Barry White

Singer and sex symbol nicknamed 'the Walrus of Love'

Monday 07 July 2003 00:00 BST

Barry Eugene White, singer, songwriter, producer and arranger: born Galveston, Texas 12 September 1944; twice married (two sons, five daughters); died Los Angeles 4 July 2003.

With songs like "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe" and "You're the First, the Last, My Everything", the singer and composer Barry White bridged the gap between soul and disco and provided a soundtrack for seduction in the Seventies.

Although White could not read or write music, he was a prolific songwriter and producer, who scored hits under his own name, as well as with the vocal trio Love Unlimited and with the Love Unlimited Orchestra. He was known by his musicians as "the Maestro", because of his ability to build lush arrangements and catchy melodies around his insidious grooves. When asked to sum up the perennial appeal of his music, he said: "As long as people are making love, they're going to need a great love song."

The combination of his bass- baritone voice, sensuous instrumentation and his preferred subject matter - love - made White's recordings irresistible to both sexes and despite the bulky frame which inspired his nickname "The Walrus of Love", he became a sex symbol. "People did use my music to make love, they said I was a one-man population explosion," said White. "Women used the music to get their man to relate to them better. Men used the music to get their women in the mood."

Barry White was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1944, but grew up in Los Angeles. His mother Sadie was a piano teacher and noticed that her son showed promise. White recalled:

My mother taught me to harmonise when I was four. She was singing "Silent Night" and I sang the counter-line. That's when music came into focus. Even though Mama taught piano, I never learned to read or write music. Never wanted to fool with scales.

The young Barry White sang and played the organ with his local church choir and mastered various other instruments, and at the age of 11, made his recording début, playing the piano on Jesse Belvin's 1956 doo-wop hit "Goodnight My Love". Two years later, his voice broke:

One day, it just happened. I woke up and spoke to my mother and scared the hell out of both of us. I said good morning, she stopped, I stopped, we looked at each other. It was the most devastating thing I've ever experienced in my entire life.

In partnership with his younger brother Darryl, Barry got into trouble as a teenager. "We were a two-man gang, respected and feared. For years we ran and ruled the streets of our neighbourhood," Barry White said later. At the age of 16, he was sent to jail for seven months for stealing tyres. "In jail, I heard 'It's Now or Never' by Elvis Presley - it was an awakening, like somebody hitting me with a baseball bat right in the face. When I got out, I swore to myself: never again."

Although he was determined to go straight, White was arrested for attempted murder within a few weeks of his release in 1960. However, his alleged victim came out of a coma and gave a proper description of his attacker, thus proving White's innocence.

He married his high school sweetheart, Mary, and they had two children, but times were hard. White took a succession of odd jobs, working on building sites, and selling toys and newspapers to provide for his family. All the while, he kept making music.

I joined groups like the Majestics, the Atlantics. I wrote songs, sang bass, though I never wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be a creator, a producer, an arranger.

White cut six singles with the Upfronts for the Lummetone label. He played keyboards on Bob & Earl's US hit "Harlem Shuffle" in 1964 and "The Duck" by Jackie Lee (aka Earl Nelson of Bob & Earl) which reached No 14 in the States the following year.

In 1966, White was hired by Bob Keene, the Californian entrepreneur who had discovered Ritchie Valens and the Bobby Fuller Four. Keene ran various labels such as Keen, Mustang-Bronco and Del-Fi and White became his A&R man on $40 a week. By the following year, White had produced and written the hit singles "It May Be Winter Outside (But In My Heart It's Spring)" and "I Feel Love Comin' On" for the singer Felice Taylor, and his salary had risen tenfold.

He also discovered the singer Viola Wills and was befriended by the arranger Gene Page, who smuggled White into the studio when he was recording the single "Forever Came Today" with the glamorous Motown vocal trio the Supremes. White was transfixed as he watched the Holland-Dozier-Holland production team at close quarters. He said:

They taught me I could do anything imagination allows. Their use of horns, bass lines, the sweep of their strings, their harmonies . . . They opened the door and left it open for me to walk though.

