Remembering... Barry White

By Tina Henry,

Barry White’s sexy, soulful deep baritone voice was born in one Barry Eugene Carter, on September 12, 1944 in Galveston, Texas.

White grew up in South Central Los Angeles where he was involved with gangs, and was arrested at 16 for stealing tires from Cadillacs in a car lot. While in jail, he heard Elvis’s “It’s Now or Never,” and the song spoke to him. He decided then and there to point his life in a more positive direction.

Though White never had serious aspirations of becoming a recording artist, he was involved in the music business from a young age. He sang in and eventually led his church’s gospel choir. He played self-taught piano on a Jesse Belvin record at 11 years old. In his later teens, he was a singer, songwriter, arranger and producer for various independent groups and labels, recording his first song at the age of 16 with a group called the Upfronts.

In the mid-1960s, White was hired as a talent scout by Bob Keane, who owned a group of record labels. He did well at discovering and developing talent and made somewhat of a name for himself as a songwriter. White still had a hard time making ends meet, however, as he had married, fathered four children and divorced by the time he was 20 years old.

White’s first taste of the fame that was to come was with a female trio he discovered in 1969, which he named Love Unlimited.

He polished Love Unlimited’s act for two years, developing their style, writing songs for them and providing backup vocals. In 1972, their first album was released which included a song titled “Walking in the Rain with the One I Love” which White had written, inspired by one of the singers, who later became his second wife. The song was a million seller, peaking at No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and gave us our first glimpse of White’s mature, deep voice, as the man on the telephone.

In 1973, White hesitantly agreed to release some of his tunes as a recording artist, after much encouragement from his friend and mentor, Larry Nunes. White could have never envisioned what was to come. He released not one, but two albums that year. His debut album, I’ve Got So Much to Give, and second album release, Stone Gon’, both topped the U.S. R&B charts, were certified gold and both yielded two Top Ten hits. His success reached the U.K. charts as well with the second album, where it also went gold.

During the same time period, White also put together a 40-piece ensemble orchestra he called the Love Unlimited Orchestra, for which he composed, arranged and conducted. They debuted their first single in 1973, the chart topping instrumental “Love’s Theme,” another million seller, which would be one of the few instrumental songs to ever top the charts and which has been credited with playing a large part in the birth of the disco era.

The musical genius of Barry White knew no bounds. Although he never learned to read or write music, composing and arranging came easily to him in his head. White was once quoted by People magazine as saying he had been “born under a sign named blessed.”

White would go on to write, compose, arrange and produce for Love Unlimited and the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and also use them as his backup for his solo work. White made $16 million from his music endeavors in 1973 alone and over $100 million in worldwide sales of his music by the late 1970s.

In 1974, his third album, Can’t Get Enough, again topped the R&B as well as the pop charts, was certified gold in the U.S. and U.K., and produced another two No. 1 R&B singles.

White’s success seemed unstoppable, and it was, for most of the ‘70s. However, as the ‘70s came to an end as well as the popularity of disco, White’s record sales waned, although his live concerts were still performed to sold out crowds. White continued to release albums in the early ‘80s, while trying to understand new, emerging music styles, but sales, in the U.S. at least, remained down. White, mourning the death of his brother to street gang violence, and weary from his work decided to take a break from music. But this was not the last we would hear from Barry White.

By the 1990s, with his updated style and understanding of a new generation’s music, as well as a renewed fan-base for the disco sound, White was making a successful comeback. His 1991 album, Put Me in Your Mix, combined a new electronic sound with his traditional orchestra and White once again reached the top 10 on the R&B singles and album charts. Included on the album was a beautiful duet with Isaac Hayes, titled “Dark and Lovely.”

By 1994, White was on top again. His album, The Icon Is Love, went multi-platinum, reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart and producing the hit single, “Practice What You Preach.”

White’s final album, Staying Power, was released in 1999, and yielded him his first and only two Grammy's of his career for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for the title track.

Although White was enjoying an immense resurrection of his legacy and musical innovations, he had been suffering from chronic hypertension for years. He was hospitalized in the latter part of 2002 due to kidney failure, had a stroke in May of 2003, and died of total renal failure on July 4, 2003 at the age of 58 while awaiting a kidney transplant.

Barry White earned many nicknames during his successful career including “the king of disco,” “the maestro,” “Dr. Love,” “the prince of pillow talk,” “king of the make-out song,” “Dr. Feelgood,” among others, but he was most affectionately known as “the walrus of love,” which took into consideration his immense size. His songs have been credited with aiding in the conception of many a child and some have even been named after him.

White’s selling power was even more immense: 106 gold albums; 41 platinum albums; 20 gold singles; 10 platinum singles -- with total album sales exceeding 100 million. White also worked on several film soundtracks, numerous commercials and appeared on television shows such as David Letterman, Ally McBeal and The Simpsons.

White once told People magazine, “I've got everything. Coming from the ghettos of Los Angeles, I've turned my life from negative to positive. I've lived. I've made my mark. I'm probably the happiest being you'll ever set with in your life.”

In 2001, Barry White was invited by Luciano Pavarotti to perform with him for the eighth annual Pavarotti and Friends charity concert, “Pavarotti & Friends for Afghanistan.” It is hard to image the two, with such differing music styles, performing together, but it actually worked out quite well, both singers giving amazing performances. Though both are now deceased, their legacies will live on for many years to come.

Image courtesy of YouTube

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