Monday, March 16, 2009

Who's Johnny? And Who Is DeBarge?

Chances are, if you can recall the film quote “Number Five is alive!”, then you’ll recall a hit song from 1986 titled ‘Who’s Johnny’. ‘Johnny’ was of course the experimental robot Johnny Five, from the John Badham directed comedy/sci-fi flick ‘Short Circuit’, starring Ally ‘Breakfast Club’ Sheedy, Steve ’Police Academy’ Guttenberg, and Fisher ‘once dated Michelle Pfeiffer’ Stevens. The hit single ‘Who’s Johnny’, came courtesy of singer El DeBarge, with a little help from the DeBarge family. It was just one of a string of hit singles during the 1980s from the DeBarge dynasty, in all their various guises, a dynasty that, for a year or two, promised to rival the phenomenal success already experienced by family Jackson, at the height of their collective popularity in the 70s.

The DeBarge family hailed from Grand Rapids, Michigan, with Mr. and Mrs. D. kept busy with ten children to raise. The DeBarge family were regular church goers and over time each of the children began to sing in the local church choir. Though brought up on a diet of gospel, by the mid 70s the older siblings were beginning to shift across to performing the pre-eminent popular music styles of the era - pop, soul and funk. Older brothers Tommy and Bobby DeBarge both joined a soul-funk group called Switch, discovered by one Jermaine Jackson. Switch chalked up a number of minor chart hits in the late 70s, including the US#38 hit ‘There’ll Never Be’.

The Jermaine Jackson connection proved a vital conduit in leading four of the younger DeBarge siblings to sign with Motown founder Berry Gordy’s subsidiary label. Brothers Eldra (El - vocals/keyboards), Marty (trumpet/sax), and Randy (bass), along with older sister Bunny (vocals), signed with the Gordy label as a quartet in 1979 under the name ‘The DeBarges’, and Berry Gordy took a personal interest in grooming the young siblings for pop superstardom. It took a while to surface, but in 1981 The DeBarges (as they were then known) released their self titled debut album ‘The DeBarges’. The album featured a mix of slickly produced R&B and soul infused numbers, but the group were yet to strike the right balance as a musical unit.

Now under the new moniker of ‘DeBarge’, younger brother James joined de group for their July 1982 sophomore album ‘All This Love’. Co-produced by El DeBarge and Iris Gordy, ‘All This Love’ found the quintet approaching something like the formula that would lead them to be touted as potential heirs to the Jackson pop crown. The song writing was sharp, the arrangements precise, and the production values impeccable. The lead out single ‘Stop! Don’t Tease Me’ (US#46) broke DeBarge on the singles charts for the first time, and was followed by the more up tempo dance number ‘I Like It’ (US#31) in early ‘83. But it was the third single, ‘All This Love’, which elevated DeBarge to the status of a top twenty hit maker (US#17 - #1 Adult Contemporary), and showcased the smooth R&B vocal stylings of El DeBarge.

Later in ‘83, DeBarge released their third album, titled ‘In A Special Way’. El DeBarge shared production duties with older brother Bobby, whilst James and Bunny joined El on lead vocals across the album’s nine tracks. The album featured more stripped back instrumental arrangements, and relied on the purity of each song’s melody to hook listeners. The lead out single, ‘Time Will Reveal’ (US#18 - #1R&B), revealed El DeBarge to be a singer and songwriter of rare distinction. El also handles the lead vocal on the album’s title track ‘Love Me In A Special Way’ (US#45), featuring a harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder, which helped push sales of the source album to top forty levels (US#36). James DeBarge married then eighteen year old Janet Jackson in 1984, but the marriage was ended after just seven months. DeBarge (the group) appeared on the Motown 25 concert, and joined R&B legend Luther Vandross on a sell out U.S. tour during the same period, preparing them for the impending surge of popularity that awaited with the release of their next album.

