“I cut the music I love to record. I do it whether it’s a hit or not. It’s the love for the music I’m into.”
June 1 (or 2), 1995
By phone from the Tutwiler Hotel, Birmingham, Alabama
Oh. My. God. That voice. Barry White is the kind of person you want to talk to just to hear that voice. And there it was, coming through my headset in all its deep, sonorous, honeyed glory.
Of course there was another, even better reason for me to want to talk to Barry White: his music. He had created a sub-genre all his own out of his basso profundo vocals, orchestral arrangements, r&b rhythms and l-o-v-e.
We spoke the day before (or perhaps the day of) the opening of his 1995 summer tour in Birmingham. White, 50, was touring on the strong showing of 1994’s “The Icon Is Love,” his best album since the late ‘70s. It featured production assistance from the likes of Gerald Levert, Chuckii Booker and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and yielded a No. 1 r&b hit, “Practice What You Preach.” He would release one more album, 1999’s “Staying Power,” before his death in 2003 at age 58 from a combination of hypertension and kidney failure.
White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra played Boston on June 9, 1995 at what was then known as Harborlights Pavilion.
Is it a different feeling going on tour following the release of an album that’s a big success?
Yes, there’s much more excitement. That’s always nice.
How many pieces are in the Love Unlimited Orchestra?
When you were done recording “The Icon Is Love,” did you have a feeling that this record was going to click where the last few didn’t?
You never know. At least I don’t. I never know which one is clicking and which one isn’t. You go with what feels good to you and the rest is up to radio, the people, everybody.
It’s no secret that you stopped selling records in the ‘80s the way you did in the ‘70s. Did it get to the point that you were just throwing your music out there without any particular expectations?
No, I’ve always been that way. I’ve never had expectations about none of them. You know what you like, but that doesn’t mean everybody else is going to like it. I wouldn’t have been surprised if that one had done the same as the last one.
But “Icon of Love” does sound more like the music you’d done in the ‘70s.
Yeah, well, that was intentional. You can only create what you can create. That’s what I do. I create my kind of music my way, the way I hear it, the way I like it and you just hope that other people will hear it and appreciate it the same way.
You were nominated for a Grammy, the album went platinum, you have the support of your peers and the public. Is the time right again for you?
I guess so. It’s a combination of things. There’s no one thing. “The Time Is Right” – that’s one of the songs on my album and it’s absolutely correct. Timing has everything to do with our business. How the record company hears it, what mood they’re in. Radio, when they get it, how they receive it and how they present it to their audience. The consumer, whether they like it enough to go spend their money. There are all kinds of reasons. Timing is the basic element. It has a lot to do with the business of music. That’s why you hear a record come out and it doesn’t sell, but two years later it’s a smash.
Were you frustrated in the ‘80s?
No, never. Music has never been frustrating for me. What was frustrating was learning a new way to bring the music, the machines, the computers. I had to stop conventionally recording the way I knew, dealing with people. Now there’s nobody in the room but me and my partner, Jack Perry. It’s a transition that came about that I had to embrace and go with and learn.
Do you think this new way of doing things is an improvement or do you miss the old days?
It’s an improvement. I wouldn’t have tried to master it if it wasn’t. Basses still sound like basses, most instruments sound like real instruments, even the strings. The Kurzweil sounds a lot like violins. But there are things when you’re used to recording stages with people, with the human element, the human feeling. You know the difference and I know the difference. That’s why I’ll never stop using strings on my songs.
So what exactly has improved?
The improvement is me learning how to do it with machines instead of human beings. I have control. I have to talk less. I don’t have to tell a bass player what I want him to play, I play it myself. I don’t have to stand there half a day telling a drummer, “That’s the wrong beat” and “I want a roll there.” I play it myself. It’s easier. I don’t know if I like it more than working with people. I like the people element better. That’s why when I work with those machines, I try to find the human element in them. I don’t want to sound like synthesizers. There’s a sound that it belongs to, but it’s not Barry White’s music.
You’re working with younger guys on the album, Gerald Levert, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Did you call them up and ask them to work with you?
No, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis called me, they wanted to be on the album. And I’ve always admired them. They’re true masters. They’re very loyal and dedicated to music. That’s what I look for, not a person who’s had a lot of hits, but one who is dedicated to what he does for a living.
What about Gerald Levert?
I know his father very well. Eddie (Levert of the O’Jays) and I are very close. He wrote a song, and part of a song, that he wanted me to listen to and consider for this album. I heard them and I loved them. So Jack Perry and I took him in the studio and we finished them.
Did you learn from the young guys and vice versa?
You always have that when you’re collaborating with people. They teach you and you teach them. They knew how I was there before they were, they knew Barry White was a force to reckon with. But they didn’t know how strong of a force until they worked with him and vice versa. I didn’t know how strong they were until I worked with ’em. It was a beautiful collaboration, yeah, it really was, all the way around.
Were you trying to get a bit of a hiphop beat in there?
Not really. we just going for songs for Barry White. When you do that, in honesty, you’re not looking for hiphop or rap or nothing, you’re just looking for the song. And the song, the music, always dictates where you’re going.
I heard a story that the record company [A&M] told you to grow you’re hair and put it in a ponytail to look more contemporary. True?
No, I’ve always had long hair. Look at my history when I first came. All they told me to do was to take the back of it and put it in a ponytail [laughs].
There are stories about you working on some legendary songs when you were a kid growing up in Los Angeles. It’s been widely claimed that you played piano on “Good Night My Love” with Jesse Belvin when you were 11 years old.
No, that’s not true. I never told anybody that.
What about [Bob & Earl’s] “Harlem Shuffle? Did you write or arrange it?
No. I knew Bob Relf and Earl Nelson very well, but I wasn’t involved with that record at all.
I’ve also heard that your voice changed over night.
That’s true. Fourteen years old. Now some journalists try to over-excite a story. Jesse Belvin and I lived in the same neighborhood, but he was much older than I was. Much older. [12 years older, to be exact.]
Is it true that when you started making your own records in the late ‘60s you didn’t want to sing?
That was in 1972 when I came with my first album [“I’ve Got So Much to Give”]. I didn’t want to sing. My godfather told me I had to sing the three songs I had wrote. And from that, Barry White started to sing on that album.
It’s ironic that you’re now known for your voice, but that when you were starting out you didn’t want people to hear it.
That’s right, not that way. I used it with Love Unlimited. My girls had their first million seller in 1972 [“Walkin’ in the Rain With the One I Love”] and I was on the phone call. I liked to use it like that, maybe throw a riff in there. But outright singing, I was not interested in that.
Did you lack confidence?
No, I just did not want to be associated with singers. Singers have a very poor perception out there on the streets, especially in the music business. You’ve got to be babysitted. I didn’t want to be associated with that.
So you wanted to stick with the music part of things?
Yeah, that’s the way I approached it.
The rapping you did on your records, was it all ad libbed?
No, never prepared. They all come right there in front of that microphone.
Isaac Hayes made having spoken sections on records popular. Was he an influence on you?
Not as far as what I was doing on my records. I was influenced by every great record I heard that I liked. Isaac Hayes made a lot of great music, but I wasn’t just sitting on Isaac. And he was not the first person that rapped on music. Lou Rawls rapped on music. Bing Crosby rapped on music. One of the two greatest songs I still love today was by….oh, what’s his name? Walter Brennan! [1962’s “Old Rivers”]. Yeah. And the Ink Spots. A lot of people were rapping on songs before we came along.
There’s also a story that in the ‘60s [arranger] Gene Page got you into a Holland-Dozier-Holland [Motown] session.
That’s a true story. It was a one shot. He lied to them and told them I was a background singer. Those were all the themes of my music. That [Holland-Dozier-Holland] was who taught me the most. They were the best writers and producers in history.
Did you learn your craft by listening to their records?
That’s right. I didn’t know them. They were in Detroit, I was in L.A. I was just listening hour after hour, night after night, Sunday through Sunday. Man, forty-one number one records!
But in terms of a sound from producers, you’re more associated with Gamble/Huff, Philly soul.
Yeah, well, Gamble and Huff were people I admired and adored for many years, but if you listen to our music there’s a great difference.
You had no formal music training and don’t know how to read or write music. So how do you conceive of all that goes on in your music, which is so much more complex than the average pop song?
That’s true. It’s Barry White’s own way of making his music. Every great master of music – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Holland-Dozier- Holland, I don’t care who you’re talking about, Phil Spector, Bacharach-David, whoever it is, you name ‘em – they all had their own formula. That’s Barry White’s formula. I like to use the whole garden. Instead of loving just the roses, or just the orchids, or the carnations, I love all the flowers in the garden. Musical instruments are flowers in the musical bouquet. Depending on the song, I’m going to pick the right musicians and have them speak without getting in the way of the other people.
With your orchestral approach, there’s a classical influence in your music too.
Where did you get that exposure growing up in a black neighborhood [South Central] in L.A.?
I was very rare in my neighborhood [laughs], let me put it that way. My mother exposed me to classical music. My brother couldn’t stand it, but I could sit there with her for hours and listen to those beautiful melodies and arrangements. Believe me, she had some classical record collection.
Some people categorize your music as disco. Do you dislike that?
No, that doesn’t bother me. People put titles on everything. Before those places were called discos, they were just clubs. After disco they became clubs again. You know what I’m saying. Most people don’t know what they’re talking about. If people call my music disco, it doesn’t bother me one bit.
Back in the thick of the disco era, you put on an extravagant show with costumes and all sorts of stuff. They started calling you the Black Liberace. Did you go too far?
No, I never considered Barry White a black Liberace. He was in another world. He played his music brilliantly and was an expert at what he did. I appreciated his music. But I dressed in black because I love black. It has nothing to do with nobody else or any other thing.
Would you say you feel a sense of vindication to be appreciated again?
Yes, I am really enjoying it. That’s the fruit of your labor. That’s the reward for your commitment to music or anything you love to do. What comes around goes around. I enjoyed some tremendous years of success. Now it’s 1995 and Barry White is back enjoying it again.
You did “The Secret Garden” for Quincy Jones’ record “Back on the Block” in 1990. Was that the start of the turnaround for you?
No, the turnaround’s been coming because I’ve had albums out on the streets whether they’ve hit or not. My music is not predicated on the Grammys, the American Music Awards or the charts. I cut the music I love to record. I do it whether it’s a hit or not. It’s the love for the music I’m into.