One of soul music’s most enduring and impactful figures, Barry White is finally set to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Sept. 12. If the honor feels a bit overdue for a man who died a decade ago and experienced his greatest success at an age when R&B’s current leading men were still in diapers, it’s all on par for a career that was often a few steps ahead of the culture at large.
Little about White’s career adhered to conventional wisdom. As a juvenile delinquent growing up in the Los Angeles community of Watts, White found his ticket into music singing and playing piano in church. Despite being blessed with one of popular music’s most distinctive baritones, he was content to remain behind the scenes as a producer and A&R man for his first decade in the business. Undeterred by his gargantuan figure, he emerged as a highly sexualized star in the age of disco, which worshipped svelte youth and fitness. And he enjoyed some of his most widespread visibility in the 1990s, long after his musical heyday had passed.
A quintessential model for the producer-turned-star, White was also a standard-bearer for urban music’s inclination toward aspirational opulence — a quality reflected in his huge ensemble arrangements, which at one point included an 80-woman orchestra.
Yet White was initially reticent to step into the limelight himself, and sought out a career in more modest environs. After years as a producer and songwriter, during which he developed the careers of Viola Wills and Felice Taylor, White finally hit paydirt with his girl-group Love Unlimited, whose White-penned hit “Walking in the Rain With the One I Love” broached the top 20 of the singles chart, with a subsequent LP going platinum.
Hoping to replicate Love Unlimited’s success with a male artist, White recorded a series of demos featuring his own voice, which attracted the attention of his label boss Larry Nunez, who urged White to record them under his own name. White blanched at the suggestion, yet eventually came around to embracing his own peculiar instrument.
“Barry White is a carrier, he has a sound,” White said of his singing voice back in 1979. “But no, he isn’t a singer. Maybe he’s a phraser, (in that) he can take a melody and a message and deliver it. Instead of a voice, he has a way of delivering it.”
White’s commercial heyday saw him notch six No. 1 R&B singles, and he has sold more than 100 million records. Despite a sales drop-off in the 1980s, he finally attained lasting commercial longevity when his music was rediscovered by music supervisors in the 1990s and beyond. Though he only scored one film — 1974’s “Together Brothers” — White’s music graced literally hundreds of features and TV series, most recently making an appearance in “Despicable Me 2,” while his voice was something of a recurring character in Fox skein “Ally McBeal.”
“I look at (my music) more as a scoring sound, like movies,” White said in a 1995 interview. “I try to tell a story musically in a song.”