July 21, 2003 12:00 PM

Even without music, he could undress you with his velvety baritone alone. But Barry White, who sold more than 100 million records and probably inspired at least that many couples to make love, always laughed off his image as the Disco Dionysus. “I’m not a master of the bedroom,” he told PEOPLE in 1999, tour years before dying of kidney failure at 58. His fans, and their offspring, might take issue with that statement, but they’d surely agree that the R&B crooner was, as he once put it, “born under a sign named blessed.”

In fact, White, who was born in Galveston and grew up on the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles, was blessed with the good sense to get out of gang life at 15 and into music. (Hearing Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” on the radio while serving time for stealing tires was a wake-up call, he said.) By 1971, even before his career took off with “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” and other sultry hits, “he drove the women absolutely nuts,” says San Francisco Chronicle pop critic Joel Selvin. “He created an archetype: warm, safe, not threatening. The Walrus of Love.”

In the post-disco ’80s White saw his career—and fortune—ebb. “Our lifestyle—it eats up money,” said the twice-wed father of eight and great-grandfather of five. He bounced back in the ’90s, thanks in part to the showcasing of his music on Ally McBeal, and in 2000 he won his first two Grammys (for his album Staying Power).

With success came excess. “I never saw this guy without a cigarette,” says Marc Eliot, coauthor of White’s 1999 memoir, Love Unlimited. “He didn’t take care of himself.” Last September a stroke left him hospitalized in L.A. In May his lover, Katherine Denton, 37, gave birth to a daughter, Barrianna. White’s death followed weeks later on July 4. “He had his family around him,” says Eliot. “They knew he was going. He died peacefully.”

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