Valentine's Day is here and few men put their imprint on love and sex more than Barry White. Back in April 2000, Playboy spoke with the singer, who died in 2004, about his rough upbringing, the dawn of disco and his career resurgence. Enjoy the interview in its entirety, and to read every article the magazine has ever published—from 1953 until today—visit the complete archive at iplayboy.com.
When John Cage, the deeply conflicted lawyer on Ally McBeal, began to psych himself up by dancing in the bathroom to a Barry White song, baby boomers everywhere smiled. From the first few notes—"We've got it together, baby..."—that velvet voice, purring with sexual confidence and authority, had the power to transport viewers for a moment back to the days of bell-bottoms, smiley faces and the sexual revolution. That voice, which became a popular recurring theme on the Fox TV show, attracted a new generation of fans. Barry White, 55, has become the timeless symbol of love.
Although White never stopped writing and recording, his heyday was the Seventies, with monster hits such as You're the First, the Last, My Everything; Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe; Never, Never Gonna Give You Up and It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me. But 1999 was a big year for White. His voice could be heard in ads for McDonald's, Kraft, Jeep and Arby's. He appeared in several episodes of Ally. And in October he made a splash with his autobiography, Love Unlimited (Broadway Books), a new album called Staying Power and a concert tour with his 34-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra.
White has had a long and successful career, but it hasn't come easy. He grew up poor in South Central Los Angeles, where crime and gangs were a way of life. He didn't see much of his father. His brother, Darryl, was a lifelong criminal. Barry also got into some trouble early on, but he credits the strength and character of his mother for saving him. At 14 he was counseling couples in his mother's house ("just common sense," he says about his advice). His natural rhythm helped him enter the music business, along with an inclination to pursue knowledge rather than money. "Knowing the truth is more important to me than anything," he says.
He's been married and divorced twice, and he has eight children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He is a strong, loving and influential parent, says his son Kevin, who works with him. "You have to be a role model," says White. "Practice what You preach!" To Kevin: "Did you all always know where I was?" "Always," Kevin replies. Julie Bain met with White in Boston before the start of his fall concert tour. She reports: "When I arrived he was resting in his hotel suite in black silk lounging pajamas, smoking cigarettes, listening to one of his recordings and watching Venus and Serena Williams play tennis. I was half-expecting a lighthearted, flirtatious character, but White is a serious man who would much rather talk about parenting skills in America today than love technique. But no matter what he says, with that voice it has the ring of truth and authority."
PLAYBOY: Your childhood in South Central was tough. Your brother, Darryl, led a life of crime and died violently. Why did you take such a different path?
WHITE: The essence of me—all of it—was my mother. She had a powerful influence on me. She taught me ethics and morals, dignity, how to be a gentleman, how to treat a lady, how to treat all people with respect. I cherish the things my mother taught me. I still live by them.
PLAYBOY: Why didn't your mother's influence have the same positive effect on Darryl?
WHITE: Mother taught us both the same things. But Darryl may have been more influenced by our father. My father wasn't in our lives every day, but we did see him. He came by our house, checked on us, whupped our butts when we needed it, shit like that. But he had a different philosophy about life. He was in prison for six years, for bootlegging in Memphis, Tennessee. He was bitter to people, to life, as different from my mother as night and day.
Let me give you an example. When I was eight, I had a little paper route. I was proud of it. Every day when I went out to sell my papers my mother praised me for what I was trying to achieve. But my father got upset with me one night because I had delivered some papers as a favor to the boss. I didn't want money to do it; I just did it. My father got really mad and said, "Don't ever do nothing for nobody without getting paid for it." My mother cut in on him and said, "Melvin, don't tell these boys that. That's wrong." She turned to me and Darryl and said, "It's the opposite of what your father just said. Don't always do something and expect to get paid for it. A lot of times, for what you're learning, the reward is much greater than any money anybody could ever pay you." That's the philosophy I used in the music industry. I told my mother many times, "You were really right about that." But I think Darryl believed more in my father's philosophy.
PLAYBOY: Despite your mother's good advice, you became a gang member and ended up in jail at 15 for stealing tires. Then Elvis saved you when you heard his song It's Now or Never. What did the King say to you?
WHITE: I'd heard that song many times. But that night in jail was the first time I really heard it. It was more important to me than any song I'd ever heard in my life. When he hit that hook in the song, "It's now or never," it was like someone grabbed me by my shirt, looked at me and said, "You asshole. You see where you're sitting, Barry? You're sitting in jail, and you can't stand it. You've got to change your life. It's your decision. It's now, or it's never." That's the way I read it. And when I got out, I told myself, Never again.
PLAYBOY: What advice would you give young people who may be starting off on the wrong path?
WHITE: All that glitters is not gold. There's good money and there's bad money. There are decisions you're going to have to make from the time you're four years old. Parents, teach your children early in life. Don't wait. Kids are learning things at two and three years old. The human mind is the greatest weapon on earth. And if it's taught right and used right with good honest knowledge, it can separate the good from the bad much easier.
PLAYBOY: This country is full of motivational speakers and books on how to assert yourself to achieve success. But you achieved success in a far more humble, almost passive way. For example, when you were offered $40 a week at Mustang Bronco Records, you said, "You can pay me $20 and let me learn." Six months later you were vice president of the company. What do you call that technique?
WHITE: I never went by the book. I suffered greatly by not taking more than $20, by not saying, "Instead of $40, can you make it $80?" To me, the money is not that important. The knowledge is everything. And if I have to pay you to teach me what you know, I'll pay you. Most people don't live that way, and that's why most people are unhappy. Most of them are so miserable, they're scary. Nobody's doing what they want to do. They're doing what they have to do to get the dollar. I don't do that.
PLAYBOY: Were the obstacles in your career path greater because of your race?
WHITE: Oh, hell, yes! But I wasn't going to let that stop me. In those days you got a black record deal or you got a white record deal. I had to learn how to turn a black record deal into a white record deal. The only way I could do that, I learned, was by being very good at what I did. That's why I was always on my best behavior in the studio, making records, meeting people, getting along with others, doing my best, all of those things you have on your report card. I used to bring my report card home, and it always amazed me that my mother never looked at my grades. She never gave a shit about my grades. But when you turn the report card over, to the part that says, "He did his best, gets along well with others, came every day on time," that's what knocked her out. And I asked her once, "Why do you turn the report card over and not look at my grades?" She said, "It's the other side of this report card that shows me what kind of man you're going to be."
PLAYBOY: We hear you're into astrology, Mr. Virgo. What's the sexiest sign?
WHITE: For me, there's not just one sexy sign. There's Scorpio, Libra and Capricorn. Capricorn women have a classy way of being sexy. All the signs are different. They love differently. They seek love differently. Some signs are more honest than others. Some are more treacherous than others. Certain signs have no business being together. It's a puzzle.
PLAYBOY: You have an enormous presence on Ally McBeal, with characters motivating themselves by dancing to your music in the company bathroom. Was it smart marketing or just a creative story device?
WHITE: Using your music on television every week is going to bring attention to it. But I had nothing to do with that. They genuinely liked my music and started playing it on the show. The next thing that I'm hearing from my friends is, "They're playing your music on Ally McBeal." I asked, "Who's Ally McBeal?" So I tuned in one week and caught it. Yes, it brings attention, and I appreciate that attention, believe me. Not that I was sitting around waiting for Ally McBeal to be invented. I was making records long before Ally McBeal came along.
PLAYBOY: You say you were born with a great sense of rhythm. It's a cliché that a white man can't jump, and he can't dance, either. But can he learn that funky rhythm?
WHITE: It can be learned—for some people. But the person who's got rhythm is the person who's born with it. The person who walks with rhythm, talks with rhythm, everything he does has rhythm. Some people have to be taught how to dance. Some learn it from watching others. For years my son Kevin wouldn't dance with anybody. One day I looked up and Kevin was out on the floor dancing, and I said to myself, I wonder where he learned to do that. He'd been watching other people. But I was born with it. Same thing goes for making love. Some are born with it, some have to read books and some rent videotapes.
PLAYBOY: What is your advice to a man preparing for a date?
WHITE: Dress to impress. And I don't just mean clothes. Make sure your personality is dressed, make sure your honesty is dressed, make sure you're not dealing with fantasies, leading people on. Women often say, "I didn't know he was like this." You knew. He told you. You didn't listen. That's what I taught my five daughters. I taught my children many, many things, but I told my daughters, "You have a power once in your life. When you give that power to somebody, you have to make damn sure that you're right in what you're thinking about that person. What is the one thing that men seek from women more than anything? Sex. That is women's power. Men'll rape or even kill for it. This is a driving force in man that is so great it's scary. You're going to just hand that away?"
PLAYBOY: What were your standard questions for the young men who came to pick up your daughters for a date?
WHITE: You wouldn't envy them. I'd say to a young boy, "What do you want with my daughter? You want to get between her legs, don't you? I know she's killing you, but is it her beauty that's killing you or the fact that you want to be with her sexually?" That would always get them! I always find that honesty is the best policy when you're dealing with my daughters.
PLAYBOY: Did anyone ever answer that question in a way that you found acceptable?
WHITE: No. Because there is no acceptable answer. I know where you want to go, gentlemen. But you have to weigh something: Is it worth it?
PLAYBOY: Staying Power is a title that has many meanings. What does it mean to you?
