It is fitting that Barry White's 1994 comeback album was called The Icon Is Love, because to a generation of Soul Music fans, Barry White was an icon who represented the sensual side of love. His deep, sexy voice was mimicked but never matched by any other bass singer, and his dedication to music of love and romance achieved for him singular status among male soul singers of the latter 20th century. One of the most recognizable figures in popular music for three decades, White was both a talented songwriter and producer, but was ultimately known around the world simply as "the Voice."
Born in Texas and raised in SoCal, Barry White started his career as a notable teenage session pianist. But his real desire was to become a producer, and after a number of increasingly important roles at small record labels, he formed the girl group Love Unlimited (featuring future wife Glodean) and wrote and produced for them the sweet 1972 single "Walking In the Rain (With the One I Love)." It became a top ten smash and opened a new world of opportunity for White.
He wanted to follow with production of a romantic album for a male vocalist, and was reluctantly convinced to record it himself, using his distinctive bass voice and his penchant for lush arrangements. The result was the 1973 hit song "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby," the first of a string of smashes he recorded for 20th Century Records. For the remainder of the 70s White, working with super-arranger Gene Page, was among the hottest producers in popular music, scoring a #1 single with his Love Unlimited Orchestra's "Love's Theme" and landing a series of his own sex-charged hits, including "Your Sweetness Is My Weakness," "Playing Your Game Baby" and "It's Ecstacy When You Lay Down Next To Me." Though mostly romance-oriented, White's songs were not languid ballads, but had a danceable groove and lush orchestration to them that made them precursors to the disco movement that would dominate popular music by 1978.
White's reputation as a "loverman" singer turned into a bit of a caricature, and by the 1980s changes in musical styles and a one-dimensional view of White's contributions to popular music led to slippage in his sales. He went the entire decade without a top ten hit (save his memorable contribution to Quincy Jones' "The Secret Garden"). Then a move to A&M Records and a renewed appreciation in White's style of romantic, sensual music resulted in an unexpected comeback, hitting its peak with the 1994 platinum album The Icon Is Love and the #1 single "Practice What You Preach." Icon put White back on top both musically and as a popular figure, with him appearing regularly on television and receiving new respect for his impressive body of work.
Health problems began to plague White soon after the turn of the century, unfortunately sidelining him at a time when he should have been reaping the rewards of his near iconic status. Sadly, he died in July, 2003 of complications from diabetes, leaving behind a legacy that continues to reverberate to this day.
By Chris Rizik