Barry White, the singer, songwriter and arranger whose distinctive basso profundo beckoned a generation of women to the boudoir during the disco era, died Friday at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 58.
White had been hospitalized since last September after suffering kidney failure.
In such hits as 1974’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” and “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” the singer’s low-frequency importuning, set to rhythmic, lavishly orchestrated arrangements, made White a cultural icon, a name synonymous with seduction and sensuality.
The producers of the 1990s television series “Ally McBeal,” for instance, used his music (and occasionally White himself) as a motivator for one character’s romantic endeavors. And in an appearance on David Letterman’s show, White participated in a Top 10 list of “Words That Sound Romantic When Spoken by Barry White” applying his purr to “gingivitis,” “gubernatorial” and “Oprah.”
But the massive, courtly come-on artist was as much teddy bear as Don Juan.
In a Times review of a 1999 White concert, Natalie Nichols wrote, “White’s songs never humiliated the object of his affection nor engaged in narcissistic self-gratification. Instead, they focused on making a woman feel comfortable and special, and perhaps a bit naughty.”
White’s formula yielded six Top 10 singles under his own name in the 1970s, including “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up” and “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby,” as well as hits for the vocal trio Love Unlimited and the Love Unlimited Orchestra. The 40-piece ensemble, which for a time included the young saxophonist Kenny G, also backed Love Unlimited and White on their recordings.
“I look at it more as a scoring sound, like movies,” White said of his signature style in a 1995 interview. “I try to tell a story musically in a song.”
White was born in Galveston, Texas, and moved to Los Angeles with his mother when he was just 6 months old. His youth in the South-Central area was marked by gang activity and petty crime, and he was jailed at 16 for stealing tires from an auto dealership. In the 1980s, his younger brother Darryl was killed in a street shooting.
White had learned music from his mother, a pianist. As a teenager, he sang in his Baptist church choir and with vocal groups such as the Upfronts, the Majestics and the Atlantics. He also played piano on recording sessions, and in 1965 made his recording debut under the name Lee Barry, with two songs on the Downey label, “I Don’t Need It” and “A Man Ain’t Nothin’.”
White married his childhood sweetheart and had four children; the couple divorced in 1969.
The singer then hooked up with Bob Keane, the Los Angeles record producer and label owner who had discovered Ritchie Valens and worked with Sam Cooke.
White learned his way around the recording studio working for Keane’s Bronco label in Hollywood, where he developed such acts as Viola Wills and Felice Taylor.
He made more records of his own, but aspired to be a behind-the-scenes figure. He began working with three singers, Diane Taylor and sisters Glodean and Linda James. Giving them the name Love Unlimited, he produced “Walkin’ in the Rain With the One I Love,” and the record hit the Top 15 in 1972.
White signed with 20th Century-Fox Records, which released the hits that marked White’s ‘70s reign. He married Glodean James and, though they later separated, they never divorced.
With the decline of disco in the 1980s, White faded from prominence, failing to place any singles on the Top 100 chart during the decade.
He expressed bitterness at CBS, with which he had signed a deal for his own label, Unlimited Gold, blaming the company for his lack of success.
He also boycotted the Grammys for several years, angry that Bette Midler had been chosen over him as best new artist at the 1974 ceremonies.
He would finally get his Grammys in 2000, for best male R&B vocal performance and best traditional R&B vocal performance for his album “Staying Power” and its title track. Those honors capped a decade in which White regained some career momentum, spurred by the resurgence of dance music and a rediscovery of “old-school” R&B.
He had three Top 40 singles in the ‘90s, and his album “The Icon Is Love” was certified double platinum, signifying shipments of 2 million copies. White had most recently been working on a “duets” album for the Def Soul label.
Despite his erotically charged music, White insisted that his private life was relatively sedate. “People are always looking for me to be a freak, weird,” he said in an interview several years ago. “What does Barry White do when he relaxes? I play video games. I love my fish. I deal with my dogs. I stay home. I spend time with my children. I’m not a party animal.”
Two weeks before he was hospitalized last fall, White appeared at a protest led by community activists against a proposal to demolish more than 70 homes in his old South-Central neighborhood to build a high school
White is survived by his wife Glodean, his companion Catherine Denton, eight children and numerous grandchildren.