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When DeBarge hit the scene in the eighties, there was a misconception that the family group from Grand Rapids, Michigan, was little more than a Jackson 5 knock-off. Sure, Eldra (El), Randy, James, Mark and sister Bunny were five good-looking siblings from the Midwest. Motown did put a teen-drama spin on the group's publicity campaign.

DeBarge, however, had more in common with other seventies siblings groups the Five Stairsteps and the Sylvers, who, unlike the J5—prohibited by Motown from recording their own songs—wrote and produced much of their own material.

DeBarge, from a talented family of ten, were musically weaned in church and performed gospel. They were signed to Motown at the suggestion of brothers Bobby and Tommy DeBarge, members of the Motown band Switch, and Jermaine Jackson. Their debut album stiffed and Motown considered taking back creative control. But Motown founder Berry Gordy let the staff know to let the group do our thing.

"I Like It," a sassy, tantalizing single from 1982's All This Love LP, hit No. 2 R&B. The album's title track, a simple yet sumptuous ballad propelled by El's impassioned lead vocal and the group's harmonies, was a soulful, melodic masterpiece that broke into the Pop Top 20.

DeBarge's next album, 1983's In A Special Way, featured "Time Will Reveal," which went No. 1 R&B and Top 20 Pop. It was followed by another classic ballad, "Love Me In A Special Way," a secular love plea that swayed more like a gospel hymn. Stevie Wonder's harmonica added Motown family flavor.

Though the group worked outside of the Motown production assembly line, the company matched them with the commercial songwriter Diane Warren and pop producer Richard Perry for "Rhythm Of The Night," an up-tempo track featured in the 1985 urban action flick Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon. It was a No. 1 R&B/No. 3 pop smash, and was followed by the hip and funky "You Wear It Well" and the pop-oriented "Who's Holding Donna Now."

Group members began cutting solo albums in 1986. El's self-titled album included the dynamic, high-tech "Who's Johnny," from the action comedy Short Circuit, that went to No. 3 Pop. El also tackled the bittersweet "Love Always," co-written by songwriting icon Burt Bacharach with Carole Bayer Sager and Bruce Roberts.

DeBarge's string of hits paved the way for the solo debut of younger brother Chico, who had co-written with El "You Wear It Well." Chico's muscular dance groove, "Talk To Me," hit the R&B Top 10 in 1986. Sister Bunny released in 1987 the Motown LP In Love, which featured the playful "Save The Best For Me." In 1989, El recorded what would be his last album for Motown, Gemini.

Through the nineties DeBarge was increasingly sampled or covered by top hip-hop and R&B acts. The differences between Tupac Shakur and rival The Notorious B.I.G. now belong to legend, but the two agreed on the music of DeBarge: "A Dream," from the DeBarge LP In A Special Way, is the musical foundation for Shakur's chilling, prophetic "I Ain't Mad At Cha" from 1996, while Biggie's hit from that year, "One More Chance," is a cop of "Stay With Me" from the same LP.

Even now, another decade gone by, the music of the DeBarge family remains timeless.


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