Illustration (c) 2010, John Breiner
In the early 1990s, I was a struggling urban pop writer who had fallen into writing about hip-hop culture (meaning, mostly rap music) for various publications. Having already co-authored the rap book Bring the Noise in 1991 with my brother from another Havelock Nelson, I'd talked my way into The Source magazine, which had recently opened their New York office. A piece on Poor Righteous Teachers was my first story for them.
While I obviously loved rap music, unlike some of the folks I worked with, I was seasoned enough to remember the so-called old school of soul: of Larry Graham plucking his bass, of Earth, Wind & Fire tearing up the place and Gladys Knight riding the midnight train with Chaka Khan. While I dug the production prowess of Prince Paul, Marley Marl and Sam Sever, my REAL heroes were Gamble & Huff, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.
"Before they were samples, they were songs," I snidely told one young writer who asked me if I had ever heard of Mandrill. Yet, with exception of a few small newspapers, fanzines and Ebony or Essence, there wasn't any magazines that featured in-depth features on soul/R&B artists until Vibe opened their doors in 1993.
In the beginning, The Source and Vibe reminded the geek in me of the days when comic book fan boys fought about who was better, DC or Marvel. One day I'd love to tell my own version of life behind the scenes at those magazines including their "friendly" rivalry, the bugged behavior of certain writers/editors and the beautiful hustle of working as a team to put out the best products possible. Alas, this is not that story.
However, while I was writing cover stories for The Source, the first being a blunted feature on Cypress Hill shot by photographer extraordinaire Danny Hastings, it was a year before I got a feature assignment at Vibe that was bigger than a record review or 500 words on Black Sheep or Pete Rock and CL Smooth.
"Do you want to go to Europe to interview Barry White?" former Vibe music editor Danyel Smith asked one afternoon in the fall of 1994. Staring with disbelief for a minute, I shook my head and smiled. Besides being a good friend at the time, Danyel had a knack for pairing writers with stories she knew they could set aflame. For me, that story was the 1994 comeback of the walrus of love. While I later learned that I had gotten the assignment because writer Gerri Hirshey, whose book Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music is one of my Black pop bibles, had turned it down, I was determined to pen a piece worthy of B.W.
In 1994, it was as rare (as in never!) for an old "disco" artist to make a real comeback that didn't offer some kind of kitsch appeal, but Barry was different. With "Practice What You Preach" (co-written by the late Gerald Levert) riding high in the charts, White proved that he was true to himself and his fans that he was still the man. As a kid, I could remember seeing big boned Barry on various talk shows looking regal; as an adult, I had danced many nights away (including on memorable martini fueled party at surreal Max Ernst's east village abode) to Barry's beat.
Coming home one night as my late girlfriend Lesley Pitts was cooking in the kitchen while grooving to the man's greatest hits collection, for some reason I wanted to change the music. "What do you want to hear?" she asked.
"I don't know. How about some Led Zeppelin?"
"Well," Lesley said, turning away from the stove, "do you want the food to taste like Led Zeppelin or do you want it to taste like Barry White."
The day that I arrived at the five-star Stanhope Hotel in Brussels, I walked through a conference room where a bunch of kids were dressed like various Disney characters. Looking at me as I passed through on the way to my room, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs started screaming, "Barry White, Barry White." Quickly, I explained that I was the other fat Black man staying there. Later that night, I was looking out the window when some Arab dude on the street screamed up, "Is Barry White staying there?"
"I don't know," I answered. Looking sad, he said, "I've lost my job. I've lost my wife. All I want to do is see Barry White." While I couldn't help the brother, I was blessed to be able to spend hours with B.W as well as going to two shows and interviewing his musical director Jack Perry and then-manager Ned Shankman. Barry and his camp made my extremely nervous self quite comfortable. I even broke one of my rules and asked B.W. for two autographs: one for mommy and the other for myself.
Although Blackberry Jam (hey, I didn't write the titles) was the best piece I could have written at the time, discovering the transcripts more than a decade later, I realized there was another story that needed to be told, one that placed Barry White in the context of famed California music producers Phil Spector, Sly Stone, Brian Wilson, Quincy Jones, Lou Adler and others. After reading British rock historian Barney Hoskyns' seminal book Waiting for the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes and the Sound of Los Angeles, I knew I wanted to re-examine and re-define White's musical influence (walls of soul, dancing strings) beyond the obvious.
Thankfully, one of my favorite magazines Wax Poetics, under the editorships of Andre Torres and Brian DiGenti, gave me the opportunity to "dig deeper" into the musical history of the man famed music critic Lester Bangs once described as a "molasses-voiced monument." In issue #42, which also features pieces on Gil Scott Heron, Erykah Badu, Joi and D'Angelo (more on that story later) my 5,000 word mini-movie on Barry White is the current cover story.
Although known for my modesty (really, I am) Big Love is one of the best pieces I've ever written; my only hope is that it not only entertains, but also educates a generation of soul children who might not be aware of "the maestro's" extensive history from Watts gang member to burly doo-wop singer to on the road drummer to musical icon.
As a side bar, I'd like to give a shout-out to Brooklyn-based artist John Breiner for allowing me to use his beautiful illustration of Barry White for this blog. Having met him a few years back, I've been a fan of his work since day one. Although it is my plan to write about the man and his stunning work, as well as hopefully collaborate on a story or two, for now please check out his website and blog; the dude is amazing.