Love, Unlimited

Steven Ivory is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who last wrote for the magazine on Vidal Sassoon.

"I'm a reporter, and I'm on my way to interview Barry White."

Not quite. In 1974, I was an 18-year-old radio broadcasting major at Los Angeles City College, just off the hay wagon from Oklahoma City, who aspired to be an entertainment reporter.

But, remarkably, I was on my way to meet R&B; star Barry White. Back then, I did something you wouldn't be able to do so easily today: I simply called 20th Century-Fox Records' publicity department and requested an interview for LACC's on-campus radio station. I figured my chances of getting an audience with White were slim and none.

Amazingly, his publicist said yes, so I was standing on a corner in Hollywood, chatting with a stranger and waiting for the last of three city buses that would take me from my Aunt Jewel's to White's offices on Sunset Boulevard.

We had talked about a little of everything by the time I spotted my bus in the distance.

"Barry White, huh?" the stranger said.

"Yep, Barry White," I replied with the nonchalance of Dan Rather counting bus fare.

"I always thought Barry White was a cool dude."

Silence.

"Hey," he said, with oh-by-the-way-finesse. "Think I could tag along?"

I looked at this man. In his early twenties, he carried a small backpack, his denim tattered beyond fashionable, and while he didn't exactly appear homeless, his greasy blond mane suggested a bath was overdue. Besides, he didn't look like a Barry White fan. I didn't think twice about my answer.

"Sure, I don't see why not."

The bus opened its doors and we were off.

To truly grasp my naivete is to understand just how hot Barry White was in 1974. Casting a shadow on Isaac Hayes as pop's preeminent deep-voiced, sexy soul singer, this was the year White scored with such legend-building classics as "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up" and "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe." He not only crafted international hits for himself and his girl group, Love Unlimited, but that year, under the moniker Love Unlimited Orchestra, White scored a No. 1 smash with the elevator music instrumental, "Love's Theme."

In the elevator up to White's Soul Unlimited Productions suite, I firmly explained to the could-be serial killer that I would do all the talking. This was my turf, I sniffed; I was a professional. "Hey, no problem, man," chirped my accomplice. "You won't even know I'm there."

If anyone at White's operation thought us an odd couple--he with his broke-hippie motif and me under an electrified afro, resembling two-thirds of a poor man's "Mod Squad"--no one let on. In the reception area, we sat in anxious silence for several minutes before Diane Taylor, a member of Love Unlimited doing double-duty as his secretary, took us to her boss.

Meeting White was a religious experience. Harold Robbins could not have written a more vivid, cliched scene than the physically formidable Maestro, wearing a white short-sleeved dress shirt, dark slacks and a chemically treated coiffure and sitting behind a large, custom baby-blue desk, in a baby-blue office with baby-blue walls, shag carpet and drapes. A U.S. president or mob boss could not have appeared to wield more power.

Containing my excitement, I turned on my recorder and began to ask questions. It wasn't until my Rebel Without a Motorcycle began to discreetly dig through his bag that it occurred to me just what a stupid thing I'd done by inviting a stranger into a professional situation. Thank God his search produced only a pen and pad. He would pretend to be a reporter.

We started at noon and were to be gone in an hour. Graciously, White put up with us all day. He played us unreleased music. He told jokes. We watched him eat lunch--a single broiled hamburger patty and lettuce. "I'm on a diet," he announced.

That day, White was what I'd come to revere years later as a journalist's dream: a man sufficiently self-assured, both as a person and in his work, to speak his mind freely and earnestly, expletives and trademark "right ons" included, on most anything you'd ask him. Before White, I can't say I'd met anyone who didn't have to pay an apparent price for being himself, and for a country boy like me, it was quite a revelation. At one point, in the midst of discussing the fruits of his career, White pronounced, "Whatever you do in this life, never forget that love, not money, is what makes the world go 'round."

Perhaps, but even White's love had its parameters. During the many phone calls he took in our presence, he was often shrewd, sometimes harsh as he discussed assorted music business. He reprimanded one caller for saying "uh" too many times. When it came to business, Barry White was all business. I recall thinking I would never want to be on his bad side.

Finally, at about 5 that evening, White informed us the party was over. The stranger, who for most of those hours furiously scribbled as if he were being paid, had appeared to enjoy himself as well. He smiled a lot, but true to his word, he never offered more than a chuckle. When he excused himself to go to the restroom, White stood up to stretch.

"Your buddy doesn't say much," he said. "Seems like a hard worker. What's his name again?"

"Who?" I asked, busily checking out a wall of gold and platinum record awards.

"Your man. The cat you came in here with."

"You know, Barry"--it was BARRY now--"I don't even remember his name," I said, continuing my perusal of the wall. "I met him at the bus stop. He said he wanted to meet Barry White, so I brought him with me." It was the silence that got my attention. I turned around to look into a curiously blank face that immediately told me I was in trouble. "Let me understand this," he began methodically, as if trying to comprehend what he'd just heard. "You mean to tell me you met some strange @#$%! you don't even know on the street and brought him up into my @#$%! place of business just because he said he wanted to meet @#$%! BARRY WHITE!?!" He was nearly shouting now.

Had White come toward me, I'm sure I would have soiled that baby-blue carpet. It was too late to deny any of what I'd just said, and a long way down out the window, so I conceded.

"Uh, yes, Mr. White."

"Mannnn, that's @#$%! BEAUTIFUL!!!" White roared, bounding across the room to administer a hug that nearly stopped my circulation. At that moment, the Surfer Without a Board returned to the room and White, without explaining, put a serious grip on him, too. The stranger peeped at me from around White's massive torso with eyes that asked, "What just happened in here?"

"See? This is what it's all about, man," White said, smiling proudly. "Love is my thang; I couldn't get away from love if I wanted to--you guys just proved it. Right on!" He asked to briefly hear the details of our story--it was the only opportunity the stranger had to chat with White--and the singer beamed as if he'd just accomplished something that couldn't be measured in the gold and platinum lining the wall. In some way, we all had: In a matter of minutes, an interview was redefined into a small, significant exercise in humanity. That, and a display of bumbling, unadulterated innocence on my part I'll never see again.

Years later, when I became a writer, I interviewed White many times. At every meeting, I would recount this story, and every time White would smile and listen for the punch line as if he were hearing it for the first time.

Down on Sunset, in front of the building, my cohort and I marveled about our little adventure. We exchanged numbers, but we never got in touch. I guess he was just a guy I met at a bus stop, after all.

Nevertheless, whoever and wherever he is, I am certain that whenever he hears a Barry White song--and certainly when he heard the recent news of White's death--he, too, tells the story of a day when the Maestro's patience, and his love, seemed unlimited.

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