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He was born into a Jamaican family in Kingston. His father was a dockworker, his mother a housewife. White first began to learn music by listening to the radio and singing Nat King Cole songs. He was also inspired by the American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. White was a founding member of The Jamaican Folk Singers, sang with the and trained at the Jamaican School of Music.
In a visit to Jamaica, Evelyn Rothwell, the wife of conductor Sir John Barbirolli, heard him sing and suggested that he go to study in London. Instead, his father bought him a one-way ticket to New York City, because "the flight was cheaper". He won a scholarship and continued his studies with bass Giorgio Tozzi at the Juilliard School. While at Juilliard, he was selected by Maria Callas to participate in the master classes she gave there from 1971 to 1972.
In May 1971, White made his debut as the runaway slave Jim in the Juilliard American Opera production of Hall Overton's opera, Huckleberry Finn. He next appeared with New York City Opera in 1974 as Colline in La bohème. In 1976, he made his London opera debut with English National Opera as Seneca in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, having starred with Leona Mitchell that year in the first truly complete recording of Porgy and Bess. He has since sung at the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, Opéra Bastille, the opera houses of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the major European cities as well as the Festivals at Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, Verbier, and Salzburg.