The re­turn of El DeBarge

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY STYLE - BY LONNAE O'NEAL PARKER

El DeBarge looks like he feels good about him­self.

Twenty min­utes be­fore he takes the stage at the BWX Lounge in Hanover, sounds of cheer­ing fans reach the singer in a cur­tained-off room. He fixes his scarf to ad­just his ap­pear­ance, though, truth be told, there’s noth­ing wrong there — white T-shirt, black jeans, rhine­stone belt, camel duster. Five-feet­nine and high-school skinny. His black hair gleams, and his smooth olive com­plex­ion be­trays lit­tle of his 49 years. It’s re­ally quite re­mark­able, con­sid­er­ing all he has been through.

It’s mid-De­cem­ber, and the 1980s R&B star with the achingly sweet falsetto, for­mer lead singer of the fam­ily group DeBarge, is stag­ing a come­back, not just mu­si­cally— his first al­bum in 16 years has earned twoGrammy

From R&B idol to drug ad­dict, singer hopes he’s now come full cir­cle

nom­i­na­tions— but a come­back to life.

Jeri Wig­gins of Bal­ti­more, one of hun­dreds of fans who braved long lines in the cold, says she has loved DeBarge since sec­ond grade and is thrilled he’s back per­form­ing. “I’m al­ways on­line look­ing for him,” she says. “He looks good!” She adds that with ev­ery­thing DeBarge has en­dured, her “ heart went out to him,” but “ he’s still stand­ing.”

“I’m feel­ing that they want me to be okay,” DeBarge says. “I’m feel­ing that they want me to do good.”

The singer is all ki­netic en­ergy. He pumps his fist to the mu­sic, then breaks into an im­promptu rhyme. He play­fully sings a snip­pet of the Gap Band’s “Out­stand­ing” to a re­porter while show­ing off his smoothest dance moves. He smiles at ev­ery­body.

Then, just be­fore tak­ing the stage, he kneels by a chair, clasps his hands and prays

silently as the din from out­side grows stronger and stronger. “Y’all want to see El?” the em­cee asks. “Yeessss!!” the crowd screams in re­sponse. De Barge heads for the key­board, and as the scream­ing crescen­dos, cam­eras flash and women yell his name, his smile widens and he be­gins his set with a song from his brand-newal­bum.

It’s called, ap­pro­pri­ately, “ Sec­ond Chance.”

In the 1980s, ev­ery ur­ban teen in Amer­ica fell in love to mu­sic by DeBarge.

Ken­neth “Baby­face” Ed­mond­s­toured along with the fam­ily group as they opened for Luther Van­dross in 1985. Van­dross was the head­liner, but “what we didn’t ex­pect was this — al­most like Jack­son 5 — Beatle­ma­nia that would hap­pen when DeBarge would hit the stage,” Ed­monds said in “ Un­sung,” a doc­u­men­tary about the DeBarges that aired on TV One in 2008. Ev­ery night, the group walked away with the house.

The DeBarges — late teen and 20-some­thing sib­lings Bunny, Mark, Randy, James and El­dra Pa­trick, or El for short — had scored back-to-back gold al­bums with 1982’s “All This Love” and 1983’s “In a Spe­cialWay,” which fea­tured the No. 1 R&B sin­gle “ Time Will Re­veal.” The group had ra­dio-friendly lyrics and ap­pear­ances on “Amer­i­can Band­stand.” Fans — es­pe­cially the ladies— swarmed them at record stores. Ev­ery DeBarge was pretty, but El was ar­guably the finest one.

He was al­ready be­ing sin­gled out for at­ten­tion when their al­bum “Rhythm of the Night” went plat­inum in 1985. They madea video and ap­peared in the Ber­ryGordy movie “ The­Last

Dragon.” But it proved to be their last hur­rah as a fam­ily act. The group was roiled by in­fight­ing and drug use. They started missing con­certs and dead­lines. Ex­cept for El, de­scribed in “Un­sung” as “ the one de­pend­ably sober mem­ber.” The one who pro­duced, who wanted to please.

He was signed to a solo con­tract and in 1986 re­leased his self-ti­tled de­but al­bum. Pro­pelled by the pop hit “Who’s Johnny,” it went gold. But it would be the last time El sawthose heights for a while. Over the next dozen years, he had three more solo ef­forts and col­lab­o­ra­tions with Quincy Jones, Patti LaBelle and Ed­monds. He con­tin­ued mak­ing ap­pear­ances but be­gin­ning in the late 1980she fell into a slow, an­guished spi­ral.

The mem­bers of DeBarge were among the 10 chil­dren of Robert DeBarge, a white man, and his wife, Et­ter­lene, a black wom­anand de­vout Pen­te­costal. Their fa­ther was abu­sive, and most of the sib­lings ended up bat­tling drug prob­lems. Bobby (who along with brother Tommy formed the Mo­town group

Switch, which had a string of hits in the late ’ 70s) and Chico both served time in prison, and Bobby, a heroin ad­dict, ended up dy­ing from AIDS com­pli­ca­tions.

