As the United States Of America were to celebrate Independence Day back in 2003, the American dream would get to a dramatic end for one of their children – Barry White – beaten by the sickness in a California Hospital. A singer, but also a producer whose style had sometimes been approached without ever finding its equivalent (cf. Johnny Bristol and, more recently, Cunnie Williams.) A character whose glamorous side would reach its peak during the Disco era. But if Barry White reached the status that was his, building his reputation from a repertoire that would always have something to do with that thing called love, it soon became a sort of antidote protecting him from going back to the gangsterism he happened to flirt with during his early years…
1994. My first ever conversation with the one many people used to call Big Bazza in the UK. 20 years + have gone since, and I remember this as if it was yesterday. That was by the end of a pouring autumn afternoon like so many around at this period of the year in Paris, while on my way to a luxury suite at some hotel around the Champs-Elysées.
The temptation to meet this sacred monster of Soul was nevertheless way stronger than the current problems I was facing with the publisher of the mag I was writing for at the time (the defunct Black News) for which I was supposed to deliver the fruit of this conversation, that would up being published many years after as a part of a special Disco Issue for French publication, Coda.
I remember my excitation getting bigger while on my way to the place where I was awaited by Mr Barry White, having in mind all these standards I came to discover while being a teenager… Be they on his own (‘My First, My Last, My Everything’, ‘Your Sweetness’, ‘Never Never Gonna Give You Up’, ‘Let The Music Play’…) or as a producer for Love Unlimited Orchestra. Then, all of a sudden, the door leading to the apartment where he’d got his local HQ opened itself on him, facing me the way I imagined, dressed in a black satin costume. His U-Nique baritone voice getting another dimension in the weakly lighted room where we would have our conversation. He welcomed me, surrounding me with a big hug. I remember I was shaking all over…
“You may have an instrumental hit, I doubt you would do it as easily with lyrics only! I may go back any time to my repertoire, select any song and rearrange it. Some people come to me in order to ask me the authorization to use or sample some of my songs. No prob. I would cut them the way it had to be before giving them for use. I’m living a constant relation with my music.”
Born in Galveston, Texas in 1944 before migrating to California, Barry White has fairly met these interrogations that (still) surround many Afro-American people as time comes to make a choice for living and preferably as decent as possible. Reality is not necessarily what we would think of when having a black skin in the South… There, the opportunities are far more limited, leaving you choosing between sports, music or, to a wider extend, army, when not gangsterism… Barry could pretty well have become one of those bad boys, eventually spending a few days in jail, but music saved him while being taught how to sing and play piano, before making his classes as a member of a college band called the Upfronts. He then would start his official career as an arranger for Bob & Earl, prior meeting Gene Page who himself had arranged the classic “Harlem Shuffle” for the aforementioned. He then would become A&R director for Bronco Records by the mid-sixties where he produced Viola Vills and Felice Taylor before giving birth to the famous Love Unlimited Orchestra band. “I’ve started doing albums in 1972 (with the latter). Then the year after, as a solo artist, I got signed on 20th Century Records”, being literally obsessed by everything regarding women and all those themes related to the question of love. Because, it’s the thing that conditions our existence as human beings. A lot of us would tend to do as if love didn’t exist, forgetting that it is the foundation of every civilization…”
As a matter of fact a Barry White production was instantly recognizable among thousand of others, being one of the very first to point out the necessity of having an own sound (if not a formula), soon followed by a bunch of people including Earth, Wind & Fire‘s producer Maurice White (no family relations), Chic, Jam & Lewis and the likes, not to mention Masters At Work…“Coz’ not having that personal touch doesn’t allow you to be recognized, being for much on all these soundalike stuff today. Many are those who’ve scored hits so far, but they may have got only one or two and no more. And most of the time, they were lucky enough, as they didn’t have any personal formula.” When asked what is the most important between music and lyrics, our man’s answer is as direct as the previous ones… “No hesitation, music coz’ it’s what comes first. You may have an instrumental hit, I doubt you would do it as easily with lyrics only! I may go back any time to my repertoire, select any song and rearrange it. Some people come to me in order to ask me the authorization to use or sample some of my songs. No prob. I would cut them the way it had to be before giving them for use. I’m living a constant relation with my music.”
When asked about his heroes, he stated he didn’t have any in the music field. “I’ve never searched to be like anyone and I always knew I would have some time to become who I am… A legend, a hero… an icon. Let the music play!