Grammy-winner's popularity peaked in the 1970s
This article was updated on July 6, 2003.
Velvet-voiced R&B crooner Barry White, whose lush baritone and throbbing musical compositions oozed sex appeal on songs like “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” died Friday. He was 58.
White, who had suffered kidney failure from years of high blood pressure, had been undergoing dialysis and had been hospitalized since a September stroke. He died about 9:30 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said his manager, Ned Shankman.
His canyon-deep, butter-smooth vocals emphasized his songs’ sexually charged verbal foreplay, like on 1975’s “Love Serenade,” which began with White purring: “I want you the way you came into the world, I don’t want to feel no clothes…”
Bearded and overweight, White may not have conformed to the entertainment industry’s idea of a sex symbol, but he knew how to strike a chord with fans. He enjoyed three decades of fame for songs like “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” and “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me.”
His songs told “real stories of love and dealt with sex on an emotional level,” he said in his 1999 memoir, “Love Unlimited: Insights on Life and Love.”
White, a deeply serious man, had a head for business and enjoyed complete artistic control. He embraced civil rights causes and said that meeting Malcolm X was a highlight of his life. He also eschewed religion, telling Reuters in a 1999 interview, “I don’t like stories, things I can’t prove.”
Although his popularity peaked with several disco hits in the 1970s, White’s music was introduced to a new generation by sample-hungry rappers. He received belated recognition for his work in 2000 when he won his first two Grammys, for best male and traditional R&B vocal performance for the song “Staying Power.” White had boycotted the Grammys for a time, frustrated that voters chose Bette Midler over him as best new artist at the 1974 kudocast.
Don Cornelius, founder of the “Soul Train” TV show, remembered White as “a true master.”
“There was no match for Barry White. His music is just going to live forever,” Cornelius said. “It’s not limited to disco or soul or hip-hop or anything.”
Cornelius said White’s lyrics were directed toward his second wife, Glodean James.
“Love was a very important aspect of his life,” Cornelius said. “He had this tremendous love for the lady. He wasn’t just singing for your mate and your bedroom, he was singing and writing for his own bedroom.”
Sam Moore of 1960s soul band Sam and Dave said no one would ever take the place of Barry White.
“He didn’t have to do like the average, jumping all over the stage. He could just stand there with his big orchestra and he could just mesmerize,” Moore said.
When Cornelius visited White in the hospital two months ago, the singer was almost completely incapacitated.
“The man really suffered,” Cornelius said. “At times he was full of tubes. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was an abnormally strong man, he would’ve been gone a long time ago.”
Born in Galveston, Texas, to a single mother, White and his younger brother, Darryl, spent most of their childhood in South Central Los Angeles, where he was exposed to daily gang violence. He burglarized homes, stole cars, drank and fought. He became a father twice while still in his teens.
His lifelong love for music was fostered early in his teens, when he began singing in a Baptist church choir and was quickly promoted to director.
In 1990, White told Ebony magazine that his voice changed overnight from the squeaky tones of a pre-adolescent to the rumbling bass that made him famous.
“It scared me and my mother when I spoke that morning,” he said. “It was totally unexpected. My chest rattled. I mean vibrations. My mother was staring at me, and I was staring at her. The next thing I knew, her straight face broke into a beautiful smile. Tears came down her face and she said, ‘My son’s a man now.’ ”
While serving a five-month jail stint at age 16 for stealing tires, he heard an Elvis Presley song that changed his life and he took the words of “It’s Now or Never” to heart. He said the jail term helped him straighten out his life and dedicate his efforts to music.
White joined the Upfronts soul group as bass singer and cut six singles. For several years, he stayed away from performing and focused on work as a songwriter and producer.
He married a childhood sweetheart, identified only as Mary in his autobiography, and fathered four children with her before they separated in 1969 and later divorced.
White discovered the female trio Love Unlimited — which included his future second wife, James — and produced their million-selling 1972 single “Walkin’ in the Rain With the One I Love.”
The next year, White returned to performing with the song “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby,” which topped the R&B chart and hit No. 3 on the pop chart.
He is credited by some for helping launch the disco phenomenon with his orchestral “Love’s Theme” in 1973, which he conducted with his group, the Love Unlimited Orchestra.
In 1974, his album “Can’t Get Enough” climbed to the top of the pop charts on the strength of the signature hits “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” and “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.”
That year he also married James. The couple had four children together and collaborated on the 1981 album “Barry & Glodean,” which featured the songs “I Want You” and “You’re the Only One for Me.” They divorced in 1988, but he said they always remained good friends.
White suffered a family tragedy in 1983 when his brother, Darryl, was shot and killed in a dispute with a neighbor over change from a $20 bill. In his autobiography, White said music likely spared him a similar fate.
After working on more than a dozen albums in the 1970s, his career waned over the next decade as he attempted small comebacks with the albums “The Right Night & Barry White” (1987) and “The Man Is Back!” (1989).
New generation of fans
He enjoyed a larger resurgence with 1994 album “The Icon Is Love,” and his ballad “Practice What You Preach” became his first No. 1 hit in 17 years. Guest stints on TV’s “The Simpsons” and “Ally McBeal” brought his distinctive voice and songs to the attention of a new generation of younger fans. His songs were regularly featured on “Ally McBeal,” and he made an appearance on the show as himself.
His single “Staying Power,” off a 1999 album of the same name, won White two Grammys and proved he hadn’t tamed his libidinous lyrics. “Put on my favorite dress, the one that oozes sexiness,” he cooed in the title track’s opening lines.
That year White’s chronic blood pressure forced him to cancel several live performances with the group Earth, Wind & Fire, and he was briefly hospitalized.
White’s survivors include eight children, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren and his companion Catherine Denton.
(Reuters News Service contributed to this report.)