Born Eldra DeBarge, c. 1960, in Grand Rapids, MI; formed band DeBarge with siblings Marty, James, Randy, and Bunny, 1978, and moved to Hollywood, CA; signed with Motown Records; released three albums, 1983-85; group disbanded, 1985; El DeBarge signed with Motown Records for his solo project; released two albums on Motown, 1986-89; signed with Warner Bros., 1991.
Eldra "El" DeBarge and his nine brothers and sisters all displayed musical talent at an early age. They sang in the gospel choir at the Bethel Pentecostal Church, where their uncle James Abney led the choir and another uncle, Reverend William Abney, served as pastor. Belting out gospel songs stimulated a love for music in the members of the DeBarge family, including Eldra. In time, however, the siblings outgrew the Bethel Pentecostal Church and looked to the recording industry to further their musical aspirations.
In 1978, when Eldra was just 18 years old, he moved from his home state of Michigan to Hollywood, California, with his three older brothers--Marty, James, and Randy--and his older sister, Bunny. They planned to impress the executives at Motown Records enough to land a record contract. Two other older brothers, Tommy and Bobby, already had a contract with the label as part of the funk group Switch, which was managed by Jermaine Jackson of the famous Jackson clan.
Under the name DeBarge, Eldra and his bandmates sent Jackson their demo tape; apparently, he didn't even listen to it. But the group didn't give up on their dream that easily. They found out when Jackson had his next scheduled meeting with Switch at the Motown offices and mounted an impromptu concert for him in the hallway. A few months later, DeBarge signed a contract with Motown. Label founder Berry Gordy, Jr., made DeBarge his own special project and personally worked with El DeBarge on his songwriting
Five years after DeBarge landed in Hollywood, they released their first album on Motown Records, All This Love. The title track became the band's first hit, and they received their first gold album. Comparisons between DeBarge and the Jacksons flew from everywhere, including the band's management and label. DeBarge's youngest member--producer and star performer El DeBarge--was tagged the next Michael Jackson.
DeBarge didn't perform live until they had cut their second album, In a Special Way, and once again sent sales soaring into gold status. In 1985, just two years after their first effort, DeBarge released Rhythm of the Night, their last album as a band. That same year, El DeBarge set out to prove to the world that he could make it on his own, without his brothers and sister: He decided to move on to a solo project with Motown Records. "I don't think people other than my most sincere fans are aware of just how much I had to do with those earlier DeBarge albums," the singer noted in Billboard.
El DeBarge released his self-titled solo debut in 1986, which produced the hits "Who's Johnny?" and "Love Always." Then he took his time before releasing his next effort, Gemini, three years later. After Gemini hit the stores, DeBarge's professional life took a sharp turn into turmoil. He went through a bankruptcy hearing that resulted in his release from his Motown contract and was forced to start on a new path. "It's like the beginning of a new era for me," he told David Nathan in Billboard, "and like one of the songs on the album [Gemini] says, it's all about turning the page. The storyline of that song 'Turn the Page' is actually more about a relationship. But you know what that song really means to me? It means that I am turning the page in my life. All that has passed is behind me."
DeBarge returned to Michigan and spent the early 1990s working on other artists' music. He performed on industry mogul Quincy Jones's Secret Garden with Barry White, James Ingram, and Al B. Sure! He also added guest performances to Fourplay's hit "After the Dance" and Tone Loc's Cool Hand Loc.
In 1991 DeBarge signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records. He admitted that Motown had stifled some of his creativity. "I was made to feel insecure," he said in Billboard, "because every time I would do something [musically], it would end up being changed.... It kinda made me shell up, made me to the point where I didn't want to create anymore." The following year he released In the Storm on Warner Bros., which he coproduced with Earth, Wind and Fire producer Maurice White. The first single, "My Heart Belongs to You," debuted on Billboard's Hot R&B Singles Chart at Number 70. In the Storm also includes a song DeBarge cowrote with Prince called "Tip of My Tongue." After the album's release, DeBarge went on tour with singer Chaka Khan. Suddenly, the creative spark he felt he had lost at Motown came back with a vengeance.
DeBarge kept on working after the tour and started recording his next solo album in 1993. A year later, Heart, Mind & Soul--with its first single, "Can't Get Enough"--arrived in stores. DeBarge coproduced the album with luminaries Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Jermaine Dupri, and Tony Dofat. Edmonds and DeBarge combined their talents with a duet on the track "Where Is My Love?"
"When I first began the album, I wanted to do some really hip music, music that was current, stylish," El DeBarge said in his Warner Bros. biography. "There's a whole new generation out there that I want to introduce to my music." DeBarge said of Heart, Mind & Soul, "Musically, it's where I am today. And everything on here is me speaking from my heart."
by Sonya Shelton
El Debarge's Career
Addresses: Record company--Reprise, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694.
- Selective Works
- With DeBarge All This Love, Motown, 1983.
- In a Special Way, Motown, 1984.
- Rhythm of the Night, Motown, 1985.
- Solo albums El DeBarge, Motown, 1986.
- Gemini, Motown, 1989.
- In the Storm, Warner Bros., 1992.
- Heart, Mind & Soul, Reprise, 1994.
- Billboard, April 21, 1984; July 19, 1986; June 17, 1989; April 11, 1992.
- Keyboard, September 1985.
- People, June 1, 1992.
- Rolling Stone, April 26, 1984; May 28, 1992.
- Spin, September 1994.
- Variety, February 29, 1984.
- Vibe, August 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Warner Bros. Records publicity materials, 1994.