DeBarge: Second Chance
Songs such as “Time Will Reveal,” in 1983 and “Rhythm of the Night,” in 1985 bring to mind the prime years of success for the R&B sibling group DeBarge. The quintet from Michigan, made up of one sister, Etterlene “Bunny” and four brothers Marty “Mark,” James (joined the group in 1982), William Randall “Randy,” and Eldra “El” moved to Hollywood to find success in the music business as they signed with Motown Records in 1979. The label saw tremendous potential in the siblings and predicted that they would be the heirs of the Jackson 5 throne. The group turned out to be one of the few successful groups that the label signed in the 1980s.
The family was constantly surrounded by publicity, releasing four albums in their six-year career with Motown Records. Starting with a debut self-titled album in 1982, the group soared on both R&B and Pop charts and quickly gained a loyal fan base that stayed with them over the course of their influential but short-lived career. But as DeBarge transitioned into pop/ R&B legends, they had ulterior lifestyles that were hidden from the public eye.
Robert “Bobby,” and Thomas “Tommy,” Debarge were influenced by their older brothers and traveled down the path of drug addiction. The addiction also grasped the other siblings and eventually tore the group apart, one by one.
Drugs helped the siblings escape from the looming memories of their past. Their childhood hardships began with an abusive father. Robert Louis DeBarge Sr.,physically abused his wife and children and sexually abused his daughter Bunny, until his wife finally left him in 1971. The police, whom were called several times, never did anything because Robert Sr. was a white man married to a black woman. Over their childhood, the DeBarge children thought that they couldn’t trust their mother to protect them. But as an unemployed black woman with eight kids at the time, she had no one who was willing to help her and her family. Because of this Etterlene “Mama” left Robert Sr. several times but had to come back to him due to the fact that she had no where else to go.
Bobby, who was always physically, mentally, and emotionally abused the worst by his father, continued the cycle of violence. Randy recalls the childhood horrors in an episode of the BET television series Unsung.He explained that Bobby saw James as a baby who always got all of the attention in the family. This led to Bobby torturing James by beating him and even trying to kill him several times out of jealously. El DeBarge continued the abusive cycle later in life and was arrested in 2007 on spousal abuse charges.
Towards the decline and eventually the dissolution of DeBarge, the siblings, excluding El, went wild with drugs and alcohol. El was viewed as the dependable sober one in the group, the workaholic. Management saw El’s four siblings as too much of a hassle and decided to focus energy on El, highlighting him as the “star” of the group. The uneven treatment of the siblings caused tension in the family. They fought behind closed doors but kept a façade up in public. As “Mama” DeBarge put it, Motown “didn’t realize [they were] dividing a family and not a [music]group.”
Consequences of their drug habits began with the arrests of Bobby and younger DeBarge sibling, Jonathan “Chico,” a brother who was not a part of the singing group. The pair was arrested for drug trafficking and as a result, served five years in prison in Michigan.
After being released from prison, Bobby was diagnosed with AIDS due to heroin use and died in 1995.Robert Sr. came to Bobby’s bedside right before his death and sobbed so loudly his cries echoed through the halls of the hospital. His father then bent down and whispered something into his dying son’s ear and a moment later, Bobby passed away. What Robert Sr. said is unknown but the other DeBarge children hope that their father whispered an apology. Mama DeBarge hoped that Bobby’s death would deter any further drug issues; unfortunately it caused drug use to increase among the remaining siblings.
James surfaced in the media for drug and alcohol abuse problems but did not successfully complete rehab until the mid-1990s. Randy, Marty, and Tommy also recovered from drug abuse, but suffered long lasting physical consequences. An incurable unknown disease affects Randy, Tommy has kidney disease due to long-term drug use, and Marty currently suffers from chronic debilitation in his legs.
Bunny also struggled with drug addiction but eventually became sober and now calls herself a born-again Christian, currently singing Gospel music full-time.
Chico turned his life around after finally conquering his heroin and painkiller addictions. He released a solo album in 2009 with the appropriate title, Addiction. He explains his battle in an interview with bvbuzz.com as this, “You can take your mess and make it a message.”
Chico explains the album in the Chicago Defender newspaper saying, “It is a collection of songs I’ve written while I was absent from the music industry. It tells about part of my experience – a very dramatic and drastic one.”
The singer detailed his struggles with cocaine in an interview with the Kenny Burns Show. “I picked up a crack pipe when I was 25 years old and it took me 22 years to put it down.” He explains that drugs had a hold on his life until he gained his will power back in prison.
El DeBarge released his first solo album in 16 years on September 2010, entitled Second Chance.
The singer explains, “Everybody deserves a second chance” and this is his. He is not the man he was years ago. Though he has gone through an amazing transformation, his youthful looks and soulful voice that charmed fans and melted the hearts of women across the country remain the same.
“I’m forthcoming on this album,” he explains in the interview, “and I take the blame where I need to, but I also show that I’m bigger than the struggle, it’s not bigger than me. I learned to slip forward, not backward. I learned from my mistakes, and I’ll never go down that road again.”
The album has been embraced by old fans and has gained him new fans as well. Beginning on October 2, 2010, the artist began touring the US with Mary J. Blige, marking his first tour in over a decade.
The DeBarges are the definition of recovery. Though it took years to overcome the traumas of their youth and various drug and alcohol addictions, the DeBarge siblings have resiliently triumphed over their struggles and are headed in a new direction. The family is currently discussing a reunion album but has not come to a conclusion as to if, or when this will occur.
Bunny is hopeful to show the world the new path her family now follows. “I would love to come back as the loving family, not that we once were because that was dysfunctional, but that we should be.”