Musician, composer, singer...conductor, producer, disco pioneer, cartoon character, master of the love song...if this were the game show Jeopardy the correct response would very likely be "Who is Barry White?" In his time on this earth he was all these things and much more.
"The Maestro", as he became known, was born Barry Eugene Carter in Galveston, Texas on September 4,1944. He learned to play piano at a young age...a very young age...young enough to have played piano on Jesse Belvin's 1956 hit single, "Goodnight My Love" at the age of 12! He grew up, however in South Central, Los Angeles, a high-crime area. Consequently, he was exposed to and participated in gang and criminal activity. This led to his arrest at 17 for stealing $30,000 worth of Cadillac tires and being sentenced to four months in jail. He would later say that hearing Elvis Presley singing "It's Now Or Never" on the radio during his imprisonment was what changed the course of his life. After his release he left the gang life and began singing in local groups.
It was with one of these groups, The Upfronts, that he made his recording debut singing bass background vocals on the moderate local hit "Too Far To Turn Around" in 1960. That bass voice would eventually end up front and center all over the world. In the meantime he would start out working for several independent labels while recording his own solo singles during the 60s. White was hired as an A&R (artists and repetoire) man by Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records (Keane was the man who discovered Ritchie Valens) and worked as producer, arranger and musician for label acts including The Bobby Fuller Four ("I Fought The Law') and Viola Wills. He discovered Felice Taylor and Bob And Earl and arranged their respective releases "I Feel Love Comin' On" and "Harlem Shuffle", both big hits in the U.K. He also (I kid you not) wrote "Doin' The Banana Split" for the children's TV act The Banana Splits.
Now, when an artist reaches the stature of international superstar such as Barry White has, it stands to reason that a big break must have occured somewhere, and in this case it was in 1972 when White began producing Love Unlimited, a female vocal trio he discovered and had been grooming for two years up until their signing with Uni Records. White produced, arranged and mostly composed Love Unlimited's 1972 debut LP, From A Girl's Point Of View We Give To You...Love Unlimited, which became a million seller. The single from the album, a nicely rendered Barry White composition entitled "Walkin' In The Rain With The One I Love", went to #14 in the U.S. pop charts, #6 in the U.S. RnB charts and #12 in the U.K. The song features White's voice as the man who answers the phone call of the female lead voice.
White and Love Unlimited left Uni Records and signed with 20th Century Records from which they produced several other hits, including "I Belong To You" which spent over five months on the RnB charts (one week at #1), and "Under The Influence Of Love" which hit #3 on the U.S. pop charts. White married Love Unlimited's lead singer, Glodean James, on July 4, 1974.
With the intention of working with another act, this time a solo male vocalist, White recorded a handful of demo recordings with his voice hoping to find a singer for them. Record company executive Larry Nunes heard the tracks and insisted that White re-record them for himself. White was hesitant, but after weeks of urging, he finally finished his own debut album, I've Got So Much To Give. This album contained his first hit "I'm Gonna Love Just A Little Bit More, Baby" which went to #1 on the RnB charts and to #3 on the pop charts. The poor man was dragged kicking and screaming into stardom as the song spent several weeks in the Top 40.
Through the 70s, Barry White pretty much lived in the Top 10. He produced seven #1 albums and six #1 singles on the RnB charts. "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up", "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe", "It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me" are but a few of his many classic soul hits. The word "classic" in this case is quite appropriate in that these songs and quite a bit more have become RnB radio staples. The name "Barry White" has in fact become the gold standard in the art of the love song. He also has built a strong following in the U.K., scoring five top 10 hits and a #1 for "You're The First, The Last, My Everything".
Another of White's accomplishments was the creation of the 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra, originally formed as a backing ensemble for the group Love Unlimited, but in 1974 White released an all instrumental album featuring the orchestra titled Rapshody In White. The LP yielded the magnificent composition "Love's Theme" which went to #1 on the Billboard pop charts, one of only a handful of instrumental songs to do so. White made more albums with the orchestra but never achieving the level of success of the first. While ceasing to record in 1983, they still provide live support for White.
He left 20th Century Records in 1979 to start his own label, Unlimited Gold with CBS-Columbia Records. Disco's popularity was winding down by then, and as a result White's subsequent album releases did not continue the success of before. He did however maintain a strong and loyal following internationally for his entire career. No singles managed to chart during this period except 1982's "Change" which went to #12 on the RnB charts. This along with the financial toll of running a label resulted in the label's shutdown in 1983.
He signed with A&M Records in 1987 and released The Right Night And Barry White, the single from which, "Sho' You Right" went to #17 RnB.
He gained more momentum with the 1989 LP The Man Is Back, which contained three top 40 singles.
His comeback began in earnest with his appearance on the 1990 Quincy Jones LP Back On The Block and his contribution, "Secret Garden" which went to #1 RnB. Each album he recorded after that was more successful than the last, returning to the #1 spot with the 1994 album The Icon Is Love with the single "Practice What You Preach". Both the album and single went to #1, the single being his first #1 in twenty years. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award. While he did not win that time, the title track from his final album Staying Power won him two in 1999 for Best RnB and Best Traditional RnB.
I mentioned that Barry White was also a cartoon character, and he certainly was on a couple of episodes of The Simpsons where he appeared as an animated version of himself. He also guest starred on two episodes of Ally Mc Beal, again as himself, non animated. He also performed in a number of duets, most notably with Tina Turner on "In Your Wildest Dreams" and comedian Chris Rock on "Basketball Jones" from the soundtrack of the animated movie Space Jam. Also on his extensive resume' were numerous commercial voice-overs for Arby's Restaurants, Apple Computers, Oldsmobile and others.
Overweight for most of his life, Barry White suffered from various health problems in his later years, mostly stemming from high blood pressure and diabetes. This eventually caused him to retire from public life due to kidney failure in 2002. While undergoing dialysis while awaiting a kidney transplant, he suffered a stroke in May of 2003. On the morning of July 4, 2003, Barry White passed away due to total renal failure at The Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was cremated, his ashes scattered along the California coast by his family.
He was many things in his fifty-nine years, but for most of us he was a legendary craftsman of love songs.