Five Variations on a Theme by Barry White
Your First, Your Last, Your Everything: Four years ago, before his umpteenth comeback, before his 1994 The Icon Is Love album and its "Practice What You Preach" single both went to number one on the R&B charts, Barry White, the grand pooh-bah of le musique de fuque, lolled in the radiance emanating from Just for You, a three-CD, 40-song box set of his moaning, groaning, heavy-breathing, orchestrated-out-the-wazoo collected works. Just for You charts White's peaks-and-valleys twenty-year career as singer-songwriter-soulman, from his funky, on-the-cusp-of-disco 1973 solo hits ("I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby," "Never Never Gonna Give Ya Up") and the syrupy instrumental smash he wrote and conducted for the Love Unlimited Orchestra that same year ("Love's Theme") to his slow, sultry, you-tell-'em-brother 1991 combo with rapper Big Daddy Kane ("All of Me") and his like-minded oh-baby-baby-baby 1992 pairing with fellow traveler Isaac Hayes ("Dark and Lovely").
In September 1992, White recorded a special two-minute "Prologue" to open the box set, a personal greeting from the Maestro, as some call him. Just for you. It begins, as every Barry White track begins, deliberately, the air coursing -- vibrating, really -- between the blips of a repeating eleven-note keyboard riff that BW, as some call him, washes with metronomic percussion and oozing synths. Over the thrum, the Man, as some call him, intones the following message in that famous basso profundo, allowing each word to resonate in its own tiny universe as it drips from his mouth. Those words come gradually, glacially, and to accentuate them White drenches his "Prologue" in echo, so that the end of each line skitters off into deep space. Ladies and gentlemen -- but especially you ladies -- Mister Barry White, just for you:
I want to take this time to thank all of you/The millions and millions and millions of Barry White fans all over the world/I want to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to make and create the music that I make/All kinds of music/Music to dance to/Music to romance to/Music to just simply listen to/I am very grateful, deeply, very deeply grateful to you/So what we've done is we've taken songs from different albums over the years/And put together this compilation of memories/Just for you/Yeah, yeah.
Rhapsody in White: The oversize booklet that accompanies Just for You teems with BW publicity shots, including one of the Maestro, baton in hand, an upsweep of black curls atop his head. It also contains candid photos of the Man hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Hey, look, Barry mixing it up with Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. No, wait, check out Barry cheek by jowl with singer Lisa Stansfield in 1991. Better still: Barry in a say-cheese party shot "celebrating in the Nineties" with Jermaine Jackson, Quincy Jones, and Marvin Hagler (hmmm, a boxing motif emerging).
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Actually, the booklet serves as a forum for music-personality biographer David Ritz's adoring essay "The Uncommon Life and Times of a Soul Singer," which recounts the trials and tribs, the hits and misses -- the essence, if you will -- of Barry White: musician, magus, maharishi of makeout. An excerpt:
The night is still. At the end of a dark hallway, faint red lights glow from the heart of the studio. Inside, Barry's seated alone at an electronic keyboard. He's wearing a blue velvet lounging suit with an elaborate "BW" embroidered in gold across the breast pocket. His velvet slippers carry the same insignia. His body gently moves with a groove flowing from his fingers. The results mesmerize. The groove grows, deepens. Like his greatest grooves A "Playing Your Game, Baby," "It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me" A tonight's groove is endless, timeless, moving beyond melody to meditation. White's grooves are essentially meditations. For all the sexuality associated with his manner, his music operates metaphysically.
On the other hand, White's pillow talk scores. His verbal foreplay has been copped by millions of men, felt by legions of women. White works it easy and steady. He knows the headiest rush comes not in the act, but in the final moments before the act. He relishes anticipation, cherishes the seconds before surrender, his voice itself a caress, a massage, a smooth soothing instrument of reassurance. He teases, stalls, prolongs pleasure. "Please don't take off your panties," he pleads. "Let me take them off for you . . . slowly."
Beyond consummation, though, Barry wants to give more.
"The mistress," he says, looking up from the keyboard, "can never be satisfied. That's because the mistress is music. Lady Music is the one I'm writing about; Lady Music is the woman I'm trying to please. She keeps me up, has me obsessed, drives me crazy. She's real and she isn't. She's pure. She says, 'I'll come to you in any form, I'll be anything you want, anything you can create, whatever you imagine.' She never stops beckoning, never stops demanding. A curse and a blessing, a whore and a saint, a witch and a goddess, my joy and my frustration."
Put Him in Your Mix: Of course the Maestro is not only the Man, but a man too. And when for a few moments he puts down the baton and emerges from the Love Unlimited sanctum sanctorum, sans Lady Music, to take on a mortal mantle, the whispered sweet nothings that usually pour from his mouth can mutate into gnarled and gnashed gobbledygook. For even BW has his peevish moments. Such as the following, taken from a promotional radio spot recording session that White did who knows when, and lovingly immortalized by bemused blooper aficionado Al Kooper, of Blues Project/Blood, Sweat and Tears fame. Close your eyes and imagine that voice:
Hi, this is Barry White, please join me on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday [long pause], May 8th, 9th, and 10th, for the first, for the first fuckin' thing, to a weekend in Texas on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, May 8th, 9th, and 10th, in Waco, Texas [pause]. I'm cuttin' a fuckin' spot, Tony! [very long pause] Jesus.
Hi, this is Barry White, and Paul Quinn College cordially invite you to a weekend in Texas on Friday, Saturday, [stops abruptly] one more time [picking it up again]. Invite you to a weekend in Waco, Texas, Saturday and Sunday [stops suddenly]. Shit!
Hi, this is Barry White, and Paul Quinn College cordially invites you to a weekend in Texas on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, May 8th, 9th, and 10th, as the . . . shit!
Hi, this is Barry White, and Paul Quinn College cordially invites you to a weekend in Waco, Texas [pause] . . . welcoming celebrities, reception on Friday [stops]. Let's take it after 8th, 9th, and 10th. Do it over -- fuck it.
Hi, this is Barry White, and Paul Quinn College cordially invites you to a beautiful weekend in Waco, Texas, on Friday [pause]. This asshole fucked these words up, man. I mean, he got words that he don't even need.
Hi, this is Barry White, and Paul Quinn College cordially invites you to a beautiful weekend in Waco, Texas, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, May 8th, 9th, and 10th. This gala weekend will include the welcoming celebrity reception on Friday, the first, second, and third rounds of the tennis tournament, the Barry White concert with the Love Unlimited Orchestra, of course, and the post-concert reception on Saturday [pause]. And the [hesitantly] championship semi . . . finals on . . . fuck this shit, man! I'm gonna cut this shit off! All right, fuck this, I'm gonna take it up to, uh [long pause], Love Unlimited Orchestra A that's where I'm gonna stop at. [Practicing] So get your tickets now.
Hi, this is Barry White, and Paul Quinn College in cordially [losing it], shitty, cordially invites your ass to come on down.
Hi, this is Barry White, and Paul Quinn College cordially invites you to a beautiful weekend [trailing off] on Friday, Saturday, ain't this a bitch.
(Okay, it helps if you actually hear it.)
He's Playing Your Game, Baby: But when he's on, when Barry and his whore/saint Lady Music get up-close and personal, ahhhh. Wouldn't the world be a better place if, when it came time to play the winning country's national anthem at an awards ceremony at the upcoming Summer Olympics, rather than pumping up the volume on "La Marseillaise" or "God Save the Queen" or "The Star-Spangled Banner," we heard instead, oh, the resonant tones of BW as he breathily talk-sings his way through "There It Is," from The Icon Is Love? Imagine a stadium or an arena full of people rising to their feet as the first strains of a tinkling synth pulse in the air, and they hear:
Don't say anything/Don't say one word/Just lay here/Just lay there and let me/Unwind a little/Seems like the day would never end/This is so nice/It really feels so good/I love to play all up in your hair/Let me touch you and rub you all over/Baby just lay there/I'm starting to feel something/That's really intensifying my body/Makes me want to do/All kinds of things to you.
His Sweetness Is Your Weakness: Lord high muckamuck of the recording studio, yes. Certainly no one in his or her right mind will argue that Barry White doesn't write the songs that make the whole world want to do the do. But let us not forget that he is a master showman, too, a performer of extraordinary . . . proportions. Venture back then to the summer of 1995, when the Maestro and his Love Unlimited Orchestra played the Sunrise Musical Theatre. Here's Sarah Frank, art department coordinator for the film Striptease -- and a woman not easily wowed -- to recall the show:
My roommate Alexis and I walk in and everyone is dressed to the nines: an older crowd mostly, with big outfits, big hairdos, chiffon dresses, a lot of sequins. And a huge disco ball is hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the place. So the Love Unlimited Orchestra starts up and sort of gets the mood going with this swelling orchestral intro, and then out comes Barry wearing a red satin suit.
He puts on a great show, sings all his let-me-make-love-to-you songs pretty good. He doesn't move too much, though, just very slow and subtle movements. Mostly he sings while standing in the same position and sways every now and then -- I think he played one or two tunes at the piano -- and he holds the crowd for about two hours.
Every now and then he has these two to four women on-stage dressed only in pastel-color chiffon negligees, and they do a seductive dance, shimmying their shimmies. They aren't present the whole time, just for a few tunes. And the girls lift his arms so they can do little twirls.
The crowd goes wild -- they love it. Nothing too rowdy, though. They clap their hands and dance and swing. Toward the end there's something of a procession of people who approach the stage, and one younger woman in an all-white dress, almost like a christening dress, comes up and places some flowers on-stage for him. He performs several encores and everyone loves it.
In short it was a magnificent journey. He'll make love to you right in your seat.
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