Barry White's got a new book. He's got a new album. The world population just surpassed 6 billion. You make the call.
A recent scientific experiment with a very small sample size revealed that having sex with 20,000 women may result in death by age 63. Back in 1991, when sexual lab rat Wilt Chamberlain first revealed the number on his personal shagometer, Esquire magazine commented: “Let’s see, that comes to 2,168 cases of Riunite, 381 crates of Trojan Magnums and one very well-worn Barry White album.”
Wilt may be gone, but Barry White is obviously on the comeback trail. Check the evidence — a new book (“Barry White: Love Unlimited”), a new album (“Staying Power”) and a new high in the world’s population (recently surpassed 6 billion.) The singer, producer and one-man affront to official Chinese family planning tells all in his new tome, mixing equal parts gritty up-from-the-street tales and soulful romantic counseling. Unlike Chamberlain’s autobiography, and despite the implication of the book’s title (not to mention the implications of White’s entire career), “Barry White: Love Unlimited” is not a chronicle of sexual conquests. White is a different kind of lady’s man, the kind who doesn’t kiss and tell. “I have come to be called the Guru of Love!” Barry writes. “Of course I appreciate the title, but the truth is I’m not their guru, or anybody’s for that matter.”
Don’t you believe it. White gurus up a storm in his publishing debut, kicking off each chapter with lengthy italicized sermons on romantic and domestic relations. Remember, life is a love song that comes all in the run of a day. Be free to let yourself be enraptured by its music, etc. White’s been a love god since he was 14. And that’s not the year he lost his virginity — that’s the year he started counseling neighborhood couples on their relationship problems. “By the end of that first year I was seeing twenty-two couples,” White recalls. “I’d give them simple, common-sense advice.” The disco beat came later.
Some questions you may want this book to answer:
Who is Barry White?
“What the world saw was one part of Barry White, the man who made music. I was, and still am, several Barry Whites …”
What is the approximate weight of Barry White?
Is Barry White a great guy and talented musician?
Absolutely. Everybody says so. “Uncle Barry,” say the three members of his singing group, Love Unlimited, “you’re the baddest!” “Barry White! I love you, man!” says Mike Tyson. “B.W., you got to produce my next album,” says Marvin Gaye.
What is Barry White’s personal philosophy?
“This is the philosophy I live by. I am, you are, and it is.”
How old is Barry White?
This press conference is over. The big guy stays coy about his age, but various chronological clues make it clear he was born in the mid-1940s and, from the sound of it, was lucky to have completed his stint as a juvenile delinquent in the era before every macho showdown eventually ended in gunplay. Even so, his brother Darryl ended up a casualty of the thug life. He was shot dead in a petty dispute over small change.
Despite the popular impression that White was born in a plush velvet dressing gown with a bubble bath already waiting, he came, in fact, from the gang-banging background
common to so many inner-city kids. You could hurt yourself whipsawing back and forth between White’s Hallmark love speeches and the details of his early life, which he spent scuffling and scrapping and landing in jail for petty crimes. For that matter, you might have a hard time trying to match his saccharine advice with details of his own love life. The big man with the satin voice that resonates in those lower regions is constantly referring to the great and powerful love he has for his Lady. Not something as mundane as an actual flesh-and-blood woman, mind you, but his one and only true love — Lady Music. I’ve learned to respect her beyond any woman. Everybody wants her, I know. But I love her in a special way. We’ve been fruitful and had lots of babies together … Love your special other the way I love my Lady Music, and you will find a level of happiness you never knew was possible. Especially if you’re not barricaded in the studio all night while, back home, the candles burn down and dinner coagulates. The Barry White credo: Do as I croon, not as I do.
White paints a benign self-portrait of a believer in peace, love and astrology. But like a romantic dinner disrupted by an unforeseen fart, some of White’s tales unexpectedly break the spell. They show a man whose fierce pride is occasionally backed by his street instincts. “Fed up and angry, I pulled my .357 Magnum out of the big leather coat I was wearing and without saying a word laid it in front of me on the table,” White says of one meeting with startled record company executives.
The negotiations concluded to Barry’s satisfaction. “I prefer to deal in truth, not deception,” he insists. “Trust, not trickery.” Thus spake Barry White: Speak truthfully, and carry a .357 Magnum.
As a black man coming of age in the ’60s, some of White’s best stories show a side of that decade white folks never knew. His first tour saw him playing drums for Jackie Lee, who was then riding an R&B hit called “The Duck.” It took him to the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York, where he met legends like Smokey Robinson backstage. After that auspicious beginning, the tour literally and figuratively went South. White and Jackie Lee were thrown in jail in Hattiesburg, Miss., for talking back to rednecks; woke up in a Louisiana motel to see the Klan packing up the caravan for a little trip; and faced down a group of white boys in a parking lot after a show (while headline act Slim Harpo hid his white girlfriend in the trunk of a car). The capper: White stopped at a pay phone in Mobile, Ala., to call his wife back in L.A. “Baby, get me area code 213,” he told the operator.
“Just a minute, sir, the lines are tied up,” she replied. Moments later the phone booth was surrounded by police cars. “You called our operator ‘baby,’” drawled one cop. “Where you from, boy?”
“See, that there’s the reason you don’t know. Our niggers, they know how to talk on the phone. We get another call in this state that you called some operator ‘baby,’ you goin’ to jail. Hear that, boy?”
White showed them. He’s spent most of the last 30 years cooing “Baby, baby, baby” to women all across that state and every other state besides. Along the way he’s learned not only of the awesome power of love, but also of the awesome power of “The Simpsons.” His appearance on the snake-whacking episode won him fans who weren’t even alive when he was rumbling his way through the boudoir stereo systems of the ’70s.
White’s devotees include Muhammad Ali and the Sultan of Brunei, who has arranged private Barry White concerts (Elton John concerts too, among others) for groups of about 20. And one day White came face to face with a man whose private yacht is stocked only with the music of Barry White. “Mr. White, I’m one of your biggest admirers,” the fan enthused. “I can’t tell you how much I love your music. I listen to it all the time!”
In what may be the least surprising revelation in the book, the yacht owner is identified as Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer. More Steve Burgess.
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