For long years, El had scrupu­lously avoided what had come to be the fam­ily scourge of drugs. But at 25, he smoked mar­i­juana for the first time. By 30, he was a heroin and crack ad­dict. And all of his prom­ise got lost in a haze.

He had a string of run-ins with the law: con­tempt of court, pos­ses­sion, van­dal­ism, dis­turb­ing the peace, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

“I was pray­ing for God to res­cue me,” DeBarge says. “My low point was when I first took a hit of crack. I felt the evil right there. . . . Fromthat pointonI be­gan to try to find­my­way back.” It took decades. DeBarge moved con­stantly, from house to house, apart­ment to apart­ment, some­times from his room to the closet where he would get high, para­noid and alone. While he dropped out of the mu­sic scene, younger artists — Tu­pac Shakur, the No­to­ri­ous B.I.G., Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige — sam­pled his songs. He had money from roy­al­ties and oc­ca­sional per­for­mances. But he says some­times he couldn’t even buy drugs — be­cause deal­ers re­fused to sell them to him. No­body in the world wanted to see El DeBarge?? Come on

now!— go out like that.

“When you’re on drugs, you lose your con­fi­dence, your self-con­trol, your willpower. You’re say­ing, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ but you’re at a point where you can’t help but do it,” DeBarge says. “Some­thing’s got con­trol over you. You start los­ing fam­ily and friends and loved ones.” (He has been mar­ried and di­vorced three times and has 12 chil­dren.) “Ei­ther you run away from them and iso­late your­self, or you run them away. It’s all bad.”

Says his younger brother Chico: “You’d never think in a mil­lion years this guy would have a crack pipe to his mouth.”

In Oc­to­ber 2008, El be­gan serv­ing 13 months in Cal­i­for­nia state prison for drug pos­ses­sion. He says it saved him. It was where he got clean and be­gan to dream again of life.

In late 2009, DeBarge was newly clean and out of prison, and his man­ager ar­ranged an au­di­tion for him at Gef­fen Records. DeBarge sang a cap­pella to prove that 22 years of hard drugs, age and bur­den had hadn’t taken the sweet­ness from his voice. It was the be­gin­ning of a tri­umphant re­turn to the mu­sic scene.

In June, he was a spe­cial sur­prise guest on the BETAwards. He was kept hid­den for much of the show, and the stage lights stayed dim as the first notes be­gan.

Ten­ta­tive ap­plause turned ec­static as the lights came up and DeBarge sang clearly: I had some prob­lems And no one could seem to solve them But you found the an­swer And told me to take a chance And learn the ways of love, my baby . . .

The singer ran through a medley of DeBarge hits as the stars in at­ten­dance de­lighted in the per­for­mance. Rap­perT.I. and­his fi­ancee, Tameka “Tiny” Cot­tle, danced to “All This Love.” Ac­tress Taraji P. Hen­son leaned in to sing “I Like It.” Jada Pin­kett Smith said “Yes, yes!” as DeBarge sailed into his up­per reg­is­ter. KanyeWest happy-danced to “Rhythm of the Night.”

The love-in has been re­peated in per­for­mances around the coun­try.

He re­leased “Sec­ond­Chance” onNov. 30. The al­bum, which fea­tures col­lab­o­ra­tions with Faith Evans and 50 Cent, peaked atNo. 13 on the R&B chart. Ac­cord­ing to Sounds­can, DeBarge is sell­ing com­pa­ra­bly to con­tem­po­rary artists Chrisette Michele and Eric Benet and out­sold the come­back al­bum of an­other pop­u­lar 1980s group, Du­ran Du­ran, dur­ing its de­but week. Next month, he’s up for Gram­mys for best vo­cal­ist and best R&B sin­gle.

“The roll­out of this al­bum has been bril­liant,” says Emil Wil­bekin, man­ag­ing edi­tor of Essence.com and for­mer edi­tor in chief of Vibe mag­a­zine. He sawDeBarge per­form at the Essence

Mu­sic Fes­ti­val and at Ra­dio Ci­tyMu­sicHall last year. “Ev­ery­one was danc­ing in the aisles. You just felt this emo­tional wave over the crowd,” Wil­bekin says. “ There’s some­thing spe­cial about El DeBarge. For him to sur­vive very heavy drug use . . . he still looks good, but more im­por­tantly, he re­ally sounds good.”

It’s all due to “God’s love,” DeBarge says, and he now calls him­self a ves­sel to carry that mes­sage. Vul­ner­a­bil­ity has gone missing from to­day’s R&B, he says, but “men will lis­ten to me now. . . . I have their at­ten­tion and I’m not say­ing, ‘ We don’t love them hos,’ I’m say­ing you know you love her, show her that you love her.”

There’s also the fact that he is fine. As Sy­bil Wilkes, co-host of the “ Tom Joyner Morn­ing Show,” says: “I’m go­ing to be re­ally shal­low and say there’s noth­ing like a good-look­ing man, and you just want him to be a good guy.”

She says when­ever they played a DeBarge song, the show would get calls and e-mails ask­ing what­ever hap­pened to El. The out­lines of his story are fa­mil­iar to fans, she says: “ The abu­sive fa­ther, the mother who was a church­go­ing woman and felt as though El was anointed. He tries heroin and gets hooked im­me­di­ately. . . . We’ve seen it and he rep­re­sents those peo­ple who have so much po­ten­tial or who have re­al­ized their po­ten­tial and fallen. This is a guy who we want to get up and stay up.”

But of course, this is the mu­sic busi­ness, and ev­ery­one has seen these things go a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ways.

In the mid-De­cem­ber show at the BWX Lounge, DeBarge­plays to an­in­ti­mate crowd. “We can’t cry for­ever,” het­ell­s­them. For five rows­stand­ing, there’s noth­ing but women. They press against the vel­vet rope. “I love you, El­dra!” a woman in front yells. He sings, and the au­di­ence sings with him.

“ They think I’m try­ing to bring light-skinned back, but I ain’t try­ing to do that. I’m just try­ing to bring back the love, baby,” he mur­murs and the au­di­ence swoons. They hang on his joy at be­ing on­stage. “It’s good to be back,” he says, paus­ing to take it all in.

Two weeks later, he re­turns to per­form for New Year’s Eve. More than 1,000 peo­ple have packed the club, two ra­dio pro­grams are broad­cast­ing live, and for two hours, Tan­isha Wil­liams has stood rooted in the same spot, wait­ing for him to ap­pear.

“He’s a leg­end. He would have been big­ger than MJ” if the drugs hadn’t got­ten him, she says. She wants an au­to­graph. But it’s past 11:30, and though no time was spec­i­fied for his ap­pear­ance, he hasn’t shown up and she’s “not hav­ing fun.”

Aru­mor is cir­cu­lat­ing that DeBarge is sick, but sud­denly, five min­utes into2011, he ap­pears, twirlin­gon­stage, smil­ing, pos­ing for pic­tures. He jumps upon an end ta­ble to­dance. His­man­ager, PeteFarmer, says they drove from Philadel­phia rather than flew be­cause DeBarge had food poi­son­ing and they didn’t want him throw­ing up on the plane.

On­stage, the singer loses his cell­phone and ev­ery­one up there stops par­ty­ing to find it. DeBarge ex­its for a while, but comes back about an hour later to do four songs.

“He looked a lit­tle tired, a lit­tle over­whelmed,” Wil­liams says later. “He’s try­ing to im­press his fans. I know he loves us, but if it was up to me, I would want him to stay at home and rest and not come out.”

“God knows, I’m so tired,” DeBarge says by phone sev­eral days later. His voice is soft and flat. From July through New Year’s Eve, he worked non­stop. There’s “so much heal­ing in the mu­sic that God has given me, but it pulls on me and some­times it just drains me.”

He bris­tles at a re­porter’s ques­tion about whether he’s sober and­howhe man­ages his so­bri­ety. “I’ve been sober for two years and the way I man­age my so­bri­ety is I don’t have to. I don’t con­cen­trate. When you con­cen­trate on try­ing to stay sober, I think you’re em­pow­er­ing the devil to say­hey, Ihave a power. . . . I don’t say, ‘I’ma drug ad­dict and I’mfight­ing ev­ery day to stay sober.’ I don’t buy into that phi­los­o­phy. Once God makes you new, old things pass away.”

The next day, Farmer calls to can­cel a photo shoot. DeBarge is sick, he says: “Food poi­son­ing.”

Chico DeBarge, who says he has been sober for a year and eight months, hopes that one day the fam­ily will sing to­gether again. That they will all be a part of each other’s sal­va­tion and stand in so­bri­ety, to­gether with their brother, with­out the ad­dic­tions that have haunted “ev­ery sin­gle child of my mother.”

Wil­liams says she be­lieves in El’s mu­sic and his re­cov­ery. She’s like le­gions of fans who are pulling for him, not just to win theGram­mys, but, fi­nally, to win at life: “He’s got a sec­ond chance, and he’s got to take ad­van­tage of it.”

Like the old DeBarge song says, it’s some­thing only time will re­veal.

ANEW­START: Per­form­ing at aNewYear’sEve party at theBWX­club in­Hanover, Md., El DeBarge takes a break from the dance floor.

JONATHAN ALCORN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

FULL SCHED­ULE: Top, greet­ing fans at theBWX show; mid­dle, on stage in New York City; bot­tom, back­stage at “Lopez Tonight.”

BILL O'LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST

CORY SCHWARTZ/GETTY IM­AGES

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