Barry White’s role as one of the undisputed kings of Soul cannot be denied. In the 1970s, he earned the reputation of being one of the decade’s smoothest aphrodisiacs, thanks to his rich, deep voice and compositional style that blended R&B, Pop, and Disco together into a sexy, cohesive whole. That he was a physically intimidating man only added to the allure; a man of over 400 pounds, his sexy voice made up for any unattractiveness. But White was more than just a singer; he was also an expert studio musician as well. Thus, when success came his way, he used his clout to launch Love Unlimited Orchestra. The seven albums he made for 20thCentury Records have recently been compiled in a no-frills box set, offering them in one fell swoop, resulting in a mostly enjoyable yet ultimately frustrating listen.
Though the group was ostensibly named in tribute to the soul trio Love Unlimited—who were also produced by White, and who featured as backing singers on his solo recordings—they had very little to do with the concept. White envisioned this project as a means to promote the orchestra that accompanied him and featured heavily in the arrangements on his hits. Thus was born an instrumental-minded project that was as equally related to MFSB and The Salsoul Orchestra as it was to Henry Mancini and Percy Faith. For the time, the concept was a sophisticated one, and White was adept enough as a producer to pull it off without coming across as pretentious.
Love Unlimited Orchestra began on a high note; their debut single, “Love’s Theme,” was released in 1973 to critical and commercial acclaim. Its distinctive arrangement—it’s a purely orchestral number that sounds not unlike a Mike Post television theme—made the listener feel as if they’d heard the song before, and its familiarity and pleasantness soon led it to the top of the charts. The orchestra’s debut album, Rhapsody In White, would appear in early 1974, and would also find chart and commercial success. It’s unsurprising, really; the album is loaded with mellow and seductive numbers such as “Baby Blues” and “Midnight And You.” Even without his distinctive voice, White is able to seduce with his orchestral arrangements and compositional acumen.
To highlight that this was no mere vanity project but a true artistic endeavor, the orchestra’s second album of 1974, Together Brothers, was a cinematic score. Considering his success at the time, it’s a surprising record; instead of lush, epic ballads, the album consists of incidental music and brief cinematic pieces. Furthermore, for a star to score a low-budget film should be seen as a testament to said film’s quality—and it does. The film is a gritty tale of urban youth trying to solve the murder of a beloved neighborhood police officer, and White’s score works masterfully within the confines of the plot. It might not have been an obvious direction for White to take his orchestra, but it was nothing less than satisfying.
As if the year wasn’t already hectic enough for White, a third Love Unlimited Orchestra album appeared, White Gold. It returns to the lush and intoxicatingly sexy groove of Rhapsody, and is all the better for it. Furthermore, White appears in a vocal role; though he doesn’t sing on the songs, he does add his sexy touch with spoken word introductions on “Spanish Lei,” “Power Of Love,” and “Always Thinking of You,” all of which add a dramatic effect. White Gold would also be a commercial success, even if it didn’t chart quite as good as its predecessors. Their fourth album, Music Maestro Please, would appear in early 1975, and sonically it doesn’t differ all that much.
Unfortunately, after such superior releases, the quality of the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s material began to slip. The arrangements began to wander away from the slow-jam R&B of the earlier records and into a distinctive Easy Listening direction. The group’s fifth record, My Sweet Summer Suite, which appeared in 1976, is a very light and fluffy album, one that moves distinctively away from the R&B sex groove and more into a disco/easy listening hybrid. That doesn’t take away from the album in any way; it is quite easy on the ears, especially the breezy “Brazilian Love Song” and “Blues Concerto,” but if you’ve invested in White’s music up to this point, you might find this having more in common with Mantovanti and Muzak than with Marvin Gaye.
The last two albums for 20thCentury Fox are almost worth ignoring completely. My Musical Bouquet, released in 1978, was a thematically connected album; each song contains a spoken passage relating his lover to flowers, and feature backup singers. Sadly, the album sounds exactly what critics at the time initially feared the project was—a collection of Barry White outtakes repackaged in order to make a quick buck. He doesn’t actually sing on any of the numbers; thus, the album simply feels like a group of songs White couldn’t be arsed to write lyrics for.
Yet that doesn’t compare with the abysmal seventh and final album for 20thCentury Records, 1979’s Super Movie Themes: Just A Little Bit Different. It isn’t anything like the records that came before it; it’s a straight up elevator music record with a smattering of disco beat. As the title suggests, the album largely consists of covers of contemporary movie themes, many recognizable and distinctive on their own, and none of there were really in need of getting the 101 Strings treatment. How exciting could easy listening disco versions of the theme songs to Superman or to Grease or to Shaft actually be? Answer: not very. Only the reverential take “The Way We Were” might be worth listening to more than once. The adjective that best describes this album is “pointless,” and nowhere is that more evident than on the cover of “Theme From ‘A Summer Place,’” which already existed as a disco cover—it being the very final single Percy Faith released before his death. (It isn’t surprising that the album ended his relationship with the label; what was surprising was that it wasn’t the end of the group. They would release two more albums—and if you thought the two just mentioned were bad, these final releases were even worse.)
It’s a shame that such a talented producer and such a unique concept came to such an inglorious, embarrassing end. One would be best advised to ignore the final two albums of this otherwise mostly stellar set, because when Love Unlimited Orchestra got it right, man, they really got it right.