Barry White, 1944–2003
BY MICHAEL FREEDBERG
Barry White, disco’s most significant star, died on Friday, July 4. He was 58 years old. Overweight, with high blood pressure and diabetes, White had been a very sick man for some time. He left his companion, Catherine Denton; his second wife, Glodean James (they separated but never divorced), whose signing group Love Unlimited he discovered and produced; three daughters and two sons; and many grandchildren. Can I overlook that he also left behind millions of fans, many of them just discovering his music?
He was a large — very large — man, with a large — very large — voice. Barry White made largeness his calling card, in songs as unforgettable as they were inescapable. " Can’t Get Enough of Your Love " , " My First, My Last, My Everything " , " Love’s Theme " , " It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me " — who among us, growing up during the disco 1970s or afterward, does not know and even adore these songs? Of course, they were over-written, and perhaps White over-sang them too, but that was part of the strategy he used to make his largeness manifest. It was easy to believe what he wrote and sang because his deep-rolling bass had immensity to spare. You could stand on what he said to you; it outflanked you and loomed over you. It was real in three dimensions.
In addition, White was a master orchestrator. To be sure, he took riffs from Isaac Hayes, strings and horns from Norman Whitfield (the Temptations’ late-1960s producer of such hits as " Papa Was a Rolling Stone " and " Masterpiece " ), quiet moods from Curtis Mayfield, and high notes from late-1960s falsetto soul, and what he made of these sources never violated their style. He was mainstream to the max, and it worked because his orchestrations were as over-the-top sentimental as his expression of them was out-of-bounds large.
Is it too much to say that White, almost alone, made disco what it was? He did not invent it — Brazilian 1970s pop, European art-rock, Isaac Hayes, and James Brown did that — but, far more than any other artist, he gave a context and a romantic persona to disco’s dreaminess, its light touch, its flirtations, and its orgasmic format. He was still at the top of his game 20 years after his first successes. I saw a full-length concert at the FleetBoston Pavilion a couple of years ago in which Mr. Largeness draped his romantic mantle over two full hours of love croons, swoons, lullabies, and longings, his bass voice every bit as luminescent as during the disco years two decades past. Old fans and young attended and screamed. White sang every word as if it mattered oh so terribly. He may not have meant any of it, but no one there was going to take the chance that he didn’t.
Issue Date: July 11 - 17, 2003
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