The Great Albums

Love is the answer when it comes to Barry White


July 13, 2003


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 day."

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.