White was born Barry Eugene Carter in Galveston, Texas and grew up in the high-crime areas of South Central Los Angeles. White was the elder of two brothers; his brother Darryl is 13 months younger. As a child, White grew up listening to his mother's classical music collection. White first took to the piano emulating what he heard on the records. White's introduction to music later led to him playing piano on Jesse Belvin's hit single, "Goodnight My Love". During his teenage years, Barry and his brother got involved with crime and gang activity. At age 17, he was jailed for four months for stealing $30,000 worth of Cadillac tires.
While in jail, White listened to Elvis Presley singing "It's Now or Never" on the radio, an experience he later credited with changing the course of his life. After his release, he left gang life and began a musical career at the dawn of the 1960s in singing groups before going out on his own in the middle of the decade.The marginal success he had to that point was as a songwriter. His songs were recorded by rock singer Bobby Fuller and TV bubblegum act The Banana Splits.
In 1972, he got his big break producing a girl group he had discovered called Love Unlimited. Formed in imitative style of the Motown girl group The Supremes, the group members had gradually honed their talents with White for two years previously until they signed contracts with Uni Records. His best friend, music industry businessman Larry Nunes, helped to finance their album. After it was recorded, Nunes took the recording to Russ Regan, who was the head of the Uni label owned by MCA. The album, 1972's "From A Girl's Point of View We Give to You... Love Unlimited" became a million album seller.
White wanted to work with another act but decided to work with a solo male artist. While working on a few demos for a male singer, he made three song demos of himself singing and playing, but Nunes heard them and insisted that he re-record and release them himself as a solo recording artist. After arguing for days about it, White was finally persuaded to release the songs himself although he was initially reluctant to step out in front of the microphone.
He then wrote several other songs and recorded them for what eventually became an entire album of music. He was going to use the name "White Heat," but decided on using his given name instead. White was still hesitating up to the time the label copy was made. It eventually became the first solo White album, 1973's "I've Got So Much to Give". It included the title track and his first solo chart hit, "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby", which also rose to #1 on the Billboard R&B charts as well as #3 on the Billboard Pop charts in 1973 and stayed in the top 40 for many weeks.
In 1972 White created The Love Unlimited Orchestra, a 40-piece orchestral group to be used originally as a backing band for the girl-group Love Unlimited. However, White had other plans, and in 1974 he released an album of their music titled "Rhapsody in White", yielding the now-timeless composition "Love's Theme," reaching #1 on the Billboard Pop charts. It was one of only a handful of instrumental recordings ever to do so.
White is sometimes credited with ushering in the "disco" sound, seamlessly combining R&B music with classical music. Some also regard the song as the first hit in the actual "disco era", but Nino Tempo & the 5th Ave Sax Band's song "Sister James" had already reached the Billboard Hot 100 a few months before and had a disco sound in its own right.
He would continue to make albums with the Orchestra, but never achieved the same kind of success with his debut album. The Orchestra ceased to make albums in 1983, but continued to support White as a backing band.
Although White's success on the pop charts slowed down as the disco era came to an end, he maintained a loyal following throughout his career. Despite several albums over the next three years he failed to repeat his earlier successes, with no singles managing to reach the Billboard Hot 100 except for 1982's "Change," climbing into the Billboard R&B Top 20 (#12). His label venture was exacting a heavy financial cost on White, so he concentrated on mostly touring and finally folded his label in 1983.
His final album, 1999's Staying Power, resulted in his last hit song "Staying Power," which placed #45 on the Billboard R&B charts. The single won him two Grammy Awards in the categories Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.
He suffered a stroke in May 2003, after which he was forced to retire from public life. On July 4, 2003, he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after suffering from complete renal failure. White was cremated, and his ashes were scattered by his family off the California coast.