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DeBarge circa 1979.
|Birth name||Robert Louis DeBarge Jr.|
|Born||March 5, 1956|
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
|Died||August 16, 1995 (aged 39)|
Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S.
Robert Louis "Bobby" DeBarge, Jr. (March 5, 1956 – August 16, 1995) was an American singer and musician. DeBarge was the lead singer of the Motown R&B/soul vocal 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, eventually joining them to fill in for departing members El and Bunny. Personal problems, including substance abuse which eventually led to drug trafficking charges in 1988, plagued Bobby in later years, taking focus away from his musical career. He contracted HIV in the 1980s, and died of AIDS complications in 1995, at age 39.
Life and career
DeBarge was born to Etterlene (née Abney) and Army soldier Robert DeBarge, Sr. in Detroit. He blamed an unhappy childhood on his father's abusiveness. At 15, DeBarge was introduced to heroin, which would become his lifelong addiction. After his parents separated and divorced in the early 1970s, Bobby DeBarge and his family relocated to Grand Rapids. A talented instrumentalist and vocalist, he 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 successfully auditioned for 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, Phillip Ingram, Tommy DeBarge, TC Brown, Stanley Brown, Jody Sims, Arnett Hayes, Adam Frye, Darnell Wyrick, MC Clark and Stanley Hood — then recorded an album in 1976 under the name Hot Ice, entitled Pall Mall Groove, which included DeBarge's incredible singing and piano performance on his composition, "Please Don't Let Me Go," released in 1977 on Polydor/Germany, in 1979 in the USA/Canada as SMASH on Source Records/MCA, and in 2005 on Burndsman Records worldwide.
That year, DeBarge returned to Grand Rapids, despondent that his career hadn't progressed; he ventured deeper into a heroin addiction. After the break up of White Heat, Gregory Williams remained in Akron, and sought out new musicians [including Tommy DeBarge, Phillip Ingram, Jody Sims, Eddie Fluellen, MC Clark and Arnett Hayes] to start a new band. After completing a demo tape, he took it to Motown Records; the label wanted to sign the group, who were now calling themselves Switch, because of their ability to "switch" instruments. At Williams' invitation, DeBarge, seeking a chance to find musical stardom, vowed to get clean from his heroin addiction. Motown soon signed the act, which now included 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, "I Want to Be Closer", on 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 had returned to using heroin after several years of cleanliness 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, on which El himself produced, creating 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 he curtailed his 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, he pursued La Toya Jackson of the Jackson family. He mentioned 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 Teri, with whom he would have two children, Christian and Bobby III. DeBarge's heroin addiction 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 clean, signing a management agreement with Bernd Lichters (for whom DeBarge, with Hot Ice, recorded the Pall Mall Groove album years earlier, as well as signing a management agreement as partnership with Ed Wright in 1985), 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.
Illness and death
Before being sent to prison, DeBarge confided to his family that he had contracted HIV. When he became gravely ill, his family sent him to a hospice in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He died of AIDS complications there on August 16, 1995 at age 39. He is buried in Garfield Park Cemetery in Grand Rapids.
- with Switch
- White Heat (1975)
- Pall Mall Groove (1977)
- Switch (1978)
- Switch II (1979)
- Reaching for Tomorrow (1980)
- This Is My Dream (1980)
- with DeBarges
- Bad Boys (1987)
- It's Not Over (1995)
- Find A Grave - Bobby DeBarge
- Gonzales, Michael A. (September 10, 2017). "The Rise and Fall of the DeBarge Family (Episode 3)". Vibe.com. Archived from the original on October 17, 2007.
- "Bernd Lichters Website".