Aesthetically Speaking

Barry White (1945-2003): One of the “baddest” singers America ever saw

Barry White, one of the baddest innovators popular American music ever saw, truly was a cultural icon. He was as much a fact of African American life as soul music itself. When you draw a short list… Barry White, one of the baddest innovators popular American music ever saw, truly was a cultural icon. He was as much a fact of African American life as soul music itself. When you draw a short list of history’s most important male R&B vocalists, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Barry White all have to be in that number.

White put in his time in the trenches. After an early background of singing and directing a Baptist church choir in Los Angeles, coming up the ranks, he cut his teeth, during the 1950s, on the area music scene, playing piano on Jesse Belvin’s classic “Goodnight My Love” at the age of 11. He made several records in the early 60s under his given name Barry Lee and as a member of the Upfronts, the Atlantics and the Majestics. At length, his determination proved fruitful. White preceded Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, as a chart-topping performer-songwriter-producer. He incontestably reigned, first as a solo artist and, soon thereafter, as the at-the-control-board genius who created and captured The Love Unlimited Orchestra’s signature sound which saw band member saxophonist Kenny G on to fame. White’s varied ventures chalked up literally scores of platinum and gold records, selling more than $100 million worth of records and CDs worldwide during his stellar career of just about three decades. Breaking it down, he cut 106 gold and 41 platinum albums, 20 gold and 10 platinum singles. Not bad at all for a self-taught pianist from Galveston, Texas who never read or wrote a note. His mother sat him down at the piano and, growing up in South Los Angeles, he simply applied himself and, over the course of time, took it from there. In an Entertainment Television (NBC) interview, he succinctly stated, “I do it by feeling”, No lie. To so much as listen to Barry White was to feel him. His music coupled evocative chord figures with double-entendre lyrics delivered by way of singularly seductive vocalise, a velvet baritone deep enough to drown in. White made such magic that drove women mad and drew other men’s envying admiration.

Think back to what happened to you in that moment when you first heard him entreat, “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” or listened to him profess, “Can’t Get Enough Of your Love, Babe”. His words were wizened innuendo. His message was about touching and being touching. His sound immediately got you in the proverbial “mood”: if Brother Barry couldn’t help you connect with the opposite sex when the lights were turned down low, you probably were a promising candidate for the nearest monastery or convent. Today’s purveyors of lewd lyrics would do well to heed his example of insinuated intimacy.

His success, regrettably, was turned into a two-edged sword. White’s lush orchestrations spurred the advent of disco, a dance-floor genre the industry quickly capitalized on to market as aural pabulum. Once the disco hey-day ran its course and was done, unfortunately so was White to an extent. Those who appreciated his abilities and remained faithful to this ingenious performer were relatively minimal. It took a Quincy Jones-produced collaboration, the hit single “Secret Garden” with White joined by El DeBarge, James Ingram and Al B. Sure to resuscitate the great man’s career in the mid 80s. At that, he still had to wait until 2000 to be recognized by the Grammy's. He won awards that year for best male and traditional R&B vocal performances for the song “Staying Power”.

White, who had been in ill health since an August 1999 hospital say for high blood pressure, suffered a stroke on May 1 that affected his speech and the right side of his body. Undergoing dialysis and hospitalized since last September, he needed to be stabilized before he could undergo a kidney transplant operation. He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles

July 21, 2003
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