Big Joe Meets “The Maestro of Love”
This weekend as we play love songs in honor of Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but think of an incredible dinner I had with "The Maestro" Barry White, one of the ultimate artists who made a great career writing, producing, and singing love songs.
Barry White had a tough upbringing. He grew up in the South Central section of Los Angeles. It was he and his younger brother Darryl along with his mom. The tough neighborhood engulfed Barry and his brother as they became involved in gangs, fights, and crime.
When Barry wasn’t on the streets his mother would listen to classical music and Barry would emulate what he heard on a beat-up piano that his mother had. At the age of 11, he would write pieces of music on that piano not knowing how to read music. It was a distraction from the tough streets of crime that was outside his window.
Barry had an epiphany in 1960 when at the age of 16 he was arrested for stealing over $30,000 worth of Cadillac tires. He was sent to jail and that arrest changed his life. He admitted to taking a self-evaluation of his life and the choices that lie ahead, would it be a life of crime and gangs, or would he follow his love and passion for music and get out of South Central.
His choice was clear and his conviction was strong. Knowing that he had to get out of that neighborhood he set his sights on Los Angeles. It was 15 to 20 miles away and he had never been there. He told his mother that he was leaving, he had no money, no job, nothing but he was determined. His mother took it hard and of course, was worried for his safety. He walked the 20 miles to Los Angeles and ended up on the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine. He stood there for almost four hours just taking it all in. No fights, no gangs, no litter, people smiling at him as they passed.
This is where he would be. Leaving South Central was a decision that probably saved his life as his brother Darryl was killed in a gang fight in the neighborhood in 1983..
His two friends ended up getting a small record contract and within three days of landing in Los Angeles, he had a job as their road manager. He went on the road traveling throughout the country immersing himself in the music business and as a result, the rest as they say is history.
Barry was a writer, a performer, a producer, and a conductor. His legacy is amazing. During his career in the music business, Barry achieved an amazing 106 gold albums worldwide, 41 of which also attained platinum status. Barry had 20 gold and 10 platinum singles, with worldwide sales of over 100 million dollars.
I had a great dinner with Barry back in 1990. I was with an entertainment company at the time and I set up a dinner to talk with Barry about a possible TV show featuring Barry as the host and showcasing other upcoming artists. The show would also feature some legends of the R&B world who would be interviewed by Barry.
The dinner took place at L’Orangerie, a high-end beautiful French restaurant in LA. We had a nice table, and it was Barry with his lady friend, he was recently separated, and just me. Barry had a beverage and I got the impression that he wasn’t too keen on meeting me. After all, he’s a busy guy and it looked like he was anxious to get this over with.
Well he hears my voice and starts to smile, he wants to know a little about my background and I tell him and the conversation starts to flow. We talked about music, I was asking him about his writing and he’s telling me that for him the melody always comes first. It’s the music, then the lyrics and the lyrics are a result of the feel of the music. The music frames the scenario of the lyrics.
We talked about our mothers and the influence they had, we talked about traveling and how so comfortable he is at home. We ate great food, we laughed and I found every time that Barry would speak, my voice would get a little deeper and my pace was slower. The both of us sounded like a gravel pit.
I had a blast. It turned into a three-hour dinner. Our waitress was hanging around the table a little more than a normal server would. When it came time for the check she handed it to me and said “I don’t care which one of you gentlemen it is, but would one of you call me tonight and talk to me while I’m in bed?” She was kidding, I think. I laughed and so did Barry and without missing a beat Barry’s lady friend said pointing to Barry, “It ain’t going to be him!”
At the end of the meal, I started to pitch the show idea to Barry and within five minutes he politely said no. He explained his schedule and commitments wouldn't allow him to take on such a big project. The whole purpose of our meeting that night ended up being such a small part of the great conversation. It didn’t matter that Barry said no; I had one great dinner that I'll never forget with "The Maestro." Barry died from complications from diabetes and a stroke in July of 2003, at the young age of 58. His music lives on.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 weekend host Big Joe Henry. Any opinions expressed are Big Joe’s own.