Not many believe in the possibility of a person or group of people being “jinxed,” having a “curse” on them or being “hexed,” but the tragedy that befalls some people — even when much of it is self-inflicted — is so frequent and so intense that one has to wonder, at least for a few seconds.
So it is with the DeBarge family, from parents on down. Despite the major success of the three acts in the family — the band Switch, the group DeBarge and solo artist Chico DeBarge, the dark cloud looms large.
The amount of drug abuse and number of incarcerations within this family is mind blowing. There are seemingly as many police mugshots as there are Gold records. Is it hereditary? Environmental? Both?
EVERYTHING started out beautifully in the summer of 1978. Motown signed a band called Switch. Among the members were two young men from the family, Bobby and Tommy DeBarge.
They clicked right away. “There’ll Never Be” soared into the national Top 10, and they followed up with additional hits, most notably “I Call Your Name,” “Best Beat in Town” and “Love Over and Over Again.” The group was self-contained, meaning they played their own instruments.
Eventually the DeBarge brothers left which coincided with the group’s decline and eventual disbanding.
Grand Rapids-born Bobby DeBarge was the first in the family to succumb to drugs (in his case, heroin). He became addicted during the heyday of Switch and years later, 1988, was sentenced to five years in prison for drug trafficking. He died of complications from an STD contracted in prison.
IT IS perhaps not surprising that he turned to drugs. His father, Robert DeBarge Sr., who was white, was notorious for being domineering and physically abusive to his wife, Etterlene DeBarge, who is black. Also, according to one of the DeBarge siblings, Robert DeBarge Sr. also “sexually molested a lot of my brothers and sisters.” He died in 2009, no doubt with a guilty conscience.
Bunny DeBarge, the only female member of DeBarge, once stated bluntly, “I don’t hate my father, but he has a way of blocking things out of his mind.” (Bunny has reportedly kicked her drug habit and attributes being able to do so to her relationship with God.)
A SECOND group of DeBarges — El, Bunny, James, Mark and Randy — became an even bigger success. From 1982 to 1985 they enjoyed a string of major national hits, several of which are still popular today. Their seven biggest hits were “Time Will Reveal,” “Rhythm of the Night,” “I Like It,” “All This Love,” “You Wear it Well,” “Love Me in a Special Way” and “Who’s Holding Donna Now?”
By 1986, El DeBarge, who sang lead as well as writing and producing the songs, was a successful solo artist. In 2001, he was arrested for cocaine possession and received probation. He was given probation a second time, in 2006, on essentially the same charge. But when he was arrested in 2008 for possession of crack, he was sentenced to two years in state prison.
“DRUGS happened,” said Etterlene DeBarge. “When El got into drugs it just paralyzed him. He just couldn’t deal with all the people in the music industry. He couldn’t deal with their fakeness and people ripping him off. Motown had taken all of his publishing and they’re still making money from those songs.”
After his release, El DeBarge released a return album titled “Second Chance” that was very successful. He said he had conquered his addiction, and many people, staunch and casual fans alike, were cheering him on. He was even on the cover of Ebony magazine. That was in 2010. But the following year he relapsed and went back to rehab.
He is again performing.
EL’S YOUNGER brother, James, married Janet Jackson in 1984, but the marriage was annulled the following year. He, too, landed in jail on drug charges and according to reports, remains in semi-solitary confinement.
Chico DeBarge, never a member of either Switch or DeBarge, started his career in 1986 with the hit “Talk to Me.” However, things went sour with him receiving a six-year prison sentence on drug trafficking charges. Once released, he had the good fortune to record an album, in 1998, titled “Long Time No See” that was a big hit, featuring the popular “No Guarantee.”
What Chico DeBarge is doing now is not clear, but the assumption is that he is staying out of trouble. Regarding those prison years, he said wryly, “I be wantin’ those years back!”
This is just part of the intriguing, complex and ultimately sad story of the DeBarge family. It was a matter of too much too soon for the siblings who had already been scarred by their home life.
Fortunately, DeBarge music, from the good years, is easily attainable.