DeBarge was a sibling music group of American origin whose repertoire included soul, funk and pop. Active as a professional recording group from 1979 to 1989, the group was one of the few recording acts to bring success to the Motown label during the 1980s.
The DeBarge family are the children of Robert DeBarge Sr. (deceased in 2009), a white man of French descent, and Etterlene DeBarge (née Abney), a black woman born in Michigan in 1935. They married when Etterlene was 17, a year after the death of her father James Abney, a church choir leader and peanut retailer. They separated in the mid-1970s. Etterlene DeBarge remembers Robert DeBarge Sr. as physically andemotionally abusive to her and the children, using her youth, the absence of her father, and continuous pregnancy to control her. DeBarge Sr. has been characterized as “domineering and physically abusive to his wife,” and some of the DeBarge children have accused him of sexually abusing them. Bunny Debarge, the eldest, recalls being sexually abused by him from ages 7-13.
The group, named for their shared surname, hailed from the East Side of Detroit where the siblings were born and raised, and later relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Members included sister Bunny and brothers Mark(or “Marty”), William (or “Randy”), Eldra (or “El”), and James. Younger siblings Chico, Darell, and Carol “Peaches” DeBarge are also singers though not with the group. El later became a solo star in his own right. Two older brothers, Robert Jr. (Bobby) and Tommy, were members of another popular Motown group, Switch. The DeBarges signed with Motown Records in the late 1970s and became one of their few successful acts during the 1980s.
The band had a string of hits in the early to mid-1980s, including “All This Love,” “I Like It,” “Love Me in a Special Way,” and “Rhythm of the Night.” Many of these hits were ballads, spreading the band’s appeal into the adult contemporary radio market as well. WhenEl and Bunny DeBarge both left for solo careers in 1986, the remaining brothers soldiered on with their older brother Bobby (who had long since left Switch) now joining the band to release the album Bad Boys in 1987, but it didn’t achieve nearly the success of previous releases. Meanwhile, El went on to have a moderately-successful solo career, and Bunny would score a minor hit with “Save the Best for Me (Best of Your Lovin’)” from her only solo album before being abruptly dropped by her label. Overall, DeBarge released nine Top 40 R&B singles, five top 40 pop singles, two pop top ten hits, five top ten R&B singles, two number-one R&B singles, a number-one single on the dance chart and three number-one hits on the adult contemporary chart.
The members that eventually became DeBarge started performing in various groups together in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area in the mid-1970s. In 1979, brothers Randy, Mark and El were part of the SMASH band, which was a release on Source Records/MCA in the USA/Canada before it was released as Pall Mall Groove HOT ICE in Germany by Polydor. Bernd Lichters, who rented a home in Cerritos, CA, bought them instruments, and they were mentored by members of the Motown group Switch, including their elder brothers Tommy and Bobby and co-founding member and family friend Gregory Williams. Bunny DeBarge had joined her younger brothers in 1979 as well and they formed as The DeBarges in 1980. That year, because of Bobby’s success with Switch, younger brother El was able to perform live on the piano and sing for Motown CEO and founder Berry Gordy, who was impressed by the group and agreed to sign them that year. For a year the group worked alongside members of Switch, helping to add background vocals, instrumentation, arranging, and musical and lyrical composition to the band’s works, much prominently, “I Call Your Name”, “My Friend in the Sky”, and “Love Over and Over Again”.
By 1981, Bobby DeBarge and Tommy DeBarge had left Switch and returned the favor to their siblings working with them on their debut album, which was released that year with Bobby, Bunny, and El as main producers. The only single, the Bobby-led ballad “What’s Your Name”, failed to chart.
In 1982 they added their 18-year-old brother James to the lineup and worked on their second album, All This Love, produced by El and Iris Gordy. The album launched them into R&B stardom with the records “I Like It” and “All This Love”. Both songs also became crossover pop hits with “All This Love” later going to number one on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart. In 1983, the group made an impression after appearing on Motown 25, where they performed alongside High Inergy. Their performance together ended in a standing ovation. Later in 1983, the group issued their third album, In a Special Way, which spawned two further hit singles, “Time Will Reveal” and “Love Me in a Special Way”. Like All This Love before it, the album reached gold status in the United States.
Following that album’s success, DeBarge were handpicked by Luther Vandross to open for him on his “Busy Body Tour” to support his album of the same name. Vandross discovered the band’s popularity while waiting for his set to begin, shocked at the attention the group got, which group members later compared to “Beatlemania” and Motown’s early phenomenon, The Jackson 5, which DeBarge was molded to follow after by its staff. When the tour ended in late 1984, the group recorded the Diane Warren composition, “Rhythm of the Night”, for the soundtrack to the Motown-produced film, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon from 1985. The song was released in early 1985 and became a smash single, eventually reaching the top five in several countries, mainly in the US and UK, becoming the band’s biggest-selling hit and their best-known hit. Sensing that El DeBarge was emerging as the “star” of the group, Motown had El working on the group’s next album primarily by himself, with the label failing to call on the other siblings’ help. It’s hinted Motown was fearful of the other members’ growing dependencies to drug addiction, only trusting El as he seemed to be the most reliable. In 1984, James DeBarge made headlines when he secretly eloped with Janet Jackson of the famed Jackson family. Their marriage was annulled the following year.
