Barry White

Arie Crown Theatre, June 7

Back in the early 70s my mother monopolized our living-room stereo every Sunday afternoon, playing the likes of Marvin Gaye, Al Green, the Isley Brothers, and Barry White. My brothers and sisters deserted the house until dinner was announced because they couldn’t stand these world-weary crooners forever wailing about love. Now, some 20 years later, my mother’s music is having a second coming, reaching a broader audience made up of old fans and younger listeners. Part of the music’s resurgence is due to simple nostalgia and part to our never-ending passion to make kitsch hip, elevating everything we once rejected as cheesy and uncool.

Perhaps nobody embodies our desire to recycle more than Barry White. With his lush musical arrangements and that deep voice, the portly maestro seduced his way to the top of the charts throughout the 70s, taking with him the hearts of the pantie-waving multitudes that packed his concerts. The women in the audience during White’s recent performance at the Arie Crown Theatre were more conservative in their enthusiasm but no less vocal. While husbands and boyfriends sat back soaking in White’s rich bass, the women filled the theater with squeals, catcalls, and declarations of love for the king of foreplay music.

After working as a songwriter, producer, and talent scout in the 1960s, White debuted on the R & B charts in 1973 with the solo album I’ve Got So Much to Give. That same year he wrote the disco hit “Love’s Theme” for the Love Unlimited Orchestra; the song reached the number one spot on the pop chart and number ten on the R & B. “Love’s Theme” is a blueprint for White’s later successes: take a simple hook and expand it into a full-blown hit through the sheer sweep of an extravagant production. White had a string of such hits in the 1970s, songs like “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up,” “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” and “Your Sweetness Is My Weakness.” By the end of the decade he’d netted five gold records and two platinum albums, but like many who dominated the airwaves during the disco era his career fizzled out in the 1980s.

White learned early on how to use his voice to further the romantic dialogue. But he recycled the approach until he became a caricature. Overshadowed by the politically aggressive messages and the stripped-down sound of rap and hip-hop, White’s stylized reveries fell out of favor.

But everything comes back into fashion. Rap’s reliance on sampled material led to the rehabilitation of 70s icons like Isaac Hayes and George Clinton as well as White. In 1987 White came back with “Sho’ You Right” and in 1990 was featured with Al B. Sure, James Ingram, and El DeBarge on the single “The Secret Garden,” which was on Quincy Jones’s Back on the Block. In 1994 White returned to the top of the charts with the platinum album The Icon Is Love, spearheaded by the hit single “Practice What You Preach.”

The extravagant flavor of disco can still be winning, and its artists have a knack for putting the “sh” in show. White’s no exception. In his opening number at the Arie Crown, the stage curtain dropped from the ceiling to unveil the 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra bathed in yellow and pink lighting. As dancers in formal wear posed on a platform behind the musicians, White walked onstage in tails and bowed graciously before launching into the rocking “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me.”

This song, like most of White’s work, plays up ideas about the virility of black men. While James Brown preached “Say it loud” and “Be black and be proud,” White portrayed the black man as world-class lover and produced step-by-step instructions for making love. White’s passionate songs may even seem fresh in our self-conscious society forever mindful of gender politics.

With the help of two bikini-clad dancers, White followed up with “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.” Most of this is pure posing, of course. Sometimes it’s difficult to recall that White was a genuine artist before becoming a schlockmeister. Now he totters between his former originality and straight camp. Aiming to please the many middle-aged black women in his audience, the overripened sex symbol mechanically sprinkled his signature groans and grunts throughout his songs, taunting his admirers with lyrics like “I want it all baby, give it all to me–I’ll know what to do with it.”

White’s songs all pretty much say the same thing, so they depend on the strength of the arrangements to make them distinct. He alternates between singing and seductively talking his way through ballads, a technique that would be used by later R & B singers like Alexander O’Neal, Tevin Campbell, and Luther Vandross. On the other hand, White’s slick and groovy “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” points out that his work as a composer and arranger has undoubtedly influenced acid-jazz artists like Guru and A Tribe Called Quest. After working his way through a few more of his 70s tunes, including “September, Do You Remember” and “Let Me Live My Life Loving You,” White informed the men in his audience that their women weren’t happy. He said that his mother advised him to always treat a woman like God’s greatest gift to man. As he whipped out his baton to a standing ovation, White led the Love Unlimited Orchestra in an excellent rendition of “Love’s Theme.” And a handful of dancers in see-through nighties pranced around the Walrus of Love.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Barry White by Randee St.Nicholas.