Barry White Survived Gang Life And Prison, Became Love Song Legend
Barry White. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Barry White told us "I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little More, Baby," "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe," and "You're The First, The Last, My Everything." Nicknamed “the walrus of love,” White spoke the language of romance like few other performers and delivered his tender sentiments in a deep soulful voice. He claimed his seductive lyrics were paeans to his wife Glodean, and his lush arrangements made him the epitome of cuddly, soulful love in the '70s. But this king of the bedroom ballad walked a long road to rise to his position, and could have followed the same path as his brother who spent much of his life in prison. Instead, music saved him.
Early Music Exposure
Barry White was born into music. While he was born in Galveston, Texas, he moved to Los Angeles while he was young. His mother, Sadie, was a piano teacher and taught him how to harmonize when he was only four. She sang “Silent Night” and he sang the harmony. However, despite this early exposure to music, he never learned how to read or write music. Despite his inability to read and write music, he was playing the organ and singing with his church and he mastered other instruments as well. By the age of 11, he appeared in his first recording: he played the piano on Jesse Belvin’s hit “Goodnight My Love.”
A Life Of Crime
Two years later, his voice cracked, something that he said was the most devastating thing he ever experienced. However, that voice, a rich bass-baritone, would become one of the distinguishing features of his music.
By 16, White was arrested for stealing tires. He and his younger brother Darryl had teamed up to become a two-man gang, terrorizing his neighborhood. While in jail, he heard Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now Or Never,” and he described listening to it as “an awakening, like somebody hitting me with a baseball bat, right in the face.” Despite his vow of “never again,” he was arrested a few weeks after his release in 1960. The charge was attempted murder. However, he was cleared of the charges once his alleged victim came out of a coma and provided an accurate description of his real attacker.
Life After Jail
White then married his high school sweetheart, Mary, and they had two children. He had a series of jobs to support his family, from selling toys and newspapers, to working on construction sites.
He kept his connection to music, joining groups like the Majestics and the Atlantics, writing songs and singing. He cut six singles with the Upfronts on the Lummetone label and in 1964, played keyboard on Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” and Jackie Lee’s “The Duck” which reached 14 on the charts.
In 1966, Bob Keene (an entrepreneur who ran a variety of labels) hired him as his artists and repertoire man, and within a year, his salary doubled and he had written and produced singles. When he met the arranger Gene Page, who smuggled him into the studio while The Supremes were recording “Forever Came Today,” he listened to them and 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 he met the women that he called “Love Unlimited,” they released the hit “Walkin' In The Rain With the One I Love.”
White Finds His Voice
White had no desire to sing on the recordings, despite the wishes of Larry Nunes (the music mogul who was now financing White). White eventually acquiesced, and after he heard a track of himself singing, decided to sing. In 1973, created the Love Unlimited Orchestra, a 40 piece orchestra to back Love Unlimited. He released his first solo album in 1973, I’ve Got So Much To Give.
The album included the hits “Love’s Theme” with the Love Unlimited Orchestra, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe,” and “You’re the First, the Last, my Everything.” The success of this album and the songs that followed led to his purchase of two houses in the San Fernando Valley. He married the lead singer of Love Unlimited, Glodean James in 1974 and together they had four children. He also had a daughter with Gurtha Allen in 1962; his daughter didn’t find out the identity of her father until 1988. In 1978, he signed an $8 million deal with CBS. But tastes and White’s fortunes also shifted.
In 1983, White’s brother Darryl was murdered shortly after being released from prison where he was serving a 13-year sentence. White was overcome by depression, but managed to make a comeback in the '90s when nostalgia led to several compilations climbing the charts. In 1999, he released his 41st and final album, Staying Power and signed with Island Def Jam Records in 2002, but he never returned to the studio because of failing health. He died at the age of 58 from kidney failure.
He won two Grammy Awards for his final album. Over the course of his career, which included work as a producer, he earned 106 gold records, 41 of which went to platinum.
Tags: Barry White | R&B Music | Soul Music | What Did He Do?...
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