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.
Barry White was in love. In 1972, White had discovered the girl group Love Unlimited. He wrote and produced their songs, and he assembled the massive 40-piece ensemble known as the Love Unlimited Orchestra to back them up. Somewhere along the way, White fell in love with Glodean James, one of the members of Love Unlimited. They got married in 1974, the same year that the Love Unlimited Orchestra hit #1 with “Love’s Theme,” the instrumental that White had written and produced for them — and the same year as “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe.” The story about “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” is pretty simple. One night, Barry White was having trouble sleeping, so instead, he sat up and wrote that song about his wife. That is the kind of thing that songwriters do. But it’s hard to picture.
It’s hard to picture because it’s hard to imagine “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” as something that ever existed as lyrics scrawled on paper. Those lyrics, instead, are pure heat-of-the-moment inspiration: “My darling, my darling, I! Can’t get enough of your love, babe!” Other people have sung “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe,” but those lyrics have only ever made sense coming from Barry White. The song is an instinctive rumble, a seismic shudder of devotion. On “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love Babe,” Barry White sounds like a human volcano, belching up streams of deep affection from somewhere miles beneath the surface of the planet.
Of course, Barry White was a human being, not a natural resource. He was a craftsman who’d written a whole ton of songs before the world even knew of his elemental groan. “Love’s Theme,” his only other #1, didn’t even feature his voice, so it wasn’t just that voice that attracted people to Barry White. And yet “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” sounds mythic and prehistoric. It sounds like what Greek gods might’ve whispered to each other over nectar and ambrosia. And it all comes down to that voice, a planetary tectonic event whispering sweet nothings.
Musically, there’s a lot going on in “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Baby.” The Love Unlimited Orchestra got a full workout. The song has that tense, itchy hi-hat, that luxurious guitar-ripple, and that languid swirl of strings — all before the beat even kicked in. When it snaps into full focus, “Can’t Get Enough” is luxe and pillowy proto-disco, with chintzy dashes of guitar and a driving woodblock bop. There’s a structure to the song, with White building up, again and again, to that titanic chorus. And whenever he gets there, the music raises up and spins around him, like cartoon birds and mice wrapping Cinderella in cloth. Everything sounds so happy!
But White’s voice overwhelms even the symphonic soul all around him. He starts out half-whispering and immediately snaps into a triumphant fireworks-exploding love-growl the instant the beat drops. There’s a fun-if-problematic old Lester Bangs riff about White thrilling a full arena crowd just by prowling his own in-the-round stage, bellowing the word “love” over and over again. But White wasn’t a monotone sex-monster. And he moves through moods and ideas all through “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe,” all while keeping the focus fully on his own endless affection. Lyrically, it’s close to gibberish: “Girl, if I could only make you see / And make you understand / Girl, your love for me is all I need / And more than I can stand.” And yet White puts his everything into it, convincing the world of his overwhelmed bafflement at the force of his own love.
“Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” fit just fine within the 1974 zeitgeist. Within the song, you can hear the tacky splendor of the oncoming disco wave. You can hear the lush richness of Philly soul. You can hear Isaac Hayes, an influence so profound and obvious that, if they’d both existed today, Hayes might’ve sued White. (I wonder if, when Barry White first showed up, people thought of him as the Desiigner to Isaac Hayes’ Future.) In plenty of ways, “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” is merely a fine, derivative example of early-’70s soul music at work. The song doesn’t have the rigor of prime Motown, or the inventive and experimental joy of Stevie Wonder, or the searching power of Curtis Mayfield. It’s also a silly song, and all those layers of crushed-velvet sound don’t exactly reveal any emotional complexity. But White makes it warm and ecstatic and glorious, an eternal koan to human togetherness.
White would never get back to #1, but he’d continue cranking out hits — all of which worked some variation on the “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” message and sound — for years afterward. And when he stopped being a consistent hitmaker, White became a warm and pleasant and gregarious presence in the world, a happy reminder of a happily absurd cultural moment. He was game to show up anywhere, to let that voice loose on any word that anyone asked him to say. And when he died of complications from a stroke in 2003, at the age of 58, he left a whole lot less love in the world.
BONUS BEATS: On a straight-classic 1993 episode of The Simpsons, Barry White, a fan of the show, guested, playing himself and using his vast and sexy voice to save the snakes of Springfield. At the climactic moment, White sang a version of “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” that he recorded expressly for the show. Here’s that bit:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Afghan Whigs’ video for their 1996 cover of “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe,” recorded for the soundtrack of the movie Beautiful Girls: