Barry White (born Sept. 12, 1944) epitomized the come-hither lover man of ‘70s soul music – imagine Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On spread out over an entire career, but sung/spoken by a man with a voice that was deeper than a valley and imbued with strange sensual powers. His albums went gold and platinum and his singles soared up the pop and R&B charts; moreover, they also provided the soundtrack to many couples’ boudoirs, pretty much epitomizing the kind of silky sound referred to as “baby-makin’ music.”
How could such a thing ever go out of style? Yet, it did, and by the turn of the ‘80s, White was exiled to the lower rungs of the charts and compelled to mostly ply his craft on the road. He started a comeback in the ‘90s, which culminated with his 1994 album The Icon is Love, which lodged itself back in the Top 20 of the pop album chart and No. 1 on the R&B album chart. And it wasn’t just a wave of nostalgia that took White there – he was speaking to another generation of listeners, possibly some of the same folks conceived while his earlier records were playing.
There was one bona-fide pop hit that emerged from The Icon is Love, and it’s a fine one. “Practice What You Preach” combines a little braggadocio (“I've had my share of lovers / And some say I'm damn good”) with a little yearning to issue a challenge to his lover – one she undoubtably accepted.
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“Come On” is one of two collaborations between White and the hitmaking Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The song sounds like it could have fit nicely on Can't Get Enough (1974) or Just Another Way to Say I Love You (1975), which is to say Jam and Lewis added a modern flip to the Bary White sound. His voice and background singers and the strings (those glorious strings) are all there, but the beat is different – there’s no disco rhythm here, but a contemporary groove.
That light New Jack rhythm also drives “The Time is Right,” which White co-wrote with Chuckii Booker. White sings of wanting “no lies, no games, no tricks” – and the music echoes that – it’s straight-up R&B with some tasty guitar lines, to boot. And White gets ALL worked up at the end.
“Sexy Undercover” finds White both playing coy and being very forward. “You know I’m as shy as they come / Until I get behind closed doors,” he sings in one breath, while also letting his beloved know “I’ll share my wildest fantasies / You never thought it’d be like this.” It makes one wonder what the room might’ve looked like behind those closed doors.
But things don’t always work out. “Whatever We Had, We Had,” the album’s closing track, finds White bidding farewell to a lover, and possibly the listener, too. It’s almost all talking: “We had our run / Good times, sad times, the fun times, the bad times / … And there's no reason we shouldn't end as friends.” This is perhaps the sexiest letdown ever committed to tape.
The Icon is Love sold more than two million copies, putting Barry White firmly in a contemporary framework as the ‘90s hit their mid-point. It’s still a record worth going back to enjoy today. Or maybe tonight.