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 1.
The house lights dimmed on a humid summer evening in 1994, and El DeBarge floated across the cluttered stage of the now-defunct New York City nightclub Tramps.
“Respect to the old school!” screamed a drunk woman from the bar. El, then 33, gently grabbed the microphone and wrapped his feathery falsetto around a songbook of classic material from his family’s R&B-pop group, DeBarge. Though he’d left the group in 1986, El opened with their heartbreaking 1983 hit “Stay with Me” (Gordy), which Sean “Puffy” Combs would soon sample for the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1995 smash remix of “One More Chance” (Bad Boy). As El sang, it seemed he was ready for another chance himself. Despite rumors that he was caught up in a fog of drug addiction, on this night, both El’s voice and his wardrobe were sharp as nails.