The support roster for DeBarge’s 1985 album, ‘Rhythm Of The Night’, was nothing short of a stellar cast of production (David Foster, Richard Perry, Giorgio Moroder, Glen Ballard) and song writing talent. Songwriter Diane Warren (penned hits for Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Aerosmith etc.) co-wrote the album’s infectious pop-dance title track ‘Rhythm Of The Night’, featured in the Berry Gordy produced film ‘The Last Dragon’ (starring Vanity). Produced by Richard Perry, ‘Rhythm Of The Night’ hit the U.S. charts in February ‘85, and within a few weeks had found its salsa infused rhythm inside the top ten, eventually peaking at #3. The track repeated its success all over the world, including top five results in both Britain (#4) and Australia (#5) during the first half of ‘85. The follow up single ‘Who’s Holding Donna Now’ was a slower tempo R&B styled number, that soon found itself holding on to #6 on the U.S. Hot 100 (OZ#57), but mid ‘85 marked the final chart appearance by a single credited to ‘DeBarge’. El DeBarge had clearly assumed a lead role within the group, and was a driving force across production, writing and performance roles. The final two singles yielded from the ‘Rhythm In The Night’ album (US#19/OZ#46/UK#94) were both credited officially to El Debarge with DeBarge. The soul oriented ‘You Wear It Well’ (US#46/UK#54), which featured on an episode of the popular TV drama ‘Miami Vice’, and the ballad ‘The Heart Is Not So Smart’ (US#75) kept the DeBarge family name inside the charts for the remainder of 1985. Early 1986 saw the release of a greatest hits package for DeBarge, featuring all of their Motown/Gordy hits, but it was the final outing with the group for El, who had made the decision to embark on a solo career.

The DeBarge group name continued, though now as the quartet of Marty, Randy, James, with older brother Bobby now joining officially. They left the Motown label to sign with Striped Horse Records in 1987. DeBarge released one more album as a group, with 1987’s ‘Bad Boys’, though both album and lead single ‘(Bad Boys) Dance All Night’ (US#33-R&B) tanked, due to a combination of factors. Arguable since the most talented of the siblings, El, had left (as had Bunny), the revamped line-up received little promotional support from their new label, and both Bobby and another DeBarge sibling Chico (who had a 1986 solo hit with ‘Talk To Me’-US#21), were arrested for drug trafficking following a national tour. The incident effectively ended DeBarge as a collective musical unit, with other members battling their own health and substance abuse issues. Bunny DeBarge had remained with the Motown label, and released a one off solo album in 1987, titled ‘In Love’, which failed to attract any attention.

El DeBarge kickstarted his solo career with the U.S. top five smash ‘Who’s Johnny’ (US#3/UK#60/OZ#33), the theme track from the aforementioned motion picture ‘Short Circuit’. The catchy pop number had been arranged and co-produced by Peter Wolf, just one of a swag of high profile talent attached to El DeBarge’s eponymously titled debut album. Songwriter Diane Warren penned three tracks for the set, but it was the Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager written ballad ‘Love Always’ that provided the follow up hit single (US#43), which helped sustain sales for the album (US#24). El DeBarge also experienced some troubles with the law during 1987, after failing to complete a sentence arising from an assault charge (at least Michael Jackson waited until he’d become the ‘King Of Pop’ before becoming embroiled in controversy). He was eventually forced to perform a benefit concert for local charities, as part of an adjusted sentence. If Motown had designs on El DeBarge becoming the next Michael Jackson, their ambitions exceeded the reality of the public’s embracement of his music. 1989’s ‘Gemini’ album notched up modest sales (US#35-R&B), and failed to spawn any hit singles. In 1990 El DeBarge was invited to contribute to the all-star Quincy Jones album project ‘Back On The Block’. El DeBarge contributed vocals, alongside Al B. Sure!, James Ingram, and Barry White, on the single ‘The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)’ (US#31/UK#67), but it would be the last time (to date) the name DeBarge would be attached to a top forty single.

El DeBarge was the last of the family unit to part ways with the Gordy empire, and signed with Warner Bros. for the 1992 album ‘In The Storm’, a virtual homage to the late Marvin Gaye. The album spawned a minor R&B hit in ‘You Know What I Like’, but despite receiving some positive reviews (and benefiting from input by Earth, Wind & Fire impresario Maurice White) it fell short of expectations. El DeBarge returned in 1994 with the Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds produced set ‘Heart, Mind & Soul’ (US#137). The album boasted a mix of styles, including urban funk and soul, that reflected an artist either in search of the right balance, or willing to stretch his stylistic reach. Though well received by critics, ‘Heart, Mind & Soul’ couldn’t revive momentum for El DeBarge’s career.

The next few years proved quiet for the DeBarge name, but in 1998 El, Marty, Randy, and James reunited for a series of shows, though a new album didn’t result. Numerous DeBarge songs have cropped up in sample form over the ensuing decade, reinforcing the quality of product the group had once created, though serving as a reminder to promise never fully realised.

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