When, in 1969, he met three girls from San Pedro - Diane Taylor and the sisters Linda and Glodean James - White realised he had found his very own version of the Supremes. "I named them Love Unlimited. In 1972, we put out 'Walkin' In The Rain With the One I Love' and it was a smash on both sides of the Atlantic," recalled White.

The music mogul Larry Nunes was now financing White and attempted to convince the musician to feature his own unique, raspy vocal tones on his recordings. "For months, I wouldn't budge. I didn't want to sing. I was fighting my own destiny," said White. He eventually relented and was taken aback by what he heard on "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More Baby" and "I've Got So Much to Give".

As the producer, I know I'm supposed to be objective, but honestly, when I heard my own voice on these songs, something went through me. The sound was so perfect, it made me sick to my stomach.

In 1972, he signed to Uni Records but the label executives dithered, unsure about issuing an album containing only five tracks.

We had a big fight. They said the songs were too long. Elton John heard a dub of my album. He took it to London and convinced some people that this might be the thing.

This first solo album, I've Got So Much to Give (1973), was a huge success and White began a run of multi-million-selling albums and singles. By 1974, he had become a worldwide phenomenon, topping the American charts with the lavishly produced instrumental "Love's Theme" by Love Unlimited Orchestra and as a solo artist with "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe" and reaching No 1 in Britain with "You're the First, the Last, My Everything".

White bought two huge houses in the San Fernando Valley, married Glodean James, the lead vocalist with Love Unlimited, and the next year released the transatlantic Top Ten single "What Am I Gonna Do With You". It seemed that White had tapped into the sexual psyche of the whole planet. According to the singer,

If there's one thing we can all tune into, it's making love. Everybody does it. I've had guys walk up to me on the street and say: "Barry, I feel like you've been watching me get off." A lot of babies have been named Barry. If there was a Barry boom in '74-'75, I was the one responsible for it.

He had further international success with "Let the Music Play", "You See the Trouble With Me", "Baby, We'd Better Try to Get it Together", "Don't Make Me Wait Too Long" and a cover version of Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are". "It was a beautiful time," White said.

There were Barry White contests in discos everywhere. But like everything else on this planet, fashions fade. I smelled it coming in 1978 when I signed my $8m deal with CBS. I put the money in the bank but inside my heart I felt something was wrong.

Indeed, more sophisticated audiences and clubgoers now preferred Earth, Wind & Fire, Chic or Michael Jackson to White's kitsch arrangements. In the Eighties, he hit rock bottom. In 1983, his younger brother Darryl, who had just been released from jail after a 13-year sentence, was murdered in Los Angeles and White went into a deep depression.

For nine days and nine nights, I didn't move, I didn't speak. I struggled to understand the forces that drove his soul in one direction and mine in another. That struggle continued for the rest of my life.

In 1984, White was due to act as producer for Marvin Gaye, but that April the soul superstar was shot dead by his father. Three years later, White scored his only British Top Twenty single of the decade with "Sho' You Right". He managed to fight off bankrupcy by touring.

But in the Nineties, a wave of nostalgia propelled various Barry White compilations into the charts. He scored hits with the album The Icon Is Love (1994), as well as with the safe sex message of the single "Practice What You Preach" and in his collaborations with Tina Turner ("In Your Wildest Dreams"), Quincy Jones (on "The Secret Garden"), the rapper Big Daddy Kane ("All of Me") and Lisa Stansfield (on a reworking of "All Around The World"). Simply Red covered "It's Only Love", one of White's compositions. Television appearances on Ally McBeal and The Simpsons increased his iconic status and, in 1999, he released his 41st album, Staying Power.

In 2002, White signed a deal with Island Def Jam Music, but recurring health problems, including hypertension and kidney failure, prevented him from going back into the recording studio.

Pierre Perrone

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