Barry White’s career spanned four decades and influenced the course of soul, funk, and disco. His instantly recognizable bass-baritone voice, coupled with his romantic image, earned him the nickname “the Voice of Seduction.” Songs such as “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” and “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” are widely recognized as among the most potent love songs ever written. They are frequently used to amp up the emotional impact of a romantic moment in a film.
Although White had a gentle, benevolent persona during his musical career, this image followed a tumultuous childhood and an adolescence marked by tragedy: crime, gang rivalry, prison. Fortunately for him, and anyone who has ever been affected by his music, White managed to escape the life of crime, but not before it took its toll on him and his family.
White was born in Galveston, Texas, but spent his childhood years in South Central Los Angeles. He and his younger brother Darryl roamed the streets of South Central, committing petty crimes. Darryl was much more of a troublemaker than Barry: when he was eight years old, he was already sentenced to several months in a juvenile detention center. However, as they reached their mid-teens in the early 1960s, Barry’s and Darryl’s mischief turned into something more dangerous. They joined the Businessmen, one of the biggest territorial gangs that operated in South Central at the time. The gang earned the name the Businessmen because they envisioned themselves not as hoodlums but as tacticians who “knew how to take care of business.”
Most members of the Businessmen engaged in various illicit activities such as dealing marijuana and barbiturates, and violent conflicts were a part of their daily routine: they frequently clashed with members of rival gangs such as the Slausons, the Gladiators, and the Del Vikings, and these clashes could end in serious injuries and deaths. When fighting, the Businessmen regularly wielded knives and blunt weapons such as baseball bats and makeshift batons, but they were also known to use firearms.
When Barry White was 16, he was caught stealing approximately $30,000 worth of tires from a Cadillac lot and sentenced to seven months in prison. He was most likely employed by the gang to conduct the theft. That same year, his brother Darryl was killed by the members of a rival gang. Darryl paid for his involvement in the gang war with his life, and grief-stricken and depressed Barry vowed never to engage in any crime for the rest of his life.
While serving his sentence in a juvenile detention center, he had months to think about his future. He had been fond of music from early childhood and after his voice abruptly changed into the incredibly deep bass-baritone at 14.
Like numerous other artists, celebrities, and influential figures from all over the world, Barry White learned from the hard times that plagued his life. Although the gang life of the early-1960s South Central Los Angeles and the death of his younger brother haunted him until the end of his days, he managed to channel his sorrow into his recognizable mellow tunes.
Barry White earned three Grammy Awards over the length of his career and a remarkable 106 gold albums. He died in Los Angeles at the age of 58 after suffering a stroke.