September 10, 2007 @ 1:12 pm

The Rise and Fall of the Debarge Family (Episode 2)

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Broken Dreams: Episode 2 of the DeBarge family saga. From our October 2007 issue.

The DeBarge family - El, Marty, Randy, Bunny and James, not to mention Thomas, Bobby, and baby b­rother Chico - were supposed to be M­otown's follow-up to the Ja­cksons. But after a trail of dazzling '80s hits, behind-the-scenes drama threatened to bring the family down. From dating Latoya and Janet Jackson to allegations of sexual abuse and drug addiction - the DeBarge family has dealt with everything from prison time to AIDS. But even now, their music is still sampled by the likes of Diddy and Polow Da Don, and some of the DeBarges are trying resurrect their careers. Is it too late, though, to pick up the pieces? A story in four parts, from our October 2007 issue. Episode 2.Read Episode 1 here.

Bobby was determined to kick his habit before reaching Hollywood, sweating the junk out of his system on the Greyhound bus ride west from Grand Rapids. By the time anyone from Motown met him, Bobby was clean. Switch - which consisted of Bobby and Tommy DeBarge, vocalist Phillip Ingram, Williams, Eddie Fluellen, and Jody Simms - was offered a contract.

Released in 1978, Switch's self-titled debut featured the standout "There'll Never Be," which rode the Billboard R&B charts for 26 weeks, peaking at No. 6. The album went on to sell a million copies and formed the sonic template for future groups as diverse as Jodeci and Mint Condition.

"The night we wrote 'I Call Your Name' was a strange one," says Williams of the achy slow-jam, which was sampled in 2006 by Polow Da Don for Rich Boy's big hit "Throw Some D's." "Bobby was dating LaToya Jackson," Williams says, "and she was the only girl on his mind. One night, he started fooling around on the Fender Rhodes. I started singing along, and next thing you know we had a song. I'm not saying the song was written for LaToya, but they were in love, and Bobby couldn't wait to play her the completed song."

While Bobby was working on that second Switch album, Mark and Randy DeBarge visited Los Angeles to see what their brothers were up to. Before long Bunny, Mark, Randy, El, and James made the journey west. Lichters leased a five-bedroom house and took them to buy instruments. "Motown put us on salary, because we were starving," says Bunny by phone from Grand Rapids. "Because he'd lost the Jacksons, we became his pet project." Motown encouraged the DeBarges to fire their managers and sign with DePassse and Jones management, which was affiliated with Motown. They eventually agreed.

While family acts like the Osmonds and the Sylvers had become passe after the Jackson 5 left Motown in 1975, the acclaim of DeBarge's 1982 sophomore album, All This Love, inspired a new generation of brothers and sisters -like Five Starr and The Jets - to bum-rush the sibling scene. But DeBarge stood head and shoulders above the rest. Romantic, pop-friendly R&B jams like "All This Love," "I Like It," "Who's Holding Donna Now," "Love Me in a Special Way," and their biggest pop hit, "Rhythm of the Night," from the 1985 Motown film The Last Dragon (Tri-Star Pictures), made the group crossover stars.

But the DeBarge family was ill prepared for the challenges of celebrity. Back in the 1960s, when Gordy's hit factory was still run like a mom 'n' pop shop, the "old" Motown was renowned for artist development that included everything from dance lessons to etiquette classes. The label's 1972 move to L.A. killed that tradition. "Coaching? What coaching? I haven't been fortunate enough to have people around to show me things. I wish I did," El said to the Los Angeles Times in 1984. "Basically, I'm out there by myself."

That same year, James DeBarge, the second youngest of the group, married Janet Jackson. She was 18. He was 21. He was a rising star at Motown, and she was struggling to break away from a notoriously insular family. James met her because his brother Bobby was dating La Toya. "James and Janet started secretly seeing each other," says Bunny DeBarge. " Then they came to Grand Rapids and eloped. For the Jackson family, it was a nightmare. Nobody knew how serious it was, but they were so young." The marriage was annulled after several months amid allegations of James' drug abuse. It's long been rumored that Janet gave birth to a baby girl who was then raised by her older sister Rebee. All parties involved have denied the story for decades. "They say the kid's in Europe or that one of my brothers or sisters is raising it," Janet said in the May 2001 issue of VIBE. "But no, I've never had a child."

It was also in 1984, during DeBarge's four-month stint as the opening act on Luther Vandross's sold-out "Busy Body" tour, when the family discovered just how famous they'd become. This was the year of Michael Jackson's Thriller, Prince's Purple Rain, and The Police's Synchronicity, but DeBarge was driving their fans every bit as crazy as those household names. "Girls would jump onstage, pull out our hair, tear off our clothes, and sometimes scratch off our skin," says James by phone from California. "It got even scarier when we stopped off in Detroit to perform at a record shop. The crowd broke down the barricades and smashed the windows. We had to get a helicopter lift from the roof. There were a lot of Beatles-type moments."

