|Born||March 5, 1956
|Died||August 16, 1995
Grand Rapids, Michigan
|Labels||RCA, Motown, Striped Horse|
|Associated acts||Barry White, Switch, DeBarge|
Robert Louis "Bobby" DeBarge, Jr. (March 5, 1956–August 16, 1995) was an American musician and the lead singer of the popular 1970s Motown R&B group Switch and was noted for his impressive falsetto vocals. Later on, he served as both mentor and a co-producer of his siblings' band, DeBarge, later joining them to fill in for departing members El and Bunny. A five-year conviction on drug trafficking charges derailed his career for several years.
Life and career
Robert Louis DeBarge, Jr. was born in Detroit to Etterlene (née Abney) and Robert DeBarge, Sr. Growing up in Detroit, DeBarge had an unhappy childhood that was triggered by physical abuse from his father. He also has abused his younger brother James DeBarge. At 15, DeBarge was introduced to heroin, which would become his lifelong addiction. After his parents separated in the early 1970s, Bobby DeBarge and his family relocated to Grand Rapids, where DeBarge, a talented instrumentalist and vocalist, began playing in local bands along with his younger brother Tommy.
In 1975, after teaming up with fellow Grand Rapids musician Gregory Williams, the duo began a group with several other Midwestern musicians and auditioned for, and got, with Barry White's background group, White Heat, helping to produce and release their debut album that year. The following year, White dropped all but one musician from the band due to tax issues. The group - which consisted of DeBarge, Williams, Jody Sims, Phillip Ingram and Eddie Fluellen - then recorded an album in 1976 under the name Smash entitled Pall Mall Groove, which included DeBarge's incredible singing, piano performance and writing of "Please Don't Let Me Go," released in 1977 on Polydor/Germany and in 1979 in the USA/Canada as SMASH on Source Records/MCA.
That year, DeBarge returned to Grand Rapids, despondent that his career hadn't progressed and ventured deeper into a heroin addiction. After Gregory Williams brought his group's demo tape to Motown Records, the label wanted to sign the group, who were now calling themselves Switch, because of their ability to "switch" instruments, under the condition that they bring along Bobby DeBarge. DeBarge, seeking an opportunity to find musical stardom, vowed to get sober from his heroin addiction. Motown soon signed the act, which now enlisted Bobby's brother Tommy.
A year after their signing, the band released their debut album in 1978. The album, which featured production from Jermaine Jackson, reached gold status thanks to "There'll Never Be," which was solely written by DeBarge, and also featured a favorite ballad of theirs including "I Want to Be Closer", in which Phillip Ingram and DeBarge shared lead. The following year, the group hit gold again with Switch II, another Jermaine Jackson-produced album, which included another DeBarge-penned hit, "I Call Your Name." Switch became a recording and performing attraction, not only due to the band's overall musicianship but also due to DeBarge's multi-octave vocal range.
In 1980, the group had their third gold-selling album, This Is My Dream, which was the group's first album to not include input from Jackson and which the band's founding members - DeBarge, Jody Sims and Gregory Williams - co-produced. The album included the hit "Love Over and Over Again." By then, DeBarge went back to his heroin habit after several years of sobriety and also began using cocaine, which helped to cause tension between DeBarge and Switch group members.
Things came to a head in 1981 when, following the release of Switch's fifth album Switch V, Bobby DeBarge suddenly left the group after Motown offered him a solo recording deal, later finalized in 1983. By then, DeBarge was overseeing the production of his siblings' albums. Bobby co-produced their debut album, and co-wrote with younger brother El the song, "Queen of My Heart", in which he performed falsetto ad-libs near the end of the recording. The track would later re-appear on DeBarge's third album, In A Special Way, in which El himself produced with a more polished version.
By 1987, perhaps taking their cue from Bobby splitting from his own group, El and their sister Bunny had left DeBarge to pursue solo careers, with El finding the most success. Bobby had troubles producing his solo debut, and his solo career failed to pick up, so Bobby curtailed his solo career aspirations and joined his siblings' group, forming a revamped DeBarge quartet that recorded the album, Bad Boys. Bobby and younger brother James split vocal leads on the project. However, Bobby's career halted in 1988 after he was convicted on drug trafficking charges in Grand Rapids and was sentenced to five years in prison. Following his release, he returned to performing and recording, all the while struggling with AIDS, which he contracted sometime in the late 1980s prior to his prison sentence. He finished his last musical work, It's Not Over, but was not alive when the album was distributed independently.
For several years, Bobby DeBarge pursued La Toya Jackson of the Jackson family. Switch band mate and best friend Gregory Williams contended that the group's hit songs, such as "You And I" and "I Call Your Name", were love songs to La Toya, and while he did not mention her name, he did mention Jackson's song "Night Time Lover" in the Switch ballad "You & I", a song he wrote in response to Jackson's single.
By 1984, DeBarge had split from Jackson and later married his first and only wife, Teri, with whom he would have two children, Christian and Bobby III. DeBarge has three older children from a previous relationship. Bobby III is currently pursuing a career in music like his father. DeBarge's heroin addiction had started in the early 1970s and, later, DeBarge developed addictions to cocaine and crack.
In 1988, he was sentenced to five years in a Wisconsin prison for drug trafficking charges. Following his release in 1993, he vowed to stay sober, signing a management agreement with Bernd Lichters (for whom DeBarge, with Hot Ice, recorded the Pall Mall Groove album years earlier), who guided him during 1994 to record songs he wrote in prison. The resulting album, released in August 1995 on A&E Records just before his death, was entitled It's Not Over. Throughout that year, he was lying low in Gregory Williams' California home, before he returned to Michigan for his final days of his life.
Illness and death
Before being sent to prison, Bobby DeBarge confided to his family that he had contracted AIDS. Later in 1995, Bobby DeBarge became gravely ill and his family sent him to a hospice in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he died on August 16, 1995, from AIDS complications. He is buried in Garfield Park Cemetery in Grand Rapids.
- Gonzales, Michael A. (September 10, 2007). "The Rise and Fall of the Debarge Family (Episode 2)". Vibe. Archived from the original on August 17, 2007.
- "The Rise and Fall of the DeBarge Family" (Episode 3) : VIBE.com
- "Bernd Lichters Website".