He'd do anything to get you in the mood

Yes, the Sultan of Smooth Soul was a charmer - but also a bit of a boob

The repeat of My Top Ten: Barry White (2 and 3 December, midnight, 6 Music), first broadcast in 1987, was kind of frightening. The steel of the man. There he was, crushed into a studio with Andy Peebles, one moment molasses and the next metal. "Barry, where have you been hiding in the gap since we last saw you?" asked Peebles, oblivious to the notion that hiding 3,000lb of heaving basso anywhere is a bit ridiculous.

Turns out Barry was having "political problems" with CBS Records and was for a while short of my "own personal money and time" - something to do with a financial crash that "wiped out Texas, and almost me, too". (The scale of Texas sounded about right.) It goes without saying that White delivered the words sentimental and Sunday and believe and perfect in a way that instantly conjured up images of the singer being winched through the roof of Wembley on a plush wing chair, crooning the word baby over and over in a magisterial train-rumble while producing from beneath his cape a single rose, which in his fingers would look like a fly on a particularly voluptuous piece of wallpaper at Versailles.

At the same time, the voice really got on my nerves. Can't the man give it a rest? He really brought out my inner Hattie Jacques. I wanted to put in my curlers and sit up late reading a copy of Woman and Home while he begged at the door. Is this too much information? Anyway, back to Peebles. What a stiff! At one point he expressed his "disappointment" at White's story about mooching around his run-down LA neighbourhood as a child, breaking into people's houses and stealing only their Motown records. But then everything about White's youth sounds like fiction. "Did you really sing on street corners?" asked Peebles, suspiciously.

"Oh yeah, oh yeah," said White. "Night-time, daytime, evening, we sang. We used to greet each other coming down the street, we used to break into song, and all of a sudden you see these five guys coming up on each other and singing, and once we got together we'd all hit those harmony notes."

Oh, Barry, that's so St John's Wood. As a rule, White's song choices were of the kind you hear in films with flashback scenes to diners where young people sit pledging to go to Vietnam before they've even lost their virginity (the Flamingos, the Supremes, and so on), but at one point he did choose a totally insane song by the Whisperers called "In the Mood", which basically went: "I'll do anything to get you in the mood. To get you in the mood. The mood, baby, the mood. We-could-take-a-shower-you-could-love-it-for-an-hour, oh anything, anything, anything to get you in the mood" (repeat until death).

And you're virtually passing out with boredom thinking: For chrissakes, Barry, surely there are easier ways? After which he starts rather unyieldingly to refer to himself in the third person, as in "Barry White is happy as a producer and songwriter and composer and musician and puts his heart into everything" and "Because of the resonance of Barry White's voice it's been hard to handle him over the years. But it's a thrilling thing." For who exactly? You big boob.

Pick of the week

Book at Bedtime
15 December, 10.45pm, Radio 4
David Jason narrates “A Christmas Carol” (couldn’t they have got Jeremy Irons?).

Marc Riley
16 December, 7pm, 6 Music
Johnny Marr, former lead guitarist of the Smiths, curates a show, overseen by Riley.

Hansel and Gretel
16 December, 7.20pm, Radio 3
Live from the Royal Opera House.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech