El DeBarge gets a second chance after drug problems, releases first album in 16 years


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When El DeBarge walked onstage late last month at Gibson Amphitheatre, he was met with a fury of applause and catcalls from the predominantly female audience. He basked in the moment, his gray and scarlet suit aglow in the spotlight before the band launched into a classic song from his back catalog, “Stay With Me,” and he let out his signature falsetto.

Watching the crowd embrace the elder statesman of R&B -- who was opening for Mary J. Blige on her “Music Saved My Life” tour -- was a testament to the power of public redemption. It had been more than 16 years since he had an album in stores and on paper his career was long over, thanks to a long self-destructive path of drug use.


The 49-year-old, once the lead singer of the popular ‘80s Motown family group DeBarge, transitioned that early success into a thriving solo career. But it became an afterthought when his addiction -– which he battled for more than two decades and which has also plagued a number of his siblings -- and a laundry lists of legal troubles, including arrests on cocaine possession and domestic violence charges, crippled his once promising career.

His dependence on heroin and crack ultimately landed the singer in prison, where he spent 13 months before his release in 2009. But to those in the audience that evening, none of that mattered as they swayed and sang along to his old hits. Some women blew him kisses (which he returned); others fanned themselves and some professed their love for him, including one nearby woman shouting, “He still got it” -- he was, after all, considered a heartthrob when these women were in their late teens.

Debarge’s return began earlier in the year with a surprise appearance at the 2010 BET Awards. Performing a medley to a stunned audience, the opening lyrics to his hit “All This Love” had now taken on a new meaning: ‘I had some problems, and no one could seem to solve them.” His set got just as much postmortem ink as Chris Brown’s tearful Michael Jackson dance tribute.

“I was nervous. I didn’t know how people would receive me after having been gone for so long,” Debarge said, looking back on his big comeback moment. “I was in prison and I knew people had known about the drug addiction thing. I just didn’t know … but once I turned around on that stool, all that love was there.”

His comeback trail culminated Tuesday with the release of his first album since 1994’s “Heart, Mind and Soul” -- the appropriately titled “Second Chance.”

Despite DeBarge spending the last 20 years away from the spotlight, his music has been a mainstay in hip-hop and R&B as a go-to choice for sampling. Everyone from Tupac and Common to Patti LaBelle and Beyoncé has used his music. “Stay With Me” alone has yielded hits for the Notorious B.I.G. (‘One More Chance’), Ashanti (“Foolish”), Ne-Yo (“Stay”) and Mariah Carey (‘I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time’) –- and he’s grateful that so many “artists kept the music alive” in his absence. His niece Kristinia has also helped keep the family name afloat -- she made a splash last year with her debut album, “Exposed.”


“Second Chance,” El DeBarge’s first release on Geffen, boasts production from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Babyface, and collaborations with Faith Evans, 50 Cent and Fabolous. The album’s title track peaked at No. 41 of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, while the follow-up single, “Lay With You,” has struggled to break into the Top 50.

Though such contemporaries as Sade and Maxwell have made triumphant returns after long hiatuses, DeBarge is just happy to have tapped into a fanbase that has welcomed his return -– especially as a new generation of soulsters, including Trey Songz, Ne-Yo and Robin Thicke, seems to have more than filled the void of ‘R&B pretty boy’ that DeBarge once dominated.

He said he doesn’t feel any pressure to compete with his much younger peers.

“The label understood who El DeBarge is musically and they wanted me to be myself,” he said. “They saw a hunger out there for this type of music.”

In conversation, he is vocal about his addiction. He wound up behind bars after a 2008 drug arrest, which violated the terms of his probation. DeBarge says that was the wake-up call he needed and credits the faith he found while in prison as the reason he is still clean.

“The whole time I was locked in my drug addiction, I never stopped praying. I was never ashamed because I was doing drugs … I knew I needed help,” DeBarge said. “I said, ‘God you’ve gotta get me off of this, I need you ... I need you.’ He saw fit to rescue me by having me sit down in a California state penitentiary for 13 months to get myself together. That was my rescue.”

DeBarge says there was nothing anyone could have done to deter him from drug use.

“People told me to stay away. There was no peer pressure. Everybody told me the things it did. Not only that, I saw what it could do. It was all around me,” he said. “I decided I was going to try it out of curiosity. Don’t believe the hype. Nothing good is going to come out of [drugs] except prison or death.”


In his performances, he chooses to end with the one of his group’s most famous hits, the dance track “Rhythm of the Night.” The crowd that evening, just as during the BET Awards, sang every lyric as if it were 1985 all over again, with neither DeBarge nor the audience missing a single note. Regardless of whether his resurfacing translates into record sales or not, he says he’s grateful for the chance to try again.

“A second chance has been given to me … through the voice of my music,” DeBarge said. “People [are] really rooting for me.”

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy

(Bottom) DeBarge performs at the 2010 Soul Train Awards at the Cobb Energy Center on Nov. 10 in Atlanta. Credit: Moses Robinson / Getty Images