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Essay

Love, Unlimited

How a Stranger and a Meeting With Barry White Proved What Conquers All

October 19, 2003|Steven Ivory | Steven Ivory is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who last wrote for the magazine on Vidal Sassoon.

"I'm a reporter, and I'm on my way to interview Barry White."

Not quite. In 1974, I was an 18-year-old radio broadcasting major at Los Angeles City College, just off the hay wagon from Oklahoma City, who aspired to be an entertainment reporter.

But, remarkably, I was on my way to meet R&B star Barry White. Back then, I did something you wouldn't be able to do so easily today: I simply called 20th Century-Fox Records' publicity department and requested an interview for LACC's on-campus radio station. I figured my chances of getting an audience with White were slim and none.

Amazingly, his publicist said yes, so I was standing on a corner in Hollywood, chatting with a stranger and waiting for the last of three city buses that would take me from my Aunt Jewel's to White's offices on Sunset Boulevard.

We had talked about a little of everything by the time I spotted my bus in the distance.

"Barry White, huh?" the stranger said.

"Yep, Barry White," I replied with the nonchalance of Dan Rather counting bus fare.

"I always thought Barry White was a cool dude."

Silence.

"Hey," he said, with oh-by-the-way-finesse. "Think I could tag along?"

I looked at this man. In his early twenties, he carried a small backpack, his denim tattered beyond fashionable, and while he didn't exactly appear homeless, his greasy blond mane suggested a bath was overdue. Besides, he didn't look like a Barry White fan. I didn't think twice about my answer.

"Sure, I don't see why not."

The bus opened its doors and we were off.

To truly grasp my naivete is to understand just how hot Barry White was in 1974. Casting a shadow on Isaac Hayes as pop's preeminent deep-voiced, sexy soul singer, this was the year White scored with such legend-building classics as "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up" and "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe." He not only crafted international hits for himself and his girl group, Love Unlimited, but that year, under the moniker Love Unlimited Orchestra, White scored a No. 1 smash with the elevator music instrumental, "Love's Theme."

In the elevator up to White's Soul Unlimited Productions suite, I firmly explained to the could-be serial killer that I would do all the talking. This was my turf, I sniffed; I was a professional. "Hey, no problem, man," chirped my accomplice. "You won't even know I'm there."

If anyone at White's operation thought us an odd couple--he with his broke-hippie motif and me under an electrified afro, resembling two-thirds of a poor man's "Mod Squad"--no one let on. In the reception area, we sat in anxious silence for several minutes before Diane Taylor, a member of Love Unlimited doing double-duty as his secretary, took us to her boss.

Meeting White was a religious experience. Harold Robbins could not have written a more vivid, cliched scene than the physically formidable Maestro, wearing a white short-sleeved dress shirt, dark slacks and a chemically treated coiffure and sitting behind a large, custom baby-blue desk, in a baby-blue office with baby-blue walls, shag carpet and drapes. A U.S. president or mob boss could not have appeared to wield more power.

Containing my excitement, I turned on my recorder and began to ask questions. It wasn't until my Rebel Without a Motorcycle began to discreetly dig through his bag that it occurred to me just what a stupid thing I'd done by inviting a stranger into a professional situation. Thank God his search produced only a pen and pad. He would pretend to be a reporter.

We started at noon and were to be gone in an hour. Graciously, White put up with us all day. He played us unreleased music. He told jokes. We watched him eat lunch--a single broiled hamburger patty and lettuce. "I'm on a diet," he announced.

That day, White was what I'd come to revere years later as a journalist's dream: a man sufficiently self-assured, both as a person and in his work, to speak his mind freely and earnestly, expletives and trademark "right ons" included, on most anything you'd ask him. Before White, I can't say I'd met anyone who didn't have to pay an apparent price for being himself, and for a country boy like me, it was quite a revelation. At one point, in the midst of discussing the fruits of his career, White pronounced, "Whatever you do in this life, never forget that love, not money, is what makes the world go 'round."

Perhaps, but even White's love had its parameters. During the many phone calls he took in our presence, he was often shrewd, sometimes harsh as he discussed assorted music business. He reprimanded one caller for saying "uh" too many times. When it came to business, Barry White was all business. I recall thinking I would never want to be on his bad side.

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