The Rhythm of the Night album became the band’s best-selling work, going platinum and featuring further hits such as “Who’s Holding Donna Now” and “You Wear It Well”. Following the end of its promotion, both El and Bunny DeBarge departed from the group after Motown offered them solo deals. The rest of the DeBarges were dropped from Motown in 1986. Meanwhile, El found immediate solo success with the single, “Who’s Johnny?”, which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1986 hit film Short Circuit.
Failing to find deals with major labels, the rest of the DeBarges, with Bobby now joining the fold, signed with the independent Striped Horse Records in 1987, later releasing what turned out to be their final studio album, Bad Boys. Striped Horse had problems promoting the album and without the help of Motown, the album tanked. DeBarge continued their career into 1988, even bringing along younger brother Chico (then riding off the success of his hit “Talk to Me”), with them. The brothers made a guest appearance onPunky Brewster in 1988. That year, Bobby and Chico DeBarge were arrested for drug trafficking in Grand Rapids. They were eventually convicted of drug charges and sentenced to two different prisons to serve their sentences. The arrests and subsequent convictions brought an end to DeBarge as a musical group and they disbanded at the end of the eighties. In 1991 Randy and James contributed to a gospel album featuring their mother Etterlene and younger siblings Darryl (Young DeBarge) and Carol (Peaches DeBarge).
Despite the group’s highly-publicized drug addictions and several members serving jail time for drug offenses, the siblings have continued to perform together occasionally. In 2011 James, Randy and Bunny appeared on Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers to discuss their troubles with drug addiction, later agreeing to attend a rehabilitation facility. While Randy and James left the facility on a follow-up episode, Bunny DeBarge still attends and told Dr. Drew of her recovery on the follow-up episode later performing a gospel song on the show. El DeBarge returned from a 16-year sabbatical of releasing solo albums following a period of drug addiction and several arrests with the well-received Grammy-nominated album, Second Chance. Drug abuse has brought various group members several tragedies and setbacks over the years: Bobby DeBarge died at a hospice in Grand Rapids after contracting AIDS following years of heroin addiction; Tommy DeBarge, who also suffered drug addiction, is on kidney dialysis but has nonetheless continued to perform, sometimes with surviving members of Switch and with his family members; Randy DeBarge and Mark DeBarge are said to have “incurable diseases,” according to their mother. James DeBarge was recently sentenced to prison for drug offenses. The DeBarges’ story of their rise and fall was documented in late 2008 as the debut episode of the TV One show, Unsung.
Though DeBarge never fully recovered from their 1986 fallout, the group’s classic Motown material has been either frequently sampled or covered over the years. Their collaborations with Switch on their recordings, “I Call Your Name” and “My Friend in the Sky” have been sampled as well as their own material, including “I Like It”, “Stay with Me” and “A Dream”.
Some of the most prominent samples of DeBarge’s material including The Notorious B.I.G.’s remix of “One More Chance”, which sampled “Stay With Me”. Mary J. Blige, a fan of DeBarge, has also sampled and covered their work, including “Share My World” (adding the group’s intro ad-libs from that song on her song of the same name), “A Dream” and “Don’t Go” (which interpolated the ending of “Stay With Me”). Rapper Tupac Shakur interpolated the melody of “A Dream” for his posthumous hit, “I Ain’t Mad at Cha”, just little over a few months later, Blackstreet sampled the song’s music for their hit, “Don’t Leave Me”. Blackstreet were big fans of DeBarge (Teddy Riley called El DeBarge a living legend on the liner notes of Blackstreet’s 1994 debut album) and had covered “I Like It”. On their platinum album, Another Level, the group did a gospel version of DeBarge’s hit “Time Will Reveal”.
In 1998, Riley sampled parts of Switch’s “My Friend in the Sky” (co-composed by Bobby, Bunny and El) for rapper Queen Pen’s album track, “No Hooks” off her My Melody album. The same song would be sampled in 2005 for Raheem DeVaughn’s title track off The Love Experience. The melody of “Stay With Me” was revisited by Ashanti on her single, “Foolish” and later by Mariah Carey on her single I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time from E=MC², while the melody of “A Dream” has been constantly sampled following the recordings of “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” and “Don’t Leave Me”. “I Like It” is their most sampled, with several acts sampling the music or interpolating the song’s popular bridge (sung by El and written by Bunny). In 2007, Rich Boy’s hit “Throw Some D’s” sampled Switch’s “I Call Your Name”, which was co-written by Bobby and arranged by Bobby and El. “All This Love” has also been covered and sampled frequently by other artists.
In 2011, Motown Records/Hip-O Select released the three-disc set Time Will Reveal: The Complete Motown Albums. This collection presents all four Motown/Gordy albums, spread out over the first two discs, and offers a third disc containing remixes, rarities and unreleased material.
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