Of the many sad losses the soul world has already suffered in 2003 the death, untimely at only 58, of Barry White is undoubtedly the one that will register most strongly with that odd creature, the world at large. From his heyday in the mid-1970s to his recent reincarnation, courtesy of Ally MacBeal, the deep-voiced one has been the most instantly recognisable and most loved representative of unapologetic aural seduction in the music’s history. Talk of the babies conceived “Under the Influence”, his unlikeliness as a sex symbol and that teetering-on-parody delivery will be littering obituary columns and letter pages of the music and national presses, throughout the world, for weeks to come. Quite rightly too; Barry White carved a place for himsrelf in late 20th century popular culture that few can lay claim to. Any snapshot of the ‘70s that does not include that rumbling voice and those trademark orchestral sweeps is less than accurate.
For this small tribute to the man, I will however concentrate on two things. Firstly, his importance to the still uncelebrated history of Californian black music and, secondly, the special place he held in the hearts of English soul fans. And it is Barry White as producer, composer and musician that matters to both fields, rather than the Walrus of Love vocalist, endearing and enduring as he was/is in that role. Those vocal chords (and their vast commercial appeal) have, it seems to me, rather overshadowed his considerable artistic achievements and his wider impact on black musical cultures.
He was born in Galveston, Texas but, shortly afterwards, his parents, along with so many others, headed for Los Angeles. The relationship between Texas and Louisiana migration and the post-war Californian socio-political (and hence musical) landscape is only recently receiving due critical attention but is no less crucial to an understanding of modern popular music than the better known Mississippi-Chicago exodus. White duly became a “first-generation” Watts resident, rapidly encountering the City of Angels’ own variation on African-America’s endlessly Deferred Dream. His reactions, as have been well chronicled, were not untypical. His juvenile brushes with the law and his salvation through music are part of the White legend.
However he was already embroiled in musical history well before his famed conversion, supposedly in custody circa 1960. At the ridiculously young age of 11 he had played piano on the magnificent “Goodnight My Love” by fellow Texan-turned-Angelino, Jesse Belvin. Belvin was a major figure, not only making sophisticated, soulful doo-wop but song-writing for (and generally organising) various aspiring L.A. vocal groups. Belvin’s sound was rich, sentimental, seductive and commercially-oriented but very “black”. If the young White needed a musical role model, here was a remarkably appropriate one.
Belvin’s input was an important element in Californian R&B in the immediate pre-soul era. Sam Cooke’s RCA producers drew something from his inspiration. Also influential was the presence in the city of Capitol Records, built upon the success of Nat King Cole, the marketing of sophistication and some superlative orchestration. The same label’s later, “uptown” settings for jazz-soulman Lou Rawls were, in their turn, equally opinion-forming. All of these artists were surrounded by sumptuous, string-laden trappings. In California, crossover success appeared to mean intricate (and occasionally excessive) studio arrangements. Los Angeles did develop a downtown soul scene, with the likes of Kent Records and Mary Love, and not forgetting the funk of the 103rd Street Band or maverick producers like George Semper.
However only the “big” productions seemed to break out of the ghetto. White was certainly interested in breaking out of the ghetto (in every sense). What he managed to do was come up with his own take on the RCA/Capitol approach. It sounds too cliched to be true, but he managed to retain the funkiness and direct emotional appeal of “street” forms but gave them increasingly lavish musical clothing. White was never cool or sophisticated in that sense—his appeal was direct and straightforward—aimed at heart and hips. But it was dressed in its sunday (or saturday night) best.
To backtrack a little, White’s first Post-Belvin appearance on record was as the 16-year-old bass vocalist for the Upfronts on “Little Girl”, a slice of typical teenage R&B. Yet it was that behind the scenes side of the production of music that increasingly caught White’s imagination. Writing, arranging, producing and even A&R work were to occupy him for the rest of the decade. The first phase of this apprenticeship resulted in his involvement in Bob and Earl’s classic single, “Harlem Shuffle”. Then with Jackie Lee (actually Bob of Bob and Earl) he delivered another dance-floor classic, “The Duck”. These records did well in America but were especially loved by the mods in England and in the post-mod soul movement the name B. White on a 45 became one to check.
In the late ‘60s he worked particularly well with two female singers, Felice Taylor and Viola Wills. Taylor’s “Under the Influence of Love” and “It May Be Winter Outside” were to be the truly portentous sides and the “Barry White” sound really starts with them. In the UK “I Feel Love Coming On” became one of the blueprint records for the Northern Soul scene and sold steadily for years. This period saw White paying great attention to the success of Motown, of whose music he was an ardent devotee and from whose professionalism he learned much. He also encountered Gene Page, an arranger second to none, and met the backing singers who were to become Love Unlimited. One of the members, Glodean James was to be his future wife, and, so the story goes, his muse. It was Glodean’s awareness of the Taylor cuts that cemented, at least, their musical partnership.
By the early ‘70s when the triple onslought of Barry White, Love Unlimited and the Love Unlimited Orchestra burst on the world, the various ingredients were fully ripened and mass impact immediate. In England we were already half-prepared and his status here acquired almost god-like proportions. Single and, unusually for soul acts, album sales were enormous. “I’m Never Gonna Give You Up”, “Love’s” Theme”, “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby”, “Under the Influence” etc. etc. dominated the discotheques, the airwaves and many bedrooms. The time was right. Hugely improved stereo systems, at home and in clubs, were perfect for this multi-directional, many-layered sound. Gamble and Huff had been working on similar lines, Isaac Hayes too was part of the picture but White was something else again.
His particular take on the new orchestral soul included an undying affection for the Motown aesthetic, a genuinely innovative re-working of the love song as sensuous groove (bass and drums foregrounded for mostly mid-tempo tunes, in a way only reggae generally had done) and an eroticism laid on so thickly you could hardly believe it. The lyrics were but one component. Every note, every riff was designed to make you not leap about but sway suggestively and see yourself as both seducer and seduced. Champagne soul, smooth soul—the terms started out as insults—but many people, and women primarily, knew better. An era’s soundtrack was born.
Philly was faster, Hayes more southern, White was mellower, more late night perhaps, but not in a frostily detached way. This was still essentially music to work up a sweat to. It was certainly a big sound, yet one firmly rooted in local R&B and doo-wop sensibilities. The grandeur came from the use of some of the industry’s finest, jazz-trained session-men, who were encouraged to add inventive flourishes and licks as well as provide an almost film-score backdrop to each tale of love or lust. White now gave full vent to his talent for foregrounding sweet-voiced, Motown-influenced female vocalists and the whole thing was co-ordinated in terms of care for over-all texture. That his own tones clicked so perfectly with female listeners was really the icing on a rich and carefully prepared cake.The rest is . . . well, you know the rest. Your existence on this planet may well be one of the results.
The ‘70s were years of absolute commercial glory and much critical derision. Anathema to rock critics even many soul fans found the whole phenomenon too syrupy and formulaic. Yet, the music refused to go away. And it was those rhythms and arrangements that stopped the Maestro being merely a ‘70s museum piece.The London-based ‘80s rare groove scene dug up no bigger tunes than “It’s Ecstacy When You Lay Down Next to Me” or “Playing Your Game” and White’s critical stock duly rose. Still stunning, as samples or in their own right, they can regularly be heard in clubs today. When, at the packed TSOP modern soul gig in Manchester on Friday, the news of White’s death was confirmed, the realisation of how much a part of the UK soul scene he had been fully dawned on us. We left the gig to the sound of those familiar vocal chords closing the night, saddened but grateful for the many memories.
But it’s not just about times past. White’s own career continued and the last few years were again profitable ones. And the old tunes are no longer “oldies” somehow. England’s modern soul fans found less celebrated tracks, like “Move Me No Mountain”, and have turned them into new anthems. In the past year we have been rediscovering what may be Love Unlimited’s finest moment,the utterly charming “If You Want Me, Say It”. Elsewhere, “Strange Games and Things” is so funky an orchestral number that it is now a break-beat classic and for many years served as intro music for the UK’s leading hip-hop Show. Jay-Z discovered the power of White as a producer when he sampled Tom Brock’s essential “I Love You More and More”—long a rare groove favourite. The list goes on. White is re-discovered by clubbers each year, as well as by each generations’ lovers and would-be lovers.
The songs are uncannily fresh. The love and care that went into them has ensured that. Cornball lyrics? Maybe. But always offered with honesty and conviction. “I Love You” or “I want to make love to you”. are often corny things to say. They still need saying though. White said them with exquisite warmth. And if, even once in your life, you were ever on a dancefloor surrounded by a romantically symphonic sound and a deliciously heavy bassline when an equally resonant voice half-sung words like “Deeper and deeper . . . I’m gonna love you just a little more, baby . . .” and the room went crazy, you’ll know that that is as sublime as popular music can get and you will also know why Barry White will always be with us.