In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
If you’re even vaguely familiar with Barry White, then you know the man for his voice. Nobody has ever sounded like Barry White. Barry White sounded like Isaac Hayes getting a sensual massage from a foghorn. He sounded like James Earl Jones Tuvan throat-singing through a tuba — a tuba somehow made out of satin and honey. He sounded like a tender, loving earthquake. That’s the voice that got White cast in multiple Simpsons guest-voice roles — the voice that attracted all the sexy snakes in Springfield. That voice is absurd and wonderful, and it’s the key to Barry White’s entire appeal. So it’s baffling that Barry White’s first #1 hit didn’t have his voice on it at all. That’s pop music for you. Nothing makes any fucking sense.
The Love Unlimited Orchestra was Barry White’s baby, his absurd and quixotic and quite successful gimmick. White had grown up playing piano and listening to his mother’s classical records in Galveston, Texas. After an abbreviated teenage career as a criminal — he did a few months in jail for stealing Cadillac tires — White cut some singles as a solo artist in early-’60s LA. But when his singing career didn’t immediately pan out, he became a behind-the-scenes figure, working as an A&R guy, a producer, and an arranger. In 1968, he wrote “Doin’ The Banana Split,” a song for the cartoon-and-goofy-costume band the Banana Splits — so when White did all those Simpsons guest voices, he was really just returning to his roots.
In 1972, White discovered, produced, and mentored Love Unlimited, a Supremes-style girl group. White’s big innovation was to surround Love Unlimited with the Love Unlimited Orchestra, a massive 40-piece ensemble that helped turn their songs into grand, opulent crushed-velvet silliness. Love Unlimited did pretty well for themselves, peaking at #14 with 1972’s “Walkin’ In The Rain With The One I Love.” But White truly found success when he spun the Love Unlimited Orchestra off into its own entity, leaving the group behind.
When White first wrote “Love’s Theme,” he reportedly intended to put vocals on it. (Love Unlimited did record a version of the song, with lyrics from Elvis Presley collaborator Aaron Schroeder, but that version wasn’t the one that hit.) According to one of his collaborators, White heard Gene Page’s string arrangement and decided that he didn’t want to ruin the track by adding vocals. So “Love’s Theme” instead exists as an ultra-chintz instrumental, a monument to crass sophistication.
It’s possible to hear “Love’s Theme” as a parody of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s orchestral soul music — an example of what can happen when you remove all the gospel grunt and leave only the symphonic melodrama. But it also sounds a whole lot like the big-band easy listening music of ’60s hitmakers like Paul Mauriat and Henry Mancini. (“Love’s Theme” made it into the top 10 on Billboard‘s R&B chart, but it did tellingly better on the Adult Contemporary chart, where it was #1 for two weeks.) And of course, the song also helped pave the way for the urbane dance-floor dramatics of disco. “Love’s Theme” isn’t quite a disco song — the beat’s not strong enough — but it contains plenty of what would soon become disco.
Listening to “Love’s Theme” now, it’s striking how all the song’s elements seem like they should be at war with each other. The itchy hi-hats and chicken-scratch wah-wah guitars come straight from Isaac Hayes’ psychedelic Stax epics. The strings, on the other hand, sound ripped straight from the score of a ’40s romance. And there’s a nattering guitar line that’s pure ’70s novelty; Van McCoy would soon built “The Hustle,” a song that will show up in this column, around an almost identical one. None of this should work together, and yet all those pieces somehow interlock. Together, they become something that’s both pleasantly forgettable and lightly irritating, the way only background music can be. The Barry White hits that lasted are the ones where his voice is front and center, and this column will get to one of those soon enough. But even without that voice, he had something.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Italian house crew Black Box’s video for their 1989 single “Ride On Time,” which sampled “Love’s Theme”:
(Black Box had two different singles that peaked at #8: 1990’s “Everybody Everybody” and 1991’s “Strike It Up,” both 8s. [“Strike It Up” would probably be a 9 if it didn’t have any Euro-rapping on it.])
BONUS BONUS BEATS: UK synthpop greats Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark took the “Love’s Theme” melody and used it as the basis for their 1993 single “Dream Of Me (Based On Love’s Theme).” Here’s that:
(OMD’s highest-charting single is “If You Leave,” which peaked at #4 in 1986. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s DJ Jazzy Jeff chopping up a “Love’s Theme” sample on his 2007 Method Man collab “Hold It Down”:
(Jeff’s highest-charting single is the DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince track “Summertime,” which peaked at #4 in 1991. That’s an 8. Meanwhile, Method Man’s highest-charting single is the Mary J. Blige collab “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By,” which peaked at #3 in 1995. It’s a 9.)