WHITE: To me, staying power is the fact that I've lived, so far, for 55 years. I chose the record industry to go into and I'm still in that. I've stayed dedicated to my music and to my fans. That's staying power. Yes, it has multiple meanings, sweetheart. That's why I chose it. If you asked Barry White, "What sums up your life to right now?" that's it. I didn't write that song. It was written by two of my writers. But the minute I heard that title, I said. "That's Barry White."
PLAYBOY: What are your secrets for the other meaning of "staying power"?
WHITE: Well, it's not what you have, it's how you use it—whatever you have. Men have to understand women. Most men miscalculate women. Women are into honesty, communication, humor and all of the niceties—flowers, being thoughtful, remembering it's her birthday or Mother's Day. To a man, little things like that are not important. What is not important to you could be the essence of her. And for you to be that sensitive to say to yourself, What are the things she really really likes? That would make her smile.
PLAYBOY: How can a guy figure out what those things are? The woman may not know what she wants.
WHITE: Aha! That's true. People always ask me what I look for in a woman. I love a woman who knows what she wants. What is equally important is a woman who knows how to express in her way, in a woman's way, what she wants. We have a lot of things on us that have different functions. The way you move your fingers, your hands, your arms, your eyes—and in all that you've got this hole in the middle of your face that they call a mouth. Some people think a mouth is just there to make them look pretty. I know that Barry White's voice is different, it's low, it has sex appeal to some women. But what's more important than all of that shit is what comes out of that mouth. That's the most important thing. So arm yourself. Arm yourself for battle. Increase your knowledge. The more you know, the more you grow. That's my secret.
PLAYBOY: Lyrics of some hip-hop songs today do not always reflect respect for women. And a lot of the artists sample your music. Isn't there something missing there?
WHITE: Oh, there's some shit missing! [Laughs] No doubt about it. But it's not missing with all of them. There's good rap and there's bad rap. What I love about young rappers, whether they're respecting or disrespecting, is that they don't lie. Whatever they are singing about, they have seen, they have experienced, they know about it. Why does the music become such a big-selling thing? Because other teenagers have seen this shit, too. Nobody's telling lies. I would love for some of them who are doing hard-core to tone it down. But they're expressing the way they feel, just the way I expressed myself when I first came out on records. My thing wasn't disrespecting; my thing was, Be with your lady, man. Not an orgy, not a free-for-all. Be with your lady and respect her. Give to your lady, love your lady. We always check any rapper who wants to sample my music: You must send a tape in, we must hear it. We've turned down some who had good songs because the words were a little too strong to be connected with my name. See, I care greatly about my name. If I was running after the money, all those songs would have used my music.
PLAYBOY: When can calling a woman "baby" be dangerous?
WHITE: It was in Mobile, Alabama in 1966. I was driving to a gig in Florida and I stopped at a phone booth to call my wife. I got the operator, and I said, "Baby, can you get me area code 213, blah blah blah." "Yes sir, just hold on." And I'm standing there in this phone booth like an asshole, waiting on the operator to come back on the line and hook me up. Then I turn and look, and here comes a police car. "Sir, will you step out of the phone booth, please! There's nobody on the phone, so you can hang up now." "What's the problem, officers?" asked. "We were told you were using profane language on the telephone." I said, "Profane language? When?" They said, "Just now, when you were talking to the operator. Did you call her baby?" I laughed. I had to laugh! It wasn't that I'd used the word baby. It was that it came from a black man to a white woman. That's what it was. I was in the South. I said, "Officers, I'm sorry if I offended anyone." "Well, just don't do it again," they said, "because we have ears everywhere."
PLAYBOY: So how much have we evolved in race relations since then?
WHITE: I don't know about that. I haven't been down to Alabama lately [laughs]! Some places and some people have made progress. But we still have a problem.
PLAYBOY: How did you develop your unique fashion style?
WHITE: I have my own look. That's important to me. That comes from designing my own clothes and picking the person I think can make those clothes: Barry White is a big man. He has to walk a certain way, talk a certain way, look a certain way. And I try to do that to the best of my ability. I did interviews with eight journalists from South Africa recently, and that was their number one question, my clothes. It really surprised me. I'm a simple man. I don't go for flamboyance, I don't go for blowing things up onstage. I let my music speak for me.
PLAYBOY: What is the biggest misconception about Barry White?
WHITE: People are always looking for me to be a freak, weird. What does Barry White do when he relaxes? I play video games. I love my fish. I deal with my dogs. I stay home. I spend time with my children. I'm not a party animal. I once had a lot of horses, but that was just a tax write-off. I don't ride horses. People fall off horses. I don't flirt with danger. I'm not into skydiving or skiing. I know man ignores dangers and goes on anyway. Sonny Bono would still be here if he'd been a little more cautious on those skis. And I'm not sure if JFK Jr. was equipped enough to know how to fly. You know, you have to use common sense with things. Just because you can don't mean you should. That's the question: Was it worth it?