White, Barry Eugene

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White, Barry Eugene

(b. 12 September 1944 in Galveston, Texas; d. 4 July 2003 in Los Angeles, California), rhythm and blues singer, songwriter, and producer whose deep, rich voice and soulful songs of love both began and helped define the disco era of the 1970s.

White was born Barry Eugene Carter to Sadie Carter, a onetime film actor, and Melvin White, a machinist. Melvin refused to leave his existing family, but he insisted that his child’s birth certificate bear his surname, causing “White” to replace “Carter.” Six months after White’s birth, Sadie Carter moved to Los Angeles. Melvin White made sporadic visits—even fathering a second son—but rarely provided financial support. Since White was growing up poor and fatherless in gang-ridden South-Central Los Angeles, White’s mother involved him in church activities. She taught him to play piano and organ when he was eight, and within a year his rapid grasp of music allowed him to become church choir assistant director and organist. At age eleven White made his recording debut playing piano on Jesse Blevin’s 1956 R&B hit, “Goodnight My Love.” Then at fourteen his voice deepened, almost unnaturally, into the smooth rumble that millions of fans came to know.

Entering his teenage years, White’s gang activity escalated. He dropped out of school at age fifteen and fathered two children with his young girlfriend, Betty (“Mary”) Smith. Then in the winter of 1959–1960 a string of minor crimes culminated in the theft of $30,000 worth of tires from a Cadillac dealership. White’s subsequent arrest led to five months of incarceration, which he claimed changed his life. While jailed in May 1960 White heard Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never,” and steered himself into a music career. After being released from prison, White found work as a singer and pianist with the Los Angeles R&B group the Upfronts. He shuffled between three local groups throughout the early 1960s and helped arrange Bob and Earl’s hit “The Harlem Shuffle” in 1963.

Following his November 1963 wedding to Smith, White temporarily left the music business and dabbled in various jobs for over a year. In 1965 White arranged songs and unsuccessfully recorded “I Don’t Need It” and “It Ain’t Nothing” with Downey Records under the name Lee Barry. Work later that year on Jackie Lee’s hit song “The Duck” allowed White to tour the East Coast and Deep South. After several emotionally rattling encounters with racial prejudice, he abandoned Jackie Lee’s tour and flew home to his growing family of four children.

Employment in the spring of 1966 as a talent agent with Bob Keane’s Mustang-Bronco Records turned into a director position, where White developed the careers of Viola Willis and Felice Taylor. While at Mustang he established a long and profitable friendship with the financier Larry Nunes. After Nunes pulled Mustang-Bronco’s funding in 1968, the label folded and White spurned a lucrative offer from Motown Records in order to sign a publishing partnership with Schroeder Publishing. While producing Trixie Robertson in 1969, White discovered three black female backup singers whom he felt could be the next Supremes. He called them Love Unlimited and spent the next two years writing material and rehearsing the trio. With Nunes’s money, Love Unlimited recorded the album From a Girl’s Point of View, We Give to You..., and released it in 1972 through Russ Reagan and UNI Records. The group’s debut single, “Walking in the Rain (with the One I Love),” which included White’s voice recorded coming over a telephone, became a hit and sold over one million copies. The album achieved gold status, giving White confidence to record a solo project.

Nunes financed the solo project and finally swayed Reagan and his new studio, Twentieth Century–Fox, to release I’ve Got So Much to Give in 1973. White was an unlikely sex symbol at six feet, four inches tall and nearly three hundred pounds, but as Twentieth Century’s black artist promoter, Jose Wilson, described it, “There’s something about Barry White’s voice. Every woman who hears this album falls in love with it and him.” White’s debut song, “I’m Going to Love You Just a Little More, Baby,” became the first of his six Top Ten solo hits during the decade. That same year White also released Love Unlimited’s follow-up album, Under the Influence of..., which made it to the Top Five on the crossover, mainstream, and pop charts. Undaunted by Reagan’s skepticism over his new genre of orchestra-backed, up-tempo songs, White formed the instrumental group the Love Unlimited Orchestra, whose debut single, “Love’s Theme,” became an international hit and by some accounts ushered in the disco era.

Success continued throughout the 1970s, with the solo hits “Never Going to Give You Up” (1973), “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” (1974), “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” (1974), “What Am I Going to Do with You” (1975), “Let the Music Play” (1976), and “Your Sweetness Is My Weakness” (1978); while Love Unlimited scored a number-one hit in 1974 with, “I Belong to You,” from their third album. White’s private life improved with the financial security provided by his musical success. Following a three-year separation, White divorced his first wife in 1974 and married Love Unlimited’s lead singer, Glodean James. Together, the couple had two children and raised White’s five children from previous relationships before separating in 1988.

Late in the 1970s White’s success faded with disco’s demise. Although the so-called Maestro of Love failed to chart any songs during the 1980s, his career rebounded in the 1990s. His 1991 album, Put Me in Your Mix, reached number two on the R&B charts, and his 1994 album, The Icon Is Love, went double platinum. White made appearances on the television shows The Simpsons and Ally McBeal and was the model for the character Chef on South Park. He also appeared repeatedly on The David Letterman Show, lending his sexy purr to a 1997 anniversary show. In 2000 White finally gained the professional recognition he felt had been due him in the 1970s, when he won Grammy Awards for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for the song “Staying Power.”

In 2001 White’s health failed, as decades of obesity caused chronic high blood pressure. He scaled back his tour schedule in May 2002, while struggling with progressive renal failure, and was later hospitalized for kidney dialysis. White retired from public life in May 2003, following a stroke. Just weeks following the birth of his eighth child by his longtime lover, Catherine Denton, White died of kidney failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at age fifty-eight. His ashes were sprinkled by Glodean James and Catherine Denton into the Pacific Ocean from the yacht Mojo, near Santa Monica, California.

Looking back, White’s fellow R&B legend Isaac Hayes called him “an icon of love” who “gave the fellows something to say to the ladies.” Although White’s success on the international music scene was remarkable, selling over 100 million albums, his continuing musical influence was just as profound. American hip-hop artists sampled White’s work, while British dance clubs played his music well into the new millennium.

White published his autobiography, Love Unlimited: Insights on Life and Love, written with Marc Eliot, in 1999. Articles of interest about White’s life and influence include “Love Unlimited: In Memory of Barry White,” PopMatters (7 July 2003), and “Barry White: The Velvet Voice of Love,” Guardian Weekly (10 July 2003). Obituaries are in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle (both 5 July 2003).

Rusty D. Aton