What a weird and wonderful world we might now inhabit if racism and homophobia hadn’t killed disco at its cultural zenith — if sybarite symphonies like Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” still flew their freak flags from the highest reaches of the Billboard charts. There’s never again been a pop star remotely like White, a.k.a. the Prince of Pillow Talk, the King of Satin Seduction and the Walrus of Love — a man-mountain with a voice to match, as deep and plush as a cavern carpeted in velvet. There’s never been another disco hit quite like “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” either. The record possesses an almost tactile sensuality: it’s rich, creamy and decadent, the aural equivalent of chocolate fondue.
It took White about a decade to get noticed by the music-buying public, which is all the more remarkable given that he stood six-foot-four and weighed as much as 375 pounds. The singer, songwriter and producer was born Barry Eugene Carter in 1944, in Galveston, Texas, later taking on the surname of his birth father. He grew up in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood, emulating what he learned from his mother’s collection of classical recordings when he began teaching himself piano. Fourteen-year-old White’s whole life changed after his voice dramatically deepened overnight: “[As a child], I had a normal squeaky kid voice,” he recalled. “Then as a teenager, that completely changed. My mother cried because she knew her baby boy had become a man.”
White’s unmistakable voice made its first appearance on record in 1960, when he cut “Too Far to Turn Around” as a member of the Upfronts. At mid-decade he headlined a series of little-heard solo singles for labels like Rampart and Faro, and in 1965 he expanded into production, helming the Bel Cantos’ “Feel Aw Right” for the Downey label. When Del-Fi Records’ Bob Keane hired White as an A&R man for the fledgling Bronco Records imprint, he further diversified his portfolio, collaborating with acts like the Bobby Fuller Four and Viola Wills as a songwriter, arranger and session musician, somehow squeezing in time for a 1967 solo single, “All in the Run of a Day,” which he also co-produced alongside Keane. White additionally penned “Doin’ the Banana Split” for Hanna-Barbera’s The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, the Saturday morning television sensation of 1968.
White signed on as a producer at L.A.’s Forward Records in 1969, but his career remained in neutral until his protégées Love Unlimited — future wife Glodean James, her sister Linda and their cousin Diane Taylor — landed at Uni Records. Love Unlimited’s gauzy harmonies evoked the Supremes, so White borrowed liberally from the Motown writing and production playbook of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland to create the trio’s majestic debut From a Girl’s Point of View, We Give You… Love Unlimited, highlighted by the million-selling 1972 single “Walking in the Rain with the One I Love,” a sweeping sweet nothing that floated to number 6 on the Billboard R&B singles chart and number 14 on the pop Hot 100. “Love Unlimited was as far from my teenage reality as something could be,” writes Amy Linden in her liner notes for Varese Sarabande’s reissue of From a Girl’s Point of View. “It was mushy, it was sexy and I didn’t even know what that meant. Love Unlimited was grown-up womanly desire within the guise of traditional girl-group pop, and it flew way over my adolescent head.”
White’s relationship with Uni quickly soured, however, and he signed a new production deal with 20th Century Records, bringing Love Unlimited with him. There he architected the 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra, for whom he wrote and produced 1973’s “Love’s Theme,” a satin-trimmed instrumental whose luxuriant strings (arranged by the great Gene Page, roughly a year removed from scoring the blaxploitation classic Blacula) and wah-wah guitar attracted significant attention within the network of East Coast underground dance clubs incubating the fast-coalescing disco sound. “The year 1974 was the watershed for disco’s aboveground emergence: a string of number one pop hits put the industry on notice that clubs were discovering records that could make the whole country dance,” music historian Brian Chin writes in his essay accompanying Rhino Records’ 1999 retrospective The Disco Box. “Months of club play and album sales forced 20th Century to release ‘Love’s Theme’ from the album Under the Influence of Love Unlimited. And by February, Barry White had his first number-one hit as a composer.”
Around the same time White recorded “Love’s Theme,” he began formulating his next project, setting his sights on working with a solo male artist. He cut a handful of scratch demos featuring his own voice, but when 20th Century chief Russ Regan heard that panty-dropper purr on tape, he insisted White re-record the tracks and release them under his own name. White reluctantly consented, leading to the release of his debut solo LP I’ve Got So Much to Give. The swoon-worthy single “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” soared to number one on the Billboard R&B charts as well as number three on the Hot 100, and White continued to refine his art of seduction in the months to follow, returning to the Top Ten with “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up” before topping both the pop and R&B charts in 1974 with the intoxicating “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe.”
