The Gibbs are unquestionably the first family of the falsetto. No other family group comes close-except one. Although they may not have gotten the shine they deserved in the shadow of that other big hitmaking Motown family, Michigan’s DeBarge clan ranked near the top of the soul music food chain for quite some time during the Eighties.
A full account of their epic rise and fall can be read in this incredible Vibe article here: http://www.vibe.com/news/news_headlines/2007/08/debarge_ep_1/
However, I’m not here to talk about foibles and tragedies. I’m here to discuss parachute pants, greasy hair and thin mustaches. I’m here to discuss rhythms of the night and the mysterious holding of women named Donna. I’m here to discuss two of the meanest falsettos to ever come out of the Midwest: brothers Robert (Bobby) and El (Eldra) DeBarge.
Bobby, the eldest DeBarge sibling, got a five year head start on most of the rest of his family when it came to success. He, along with younger brother Tommy, were members of the funk group Switch. They were signed to Motown by Jermaine Jackson (the first in many Jackson/DeBarge intersections), and quickly scored a hit on the R&B charts with a sumptuous ballad called “There’ll Never Be”.
Check out the squealing, man! Giving Philip Bailey a run for his money!!
Anyway, Switch soldiered on for a couple more albums before fizzling out just as Bobby & Tommy’s younger siblings were making their rise. Ultimately, the group, consisting of siblings El, Marty, Randy, James (AKA the original Mr. Janet Jackson) and sister Bunny wound up with the greatest pop success of the various family acts. They scored 6 Top 40 pop hits, including the huge smash “Rhythm of the Night”. However, the DeBarge song that showcased El’s creamy falsetto the most was 1983’s “Time Will Reveal”. Pay special attention to the almost inhuman high notes El hits towards the song’s conclusion.
Anyway, Motown successully pried El from the group and turned him into a solo act in 1986. His career got off to a great start with the #2 hit “Who’s Johnny?” (one of the most inane singles in a decade filled with inane singles), but things slid downhill from there. Aside from a couple of production slots and the occasional guest spot on a few DJ Quik albums, El’s released no new music since 1994. He did, however, make headlines earlier this year for being arrested on suspicion of spousal battery and becoming the subject of a most unflattering mugshot. The rest of the family has more or less met the same fate. Sister Bunny also left the group and released one solo album before disappearing. The remaining brothers welcomed Bobby and Tommy back into the fold for 1987’s”Bad Boys” (released on an indie label), but any chance of a comeback was derailed when Bobby and younger brother Chico (who had just started a solo career) were sent off to jail for being accessories to drug trafficking. Neither brother emerged from prison until the early Nineties, and Bobby sadly passed away in 1995. Chico, on the other hand, went on to record several successful albums, casting himself as a prettier version of D’Angelo. However, the hot falsetto action seems to have eluded him.
So, despite the family’s many problems, they will always be remembered as one of the First Families of Falsetto. And for that, DeBarge, we salute you.