.
White was an unlikely sex symbol, turning his colorful sharkskin suits
several shades darker as he mopped his bountiful sweat with an omnipresent
black handkerchief. But as has often been said, there exists a generation
that was conceived to his music.
And this well-chosen 2000 greatest hits set proves that his sound
transcends the era in which it was made, and it still works amazingly well
for kindling the fires of the heart more than a quarter of a century later.
Born in Galveston, Texas, White moved with his family to Los Angeles when
he was still a toddler. Music provided a refuge--his mother (whom he often
called his "first girlfriend") bought him a used upright piano when he was 5
and taught him to harmonize--but the harsh realities of life on the streets
of Watts intruded nonetheless.
His brother was shot to death in an armed robbery, and he almost fell
into a life of crime himself; in his teens, he was arrested for burglarizing
houses and stealing car tires, and he spent four months in a juvenile
prison. When he emerged, he devoted himself to boxing and music, and he used
these passions to fight his way out of the ghetto.
"Hate never came across in me, but most people are not that strong,"
White told me when I asked how he escaped his brother's fate, and what he
thought of hip-hop music that glorified the gangsta lifestyle. "They're
weak, and they succumb to whatever their environment is. But we can't judge
those people. We don't know how much pain their mother or their father or
their next-door neighbor afflicted on them.
"You don't know how children are feeling unless you sit down and talk
with them. I have a different view of rap music than most people, because I
come from that neighborhood where that aggression and anger breeds every
Younger musicians could learn from White's philosophy, and they could
take a cue from his devotion to musical craftsmanship. He graduated from
playing organ and singing in the church choir to the life of a session
musician, and he played whatever style was required of him.
He made his recorded debut with doo-wop acts such as Jesse Belvin, the
Upfronts and the Atlantics; tried his hand at producing a surf band, the
Majestics; did time with the Bobby Fuller Four ("I Fought the Law"), and
even wrote and produced music for Hanna-Barbera's "Banana Splits Show." But
it was with disco that he hit his stride.
White formed the Love Unlimited Orchestra in the early '70s. His initial
recordings with the group featured session singers such as Diana Taylor and
Glodean James (whom he eventually married). But the accolades that greeted
his seductive vocal coda on "Walkin' in the Rain With the One I Love"
("Hello, baby, I'm home/I've got something to tell you--I love you")
inspired him to spend more time behind the microphone.
Most of the tunes that followed adhered to a similar formula. The
elaborate orchestral arrangements merged the sweet sounds of the most
romantic classical music with the soulful, gently kicking grooves of Motown
and Philadelphia International ballads, creating the perfect backdrop for
White's gently cooed come-ons.
"I have my formula of what works in rhythm, chord progressions, violins
and my voice," he told me. "That's Barry White, and that's what I do."
He does it time and time again over the course of the 30 tracks on "The
Ultimate Collection"--from prime-era hits such as "I'm Gonna Love You Just a
Little More Baby," "I've Got So Much Love to Give" and "Never, Never Gonna
Give You Up" (1973), through his last chart-topper in 1999, the aptly named
"Staying Power"--but it never gets tired.
All of these songs are marked by their soothing gentility: Even at his
horniest, Barry was an unparalleled gentleman. A man of seemingly insatiable
appetites, he wanted more (he fathered eight children), and he wanted it
now. But he was never less than smooth, suave and charming in expressing his
needs, and he did it in such a way that the object of his affections knew
she'd be satisfied as well.
"Barry White has always been the symbol of love for every woman because
he says the things they want to hear when they are being romanced," WGCI-AM
DJ Emilie McKendall told a capacity crowd in Grant Park when the Love
Unlimited Orchestra performed at Taste of Chicago in 1995. "He knows all the
right things to say. He's it!"
"I've heard people say that/Too much of anything is not good for you,
baby/But I don't know about that," White rapped that day when he
performed his 1973 hit, "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby." "As
many times as we've loved/We've shared love and made love/It doesn't seem to
me like it's enough."
Granted, there can be something a little bit cheesy about the solemn tone
of his voice when he renders such lines, or when he expresses his
undisguised ardor with an exclamation like, "Can you fe-e-e-e-e-l that? I
want it a-a-a-a-all, baby!" But it does a disservice to parse the lyrics
of White's songs as if they were Shakespearean sonnets.
The emotion and the appeal of White's music is all in the delivery. The
distinctive resonance of that voice may be inimitable for most men, but the
artist still set an example we can follow. If the Round Mound of Sound could
be an irresistible sex symbol based primarily on his bedside manner, there
is hope for us all.
Though White has left us, his music--and that inspiration--will live on.
"I just wanna make my music and hope that people appreciate it," he told me
toward the end of our last conversation.
With that, the Maestro bid farewell and gave his signature blessing.
"Stay cool, baby. Barry White loves ya."
And we loved him as well.
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