Barry White in the 1970s
Barry White—has there ever been such a masterful singer, songwriter, producer, and arranger? His music helped to redefine R&B, and his slow, sexy style probably helped to conceive a whole new generation. The music he made addressed love, lovemaking, and getting down and dirty—but he did so in such a way that was never, ever vulgar. It was the sound of tenderness between two people who care about each other and thus reflects the intimacy therein.
Barry White: The 20th Century Records Albums is a nine-disc set that collects all of his 1970s solo output into one handy, no–frills box set. (There are no bonus tracks because in April Universal released a three CD singles collection compiling all of his singles, remixes and b-sides.) One of the issues with his music that makes it hard to write about is its uniformity of sound; White struck upon a successful formula, and he never really strayed from it. If you know his name, you know what it means: lush strings, slow jam ballads that occasionally turned up the tempo to a smooth groove, punctuated by instrumental passages and his deep, seductive, booming voice that would speak/sing words of love and heartache that would touch your heart and ignite your libido. His hits are still celebrated, four decades on; we thought it would be an appropriate time to listen to some of those lost album tracks and come up with an alternate greatest hits that showcases Barry White’s power.
“Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” from I’ve Got So Much to Give, 1973.
Perhaps it is fitting that the man who would redefine R&B in the 1970s would kick off his debut album with his take on a song that helped redefine R&B in the 1960s, the Four Tops’ Holland/Dozier/Holland-penned 1966 hit single. Nor was it surprising that White quadrupled its length by initially sucking out the frenetic tempo of the original and replacing it with a slower, unhurried arrangement punctuated by piano, orchestra, and a loosely-strung sitar, only to work the arrangement into a climax that accumulates into a groove-laden but relatively faithful cover.
“You’re My Baby,” from Stone Gon’, 1973.
White’s second album of 1973 is the first full-length album to be fully comprised of solo White compositions, and it’s quite clear he knows his formula works. “You’re My Baby” is a confession of love that slowly drags you into its groove in such a way that by the time it’s over, you haven’t noticed that nearly ten minutes have passed.
“I Can’t Believe You Love Me,” from Can’t Get Enough, 1974.
White’s previous albums have been modestly successful, each containing a hit single. Can’t Get Enough was his first chart-topping album, propelled by two major hit singles, “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love” and “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything.” The rest of the album was equally as fantastic as those two hit numbers, this sweeping epic being the album’s centerpiece.
“Heavenly, That’s What You Are To Me,” from Just Another Way To Say I Love You, 1975.
With the ascent of disco, it isn’t surprising that White would start to make inroads into the genre himself. This number, the opening track to his fourth album, shows that he is able to utilize the genre and make slick, sleek slow jam disco.
“I Don’t Know Where Love Has Gone,” from Let The Music Play, 1976
“Let The Music Play” was a massive hit single, and 20th.Century trying to milk his success for what it was worth, perhaps sensing that White was starting to peak. Thus, the album was mined for a-and b-sides, leaving this number as the only one not released on 45. Though the singles extracted from the album were hit or miss, it is surprising that this song––an up-tempo number that is perhaps the second-best song on the record––wasn’t even considered for single release.
“Now I’m Gonna Make Love To You,” from Is This Whatcha Wont?, 1976.
If the label was concerned about White peaking, his sixth album proved their point. While a fantastic if not workmanlike record for White, it failed to break the Top 100 album charts, and failed to reach the Top 20 R&B albums chart. It wasn’t for lack of quality material, though; this number eschews the bedroom and discotheque seduction in favor of straight up Southern flavored R&B. It’s a bit of a different direction for what White had come to be known for, but it’s still a quality number.
“You Turned My Whole World Around,” from Barry White Sings For Someone You Love, 1977.
White had a bit of a career slump with his previous two albums, but came back swinging with his 1977 effort, which return him to both the top of the album and R&B charts. Once again, the album was mined for single material, leaving only one song not released as a 45 side. It’s a gorgeous ballad written in that distinctive Barry White style, but is in fact a cover that was written by Motown songwriter Frank Wilson. Not that you would know it; White’s love rap could’ve appeared on any number of his own compositions.
“Look At Her,” from The Man, 1978.
For White’s eighth album, 20thCentury decided to repeat the formula that made his previous one so successful. Milking it for singles, the only song not to appear on a 45 side was once again a Frank Wilson composition, and it couldn’t be more different if it tried. It’s actually quite a fantastic number, and is almost a prototypical 1980s R&B hit. “Look At Her” isn’t disco, nor is it a contemporary sounding soul/R&B number, either; it’s not hard to hear Lionel Richie and the Commodores or Kool And The Gang in the up-tempo horn-section driven dance number. It’s also a rare song for White as he doesn’t sing to a woman, but about a woman. Perhaps it was felt to be too much of a departure to be a single, but considering the way R&B music was moving, it should have been a transitional hit to continue White’s fantastic career into a new decade. Instead, The Man was to mark his last truly successful high-charting album for nearly 20 years.
“Once Upon a Time (You Were a Friend of Mine)” –- from I Love To Sing The Songs I Sing, 1979.
White was unhappy with the label, and the label seemed unwilling to work with White in the proper way he deserved. It isn’t surprising that the end of the decade meant the end of the relationship with 20th Century; they did little to promote his final album, and the record’s poor reception hints that the label just didn’t care anymore. He would soon sign a deal with CBS Records that allowed him to form his own record label, Unlimited Gold, and by the end of the year would release a new album that was better received. That’s not to say this record isn’t without its merit; this particular song may be a love song, but it’s hard not to listen to it and hear the innuendo as being a stinging commentary about his relationship with his soon-to-be former label. Whereas other artists would’ve turned out inferior material to complete the contractual obligation, White gave them an excellent album that they simply neglected. It’s a pity, too; while his contemporaries transitioned into the new decade with newfound success, White would never reach the heights he reached in the 1970s, save for a brief time shortly before his untimely death on July 4, 2003.