Doctor Feelgood

updated 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

BARRY WHITE'S BOTTOMLESS BASSO, smooth as satin sheets and as soothing as a hot-oil back rub, can make even words like "gingivitis" and "Pataki" sound seductive—as White proved on David Letterman's recent prime-time special. And that voice, on 70s under-the-covers anthems like "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe," has aided countless romances and comforted myriad lovesick hearts—not to mention charming thousands of snakes from their domain on an episode of The Simpsons. "I'm a doctor no different than one in the biggest hospital," rumbles White, an overwhelming presence as he sits, Buddha-like, in a suite in New York City's Palace Hotel. "Except I don't have to cut you to make you feel good."

And love has recently been kind again to White, 50. In the 70s, he had seven Top 10 singles and 11 gold or platinum albums as writer, producer and arranger of disco-soul hits by Love Unlimited (the female trio led by his second wife, Glodean James), his 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra and, of course, himself. In one year, 1973, White sold $16 million worth of records. But by the '80s, punk and new-wave music had muscled White's come-ons off the charts. "It didn't bother me," says White, who continued to record and to tour in Europe and elsewhere. "Who's No. 1? I've never been into all that. I make music because I love that lady called music."

The feeling is once again mutual. White's recently released 20th solo album, The Icon Is Love, has gone platinum, and its first single, "Practice What You Preach," White's first Top 20 pop hit since 1978, has earned him his sixth Grammy nomination and a new generation of fans. Jimmy "Jam" Harris, who produced albums for Janet Jackson and who worked with White on Icon, says, "A couple of his recent albums were a bit trendy and high-tech studiowise. But this record is more to the original flavor he had in the 70s."

Barry and his brother Darryl, younger by 13 months, were raised in the ghettos of East L.A. by their mother, Sadie Carter, a single mom forced onto welfare when her chronic arthritis ended a three-film acting career (she had a bit part in 1931's Trader Horn). His father, machinist Melvin White, was rarely in the picture. "He couldn't live with us," says White. "He already had a wife and children." Barry took up piano at age 5 after hearing Sadie play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." "That blew my mind," he says. "I will never forget that day." At 8, he was singing in church choirs, and by 15 he was directing one.

But music didn't stop him from getting sucked into gang violence with his brother. Darryl didn't make it out alive: He was shot during a street brawl in 1983. "I wasn't surprised," White says evenly. "He loved crime like I love music." Barn-was luckier. At 16, he spent seven months in jail for stealing tires; he swore he'd never wind up there again. "That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he says. "Jail made Barry White force himself to turn his life around."

Three days after White was released, friends asked him to sing on a single they were cutting. Once in the studio, "I knew that I would be in the music business forever," he says. But success proved elusive. White landed gigs singing, playing piano and writing for indie labels throughout the '60s, but he was supporting his family—first wife Betty Smith and their four children—mainly with low-wage jobs and welfare checks. The marriage foundered under the strain of poverty and ended after seven years. Then, in 1972, White struck gold with Love Unlimited's "Walkin' in the Rain with the One I Love." "After 11 years of struggle," he says, "that lady named music said, 'Hey, Barry White, I love you too.' "

She's the only lady in his life right now. White, who moved from L.A. to Las Vegas last year, was divorced from James in 1988 after 14 years of marriage and is "not looking for anybody," he says. He remains close to his eight children from two marriages and one other relationship (they range in age from 34 to 18), some of whom are in the L.A. area while others live near his sumptuous Vegas home. He retreated there last year after his Sherman Oaks spread took a beating from January's Northridge earthquake. "I could hear the steel beams crying, wood twisting and bending," he says. "I don't want to feel the violence of nature like that again."

Now content in Vegas with his beloved 500-gallon aquarium of saltwater fish ("I must have spent over $200,000 on fish over the years") and his career back in high gear, White says, "I've got everything. Coming from the ghettos of Los Angeles, I've turned my life from negative to positive. I've lived. I've made my mark. I'm probably the happiest being you'll ever sit with in your life."

JEREMY HELLIGAR in New York City

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