White’s lover-man legend charmed the pants off women and men alike. “Fleas fuck. Flies, snakes — everybody’s into lovemaking. It’s the most powerful element that men and women possess. Most of us don’t know how to use it, but we all possess it,” he told former Capitol-EMI vice chairman and CEO Joe Smith for his 1988 book Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music. “The women used the music to get their men to relate to them better: ‘Talk to me, tell me what’s on your mind.’ Men used the music to get the girls in the mood to make love. So either way you had it, Barry White is the one artist who actually was in your bedroom with you at the most sacred, sensuous moment of your life. A lot of babies have been named Barry.”
“You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” was the second single released from White’s third solo album, 1974’s Can’t Get Enough, and it is pure softcore erotica — a symbol of undying love as opulent and imperial as the Taj Mahal. The song was written by White’s longtime friend Peter Sterling Radcliffe back in 1956 under the title “You’re My First, You’re My Last, My In-Between,” but it remained un-recorded. Radcliffe had offered White advice and assistance when he was down on his luck, even buying Christmas presents for the White children when money was nonexistent, and when Radcliffe presented him with “You’re My First, You’re My Last, My In-Between,” he immediately agreed to hear it. Songwriter Tony Sepe, whose credit also appears on the retooled “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” recalled laughing when he heard the original demo recording’s clip-clop country rhythm, and his jaw dropped when he witnessed White’s enthusiastic reaction.
“I said ‘Sterling, that song is a smash.’ Tony’s face actually changed,” White recalled to Billboard. “I said ‘Sterling, I want you to stay out of my face for the next two or three weeks. When you come back, you’re going to be part of a smash.'” White retained most of Radcliffe’s original musical structure while rewriting the lyrics, and although there are few remaining traces of the song’s country origins in its panoramic production, Radcliffe wept tears of gratitude when he heard the finished track. “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” went on to reach number two on the Hot 100 as well as Billboard’s disco/dance charts; it hit number one on Billboard’s Hot Soul chart, and in December 1974 spent two weeks atop the U.K. pop charts.
White remained a chart fixture throughout the disco era thanks to hits like “What Am I Gonna Do with You,” “Let the Music Play” and “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me,” but by the summer of 1979, disco’s days of commercial dominance were numbered. A Chicago radio personality named Steve Dahl, still bitter about losing his job at station WDAI when it switched formats from album rock to disco, became infamous for destroying disco records on air at his new station, WLUP, and he partnered with Major League Baseball’s White Sox for an event dubbed Disco Demolition Night. Per the terms of the promotion, tickets for the team’s July 12 doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers were priced at 98 cents for anyone who showed up at Comiskey Park with a disco record to sacrifice to Dahl’s cause.
“I said to my boss ‘Hey, a lot of these records they’re bringing in aren’t disco — they’re R&B, they’re funk. Should I make them go home and get a real disco record?’ He said no. ‘If they brought a record, take it. They get a ticket,’” Vince Lawrence, a former Comiskey Park usher who worked the game, told The Guardian in 2019. “I want to say maybe the person bringing the record just made a mistake. But given the amount of mistakes I witnessed, why weren’t there any Air Supply or Cheap Trick records in the bins? No Carpenters records — they weren’t rock’n’roll, right? It was just disco records and Black records in the dumpster.” Dahl proceeded to blow up the crate full of vinyl on the Comiskey turf between games, but when thousands of fans stormed the field, the cumulative damage forced the White Sox to forfeit the second contest. The incident made national headlines, and the “Death to disco!” drumbeat grew louder.
Few contemporary commentators saw Disco Demolition Night for what it really was. Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh is an exception. “As competition becomes fiercer, each radio station must settle for a narrower demographic range. Right now the goal is males, ages 18 to 34, who buy the kinds of products AOR stations are likely to advertise,” Marsh wrote in late 1979. “The anti-disco movement is simply another programming device. White males 18 to 34 are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, Blacks and Latins, and therefore they’re most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security. It goes almost without saying that such appeals are racist and sexist, but broadcasting has never been an especially civil-libertarian medium.”
White struggled to find his footing in the 1980s, returning to the R&B singles charts here and there, but he enjoyed something of a renaissance in the decade to follow, recording the R&B chart-topping The Icon Is Love in 1994, appearing as himself in two episodes of The Simpsons and in 1999 publishing an autobiography, Love Unlimited. “You’re My First, My Last, My Everything” also deflowered a new generation of listeners when it was prominently featured in the Fox primetime comedy Ally McBeal; White performed the song on screen in two episodes, including the 2002 series finale. White, who reportedly smoked between seven and eight packs of cigarettes each day, suffered mounting health problems in his final years, and he died at age 58 on July 4, 2003 after suffering cardiac arrest. But as long as love lives on, so will Barry White.
“Everyone to me has to pick a subject to talk about in music if you’re going to be a writer,” he told Joe Smith. “Mine is love, because I know when a man’s making love, the last thing he thinks about is war.”