Barry White was born into a musical family and grew up singing in a gospel choir alongside his mother. As a child he also taught himself to play the piano.
When Barry was 10 years old, the White family moved from Texas to South Central Los Angeles, where Barry unfortunately became involved with the city’s notorious gang culture. At the age of just 17, he was jailed for four months for stealing $30,000 worth of Cadillac car tyres. But whilst in prison, he heard a recording of Elvis Presley singing 'It’s Now or Never' on the radio, which he later claimed helped him turn his life around. Once Barry left prison, his passion for music helped him to overcome the temptation to return to a life of crime.
Barry made his musical debut whilst he was still a child. At the age of 11, he played the piano on record called 'Goodnight My Love' by Jesse Bevin. Barry went on to make his first vocal recording a few years later at the age of sixteen, when he recorded a song called 'Little Girl' on a local Los Angeles label called Lummtone Records, where he was accompanied by a group called The Upfronts. Barry’s talent soon began to be recognised more widely and as the music explosion of the Sixties began to gather momentum, he started to work with a bigger range of recording labels in and around Los Angeles.
Barry soon landed a position doing A&R for Bob Keane, who previously produced Sam Cooke’s music. Keane owned and ran a group of record labels which included Del-Fi, Mustang and Bronco. In the mid-60s, Keane’s Mustang label was doing particularly well, notably with a group called the Bobby Fuller Four. Keane hired Barry to do A&R for the whole spread of labels, for which he was paid the princely sum of 40 dollars per week. During this period, Barry also formed a close friendship with Larry Nunes, who became his mentor and adviser.
Barry’s big break came when he was enlisted to perform backing vocals for a talented girl band, which later came to be known as Love Unlimited. Interestingly, the lead singer of the group was Glodean James, who would later become Barry’s second wife. Love Unlimited sought to imitate the success of Tamla Motown’s girl group The Supremes, and Barry stayed with the group for the next two years, whilst they perfected their act. The girls rehearsed tirelessly with Barry, who’d also tried his hand at writing songs for the girls to sing. During this period, he wrote 'Walkin’ In The Rain (With The One I Love)', which was reportedly inspired by conversations with Glodean James. The song was a great success and made it into the Top 20, when it was later released. On the advice of Larry Nunes, the girls signed to the Uni label, which was owned by RCA. However, Barry soon became disenchanted with Uni and began working with a male singer instead.
During this period, he also worked hard on his own solo demo tracks, and eventually he produced three tracks of himself singing and playing the piano. He took the tracks to Larry Nunes, who was wildly enthusiastic about the tracks, and eventually helped Barry to secure a recording contract with 20th Century records. The demo tracks formed the basis of Barry’s first album, which was called 'I’ve Got So Much To Give', and included the hit song 'I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby'. He managed to secure his release from Uni for Love Unlimited, who then joined him at 20th Century Records. Barry dubbed his group the Love Unlimited Orchestra and the rest is musical history. The single 'Love’s Theme' went to number One in the pop charts and sold over a million copies. It went on to become a smash hit all over the world, earning him a BMI award, with final sales totaling in excess of three million records.
Barry’s deep velvety voice was his greatest asset and, throughout his career, he also undertook work as a voice actor. His voice was featured in several episodes of 'The Simpsons', including the famous 'Whacking Day' sequence. Here, Barry used his deep bass voice played though speakers on the ground, in order to attract snakes. He was also offered the opportunity to do the voice for the part of Chef in the cartoon series 'South Park' but turned it down on religious grounds; Barry was a highly devout Christian and said that he was uncomfortable with the irreverent humour of South Park. The South Park part Barry rejected eventually went to Isaac Hayes.
Barry’s music was also frequently alluded to in the 1990s hit TV series, 'Ally McBeal', where the character of John Cage (played by actor Peter McNichol) would hear the song 'You’re My First, My Last, My Everything' sung by Barry inside his head, whenever he wanted to give his confidence a boost. This TV exposure helped to revitalise Barry’s career and he even made a guest appearance in the show.
Sadly, ill health brought Barry’s life and career to a premature close. Throughout his life, he struggled to keep his weight problem under control, as this had led to chronically high blood pressure. Sadly, in the autumn of 2002, he was diagnosed with renal failure, and began receiving dialysis. He subsequently suffered a stroke in May 2003, which caused him to withdraw from public life. Barry White died on 4 July, 2003 at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles. He was 58 years old. Following his death, his great friend and fellow singing star Luciano Pavarotti gave an interview in which he said that Barry would be sorely missed.