Nevertheless, in the classic Motown tradition of separating powerful lead singers from successful groups - Diana Ross from the Supremes, Smokey Robinson from the Miracles, Michael Jackson from the Jacksons, Lionel Richie from the Commodores - it wasn't long before divide-and-conquer tactics apparently went down with DeBarge. "They made El think that he was better than his brothers and sister," says El's 71-year-old mother, Etterlene. "Michael was the star of the Jacksons, but I thought my kids made them look like crap," continues the woman who refers to herself - even on her MySpace page - as Mama DeBarge. Speaking by telephone from her home in Grand Rapids, Mama's voice is as soothing as peppermint tea, but she still harbors bad memories of Motown, which she's channeling into the book she's working on, titled The Other Side of The Pain. "Everything became about what Motown wanted, not what the kids wanted," she says. "My kids were fighting like enemies." 

But according to Bunny, it wasn't just label troubles that derailed the DeBarge family's dreams of showbiz glory. "We weren't able to sustain our success because of our childhood," she says. On the surface, they seemed like a model family. But the parents' relationship was troubled. "Interracial marriage was still controversial and we were talked about everywhere," recalls Bunny. To make matters worse, Bunny says her father was "always fighting" with her mother. "Mom came from a loving, church family," says Bunny. "She wasn't used to people who were violent." 

Even family friends could sense the trouble at home. "To put it simply," says Williams, who has known and worked with the DeBarges since they were all youngsters, "their father was psychotic." 


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Yvette says:

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I've read the article and it touched home. I actually cried while reading the article.God I ask that you enter the Debarge family hearts and those around heal them Lord in Jesus name I pray.


Remon Haynes says:

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How can i get mama Degarges cd ON MY KNEES


Rosemary Barnes says:

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Anyone out there believe in agreement prayer? In the early '70's El was playing organ at Bethel Pentecostal Church on Sherman and Eastern SE in Grand Rapids , Michigan (His uncle Bill's church).
A prophet from Pittsburgh named David said that El would become a great preacher.
I believed that Word! It is NOT too late. I have, all these years, waited for him to come back to the Lord with his whole heart and become the man of God that was spoken of that day!
What a great addition he will be as a fellow kingdom builder when he is broken and spilled out in the service of the Lord!
I have always LOVED the gospel music of El's uncle, James Abney!
That family is dynamite in gospel music -- singing in a way that inspires courage and endurance for every situation!
I can't want to hear El once more sing the songs of the Lord with a heart united to serve Him.
I pray, in Jesus' name, for El to come into his destiny in Christ.


erika says:

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this enitire article series is deep, not to mention excellent. i recently purched switches' greatest hits cd. i'm only 26 but i've always loved their music especially the song i call you name. my co-worker told me that one of the brothers died from aids, so that made me research their history of their family. vibe should turn this into a movie. if the jacksons can get one, the debarges' should have one too


Duchess says:

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This was a tragedy to read. My ma sent me this article while I was in class. She then sent me a mug shot of El recently imprisoned and I knew my ma was hurt. She LOVED El and she had pictures of him all over her walls as a youngster. She said she would marry him and she said when she saw that mugshot, she cried. I hope the family can really pull through and just pray. Always believe that things, sometimes, may have to get rough before they get better. I think that with a little bit of prayer and as long as they continue to believe in one another, they can most definitely move past this.


niki says:

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I feel so sorry that the Debarges have drugs problems. Drugs have destoryed many lives, talents, etc. I feel that I hope El and his family straight up their lives. I hope that some day the whole family will get reunited and play good old music again. Please pray for the family-nik



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James is the best looking- El is the best at singing and They have way more talent and poetintiel than the JACKSON ever had-have-or will. find out more at or or


D Love says:

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Just wanted to say Hi and send my love to the family.



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Rohan Padiyar says:

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I never knew LaToya Jackson was dating Bobby DeBarge! I really admire the talents of the DeBarge family. I like their music, so I jam out to them in my car to this day. I grew up listening to them. In my book, they are as good as the Jackson 5.


nikkey alexander says:

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i love the debarge family and yes i heard their music sampled i also prayed and hoped that they were getting some royalty money from people using their music . my question is are they? as for them being molested how and why ? i feel as a mother you have to keep close eye on the surroundings around your home theyb should have told someone the cops their mom , school someone you have to watch your children especially when they are as beautiful as the debarge boys. my heart goes out to the entire family especially to late bobby debarge who had a very rough life, my advise to the debarges fight for your royalty money if you are not receiving any!!!!!


Brian Lee says:

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After I read the story of The DeBarge family twice,I was shock to know whatever happened to them.I used to like them,they were very talented.I just couldn't believe they were on the wrong path.El was the lead singer of the group,he had a great voice.His saprano,falsetto would just blow me away.In my opinion,they are wrost than The Jacksons.Who would've thought they would go that wrong route.Especially Bunny,I was truly shocked about her doing drugs,but at least she got herself straight and found God.As for the rest of The DeBarges,I hope and pray the would straight themselves out.How could the let their talent go to waste.I still like their music,it will always be around no matter what.


Raye says:

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Hard times,struggles even demons are battled on a regular basis by all different types of people. The only difference between this family and the rest of us is we don't have to play out our lives in front the cameras and the numerous areas of the world. My prayers are with the DeBarge Family & I wish them God's protection to cover them. Sincerely Raye

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