A two-time Grammy Award-winner known for his distinctive bass voice and romantic image, White’s greatest success came in the 1970s as a solo singer and with the Love Unlimited Orchestra, crafting many enduring soul, funk, and disco songs such as his two biggest hits, “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” and “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.”
Worldwide, White had many gold and platinum albums and singles, with combined sales of over 100 million, according to critics Ed Hogan and Wade Kergan. His influences include southern soul artists like Isaac Hayes, Clarence Carter, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin plus Motown artists The Supremes, The Four Tops and Marvin Gaye. Along with Isaac Hayes, White is considered by Allmusic.com as the first singer who played disco music before the actual period of the late 1970s.
Barry White was born Barry Eugene Carter in Galveston, Texas, and grew up in the high-crime areas of South Central Los Angeles. White was the elder of two brothers; his brother Darryl is 13 months younger. He grew up listening to his mother’s classical music collection, and first took to the piano emulating what he heard on the records. His introduction to music later led to him playing piano on Jesse Belvin‘s hit single, “Goodnight My Love.”
White recalled that, “[As a child] I had a normal squeaky kid voice. Then as a teenager, that completely changed. My mother cried because she knew her baby boy had become a man.”
Gang life and jail sentence
After his release from jail, he left gang life and began a musical career at the dawn of the 1960s in singing groups before going out on his own in the middle of the decade.
The marginal success he had to that point was as a songwriter. His songs were recorded by rock singer Bobby Fuller and TV bubblegum act The Banana Splits. He was also responsible in 1963 for arranging “Harlem Shuffle” for Bob & Earl, which became a hit in the UK in 1969. He discovered disco artists, Viola Wills and Felice Taylor in 1965 and signed them to Mustang/Bronco Records, for which he was working as A&R manager for Bob Keane.
The 1970s as producer
In 1972, he got his big break producing a girl group he had discovered called Love Unlimited. Formed in imitative style of the Motown girl group The Supremes, the group members had gradually honed their talents with White for two years previously until they signed contracts with Uni Records. His best friend, music industry businessman Larry Nunes, helped to finance their album. After it was recorded, Nunes took the recording to Russ Regan, who was the head of the Uni label owned by MCA. The album, 1972’s From A Girl’s Point of View We Give to You… Love Unlimited became a million album seller.
White produced, wrote and arranged their classic soul ballad, “Walking In The Rain With The One I Love“, which climbed to #14 in the Billboard Hot 100 Pop chart and #6 on the Billboard R&B chart in late 1972. This single also reached #12 in the UK chart. White’s voice can clearly be heard debuting in this piece as he plays the lover who answers the phone call of the female lead.
Soon after, Regan left Uni for 20th Century Records. Without Regan, White’s relationship with Uni soured. With his relationship with Uni over and Love Unlimited contract-bound with the label, White was able to switch both his production deal and the group to 20th Century Records. (They recorded several other hits throughout the 1970s, including “I Belong To You,” which spent over five months on the Billboard R&B chart in 1974 including a week at #1. White also married the lead singer of the group, Glodean James, on July 4, 1974.)
The 1970s as solo artist
White wanted to work with another act but decided to work with a solo male artist. While working on a few demos for a male singer, he made three song demos of himself singing and playing, but Nunes heard them and insisted that he re-record and release them himself as a solo recording artist. After arguing for days about it, White was finally persuaded to release the songs himself although he was initially reluctant to step out in front of the microphone.
He then wrote several other songs and recorded them for what eventually became an entire album of music. He was going to use the name “White Heat,” but decided on using his given name instead. White was still hesitating up to the time the label copy was made. It eventually became the first solo White album, 1973’s “I’ve Got So Much to Give“. It included the title track and his first solo chart hit, “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby“, which also rose to #1 on the Billboard R&B charts as well as #3 on the Billboard Pop charts in 1973 and stayed in the top 40 for many weeks.
Other chart hits by White included “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up” (#2 R&B, #7 Pop in 1973), “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” (# 1 Pop and R&B in 1974), “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” (#1 R&B, #2 Pop in 1974), “What Am I Gonna Do with You” (#1 R&B, #8 Pop in 1975), “Let the Music Play” (#4 R&B in 1976), “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me” (#1 R&B, #4 Pop in 1977) and “Your Sweetness is My Weakness” (#2 R&B in 1978). White also had a strong following in the United Kingdom where he scored five Top 10 hits and one number 1 for “You’re The First.” His popularity as a singer of love songs, coupled with his large size, led to him acquiring the affectionate nickname “The Walrus of Love”.
