Barry White was the voice of romance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mama couldn't remember precisely.

But she told me once that I may have been conceived to the satin music emanating from a Barry White 8-track. Or was it a Love Unlimited Orchestra LP? Whichever it was, Barry White, the Maestro of Romance at the time, was certainly in the mix somewhere. He had the grooves to heat up the mood, whether it was on his vocal albums or on his instrumental sets with LUO, his band, which had a No. 1 hit in 1974 called "Love's Theme." We're talking about 1977, six years before my parents split, when the love between them still bloomed. Barry White records, according to Mama, were often played in the bedroom. So it's no wonder that my younger sister, Reagan, popped up just a year and five days after I was born.

It's likely that thousands of babies were made between 1973 and 1979 as the symphonic soul sounds and seductive bass vocals of Barry White mingled with the soft scents of candles and incense. The artist - who died Friday at age 58 of kidney failure - was a master at setting the mood. In one of his many classics, 1975's "Love Serenade," the man gives his listeners instructions: "Take it off," he commands as the strings rise and the keyboards cascade. "Take it. All. Off. ... I don't wanna feel no clothes/I don't wanna see no panties/And take off that brassiere, my dear."

Love - making it, giving it, reeling from it - was a serious business for White. He made millions writing lyrics that explored the peaks and valleys of romance. (In 1973-74 alone, he sold $16 million worth of records.) But his frankness never felt crass. It was hard for his lyrics to come off that way - cushioned in jewel-toned crushed-velvet grooves, an inventive sweep of strings, and hot-oil-slick guitar riffs. White didn't have to say a word most of the time. His arrangements, especially the instrumentals and long intros, were aural sex.

The Sultan of Smooth Soul aimed to please, and millions were left satisfied and shining in the afterglow.

White was born in Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 12, 1944. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 6 months old. He grew up in gritty South Central, fighting in gangs and landing in jail at 16 for stealing tires from an auto dealership. As a child, White had learned music from his mother, who played piano. When he wasn't in the streets, he sang in the church choir and local vocal groups. In '65, White made his recording debut under the name Lee Barry. The two singles - "I Don't Need It" and "A Man Ain't Nothin'" - went nowhere. So he settled into producing acts for Mustang and Bronco Records.

By age 27, White was divorced with four children. (He would have four more.) And he was content working behind the scenes. In 1972, he formed a girl group he called Love Unlimited, which included his wife, Glodean James. The trio scored a million seller with "Walkin' in the Rain With the One I Love." The next year, White reluctantly became a singing sensation. He had cut three demos of songs he had intended for another artist. But after his friend and business partner, Larry Nunes, heard the recordings, he convinced White to cut the songs himself. Twentieth Century-Fox Records put out "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby" in '73. And the reaction was immediate. The record introduced White's famous bass-heavy growl and sultry rap: It feels so good/You lying here next to me/You have no idea how it feels/My hands just won't keep still.

Along with the Philly soul productions of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, White's propulsive, lushly orchestrated singles were harbingers to the disco explosion that settled on the world in the mid-'70s.White's hits kept rolling through the decade: "I've Got So Much to Give," "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up," "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe," "You're the First, the Last, My Everything." But the industry was slow to recognize White's artistry, which had been greatly influenced by the hot-buttered soul of Isaac Hayes. In 1974, White was up for the best new artist Grammy, an award that he (rightfully) felt he deserved. After Bette Midler walked away with the gleaming gramophone, White boycotted the ceremonies for years. More than a quarter century later, in 2000, the man finally got his Grammys, for best male R&B; vocal performance and best traditional R&B; vocal performance for 1999's Staying Power and its title cut.

But by that time, White had nothing to prove. He had sold 100 million records. After disco faded in the early '80s and his career dipped, White, in 1994, had come back with The Icon Is Love. He'd recruited Gerald Levert, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and others to update his signature sound. The result was a double-platinum, critically lauded album featuring the No. 1, gold-selling single "Practice What You Preach." Although radio, MTV and BET were rife at the time with gangsta rap and pornographic pop, White's familiar-but-fresh sound was inviting and appreciated. He had even altered his image, pulling his tightly curled conk back into a slick ponytail, throwing out the stiff velvet suits and getting himself some breathable silk.

White was The Don. He was like the quiet, old-school stylish uncle who would step into a family barbecue in a suit, matching hat, shades and alligator shoes so buffed and shined that they gleamed in the sun. Of course, White would be ultra cool, dabbing his brow occasionally with a neatly folded handkerchief. He'd smile and tip his hat at the ladies. He'd slap fives with the fellas and say in that honey-and-grits baritone his signature line, "Sho ya right."

While he was here with us, making music that inspired folks to make babies, White showed us the right way to love: Do it with imagination, with sophistication, and always, always with class.

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