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).

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."

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Michael Yockel