The Love Unlimited Orchestra
In 1972 White created The Love Unlimited Orchestra, a 40-piece orchestral group to be used originally as a backing band for the girl-group Love Unlimited. However, White had other plans, and in 1974 he released an album of their music titled Rhapsody in White, yielding the composition “Love’s Theme“, reaching #1 on the Billboard Pop charts. It was one of only a handful of instrumental recordings ever to do so.
White is sometimes credited with ushering in the “disco” sound, seamlessly combining R&B music with classical music. Some also regard “Love’s Theme” as the first hit in the actual “disco era“, but Nino Tempo and 5th Ave. Sax‘s song “Sister James” had already reached the Billboard Hot 100 a few months before and had a disco sound in its own right.
He would continue to make albums with the Orchestra, but never achieved the same kind of success with his debut album. The Orchestra ceased to make albums in 1983, but continued to support White as a backing band.
After six years White left 20th Century in 1979 to launch his own label, Unlimited Gold, with CBS/Columbia Records. Although White’s success on the pop charts slowed down as the disco era came to an end, he maintained a loyal following throughout his career. Despite several albums over the next three years he failed to repeat his earlier successes, with no singles managing to reach the Billboard Hot 100 except for 1982’s “Change,” climbing into the Billboard R&B Top 20 (#12). His label venture was exacting a heavy financial cost on White, so he concentrated on mostly touring and finally folded his label in 1983.
In 1989 he released The Man Is Back! and with it had three top 40 singles on the Billboard R&B charts: “Super Lover“, which made it to #34, “I Wanna Do It Good to Ya“, which made it to #26, and “When Will I See You Again“, which made it to #32.
A 1970s nostalgia fad allowed Barry White to enjoy a renewed wave of popularity in the 1990s. After White took part in a Quincy Jones record titled Back on the Block, on the song titled “The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)”, which topped the R&B chart in 1990, he mounted an effective comeback with several albums, each one more successful than the last. He returned to the top of the charts in 1991 with the album Put Me in Your Mix, which reached #8 on the Billboard R&B Albums chart and the song by the same name reached #2 on the Billboard R&B singles chart.
In 1994 he released the album The Icon Is Love which went to #1 on the Billboard R&B album charts, and the single “Practice What You Preach” gave him his first #1 on the Billboard R&B singles chart in almost 20 years, and was nominated for a Grammy in the Best R&B Album category (it lost to TLC’s CrazySexyCool).
In 1996, White recorded the duet “In Your Wildest Dreams” with Tina Turner. 1996 also saw the release of Space Jam and its soundtrack, on which White had a duet with Chris Rock, called “Basketball Jones,” a remake of Cheech & Chong‘s “Basketball Jones” from 1974.
His final album, 1999’s Staying Power, resulted in his last hit song “Staying Power,” which placed #45 on the Billboard R&B charts. The single won him his only two Grammy Awards in the categories Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.
Over the course of his career, White sometimes did voice-over work for TV and movies. He voiced the character Bear in the 1975 film Coonskin and also played the character Sampson in the movie’s live-action segments.
He appeared as himself in a couple episodes of The Simpsons, and most importantly the episode “Whacking Day” in which Bart and Lisa used his famously deep bass singing voice, played through loudspeakers placed on the ground, to lull and attract snakes. White was a fan of the show, and had reportedly contacted the staff about wanting to make a guest appearance.
He played the role of a bus driver for a Prodigy commercial in 1995, and he also portrayed the voice of a rabbit in a Good Seasons salad dressing mix commercial, singing a song called “You Can’t Bottle Love.”
He also provided voice over for Arby’s Restaurant commercials on TV and Radio to promote their ‘Market Fresh’ menu.
He made two guest appearances on the comedy-drama TV series Ally McBeal, as his music was often featured on the show in dream sequences.
Illness and death
White, who had been clinically obese for much of his adult life, suffered kidney failure in the fall of 2002 as a result of chronic high blood pressure. He suffered a stroke in May 2003, after which he was forced to retire from public life. On July 4, 2003, he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after suffering from total renal failure. His remains were cremated, and the ashes were scattered by his family off the California coast. His last words were,”Leave me alone, I’m fine”.