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FACES : EL DEBARGE: POP MUSIC’S NEWEST MR. NICE GUY

El DeBarge, leader of the red-hot pop-soul vocal group DeBarge, seems like a nice young man--friendly, bright, low-key. But there’s something ominous about him too.

That’s what he insisted anyway. But peering closely at that angelic 23-year-old face, all that was evident was innocence. He looks like Prince but lacks Prince’s sinister aura.

“I’m a nice guy, but not all the time,” DeBarge said. It sounded like a warning. “There are these personalities in me, so many of them. They come out at strange times. I can be one way, then five minutes later I’m another way.”

Which DeBarge was having lunch on Sunset Strip that sunny afternoon? “The nice one,” he replied, smiling sheepishly.

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These personalities, he pointed out, emerge suddenly and are largely beyond his control: “Nothing I do determines what comes out. They come out as they want to. I fight some of them. I don’t enjoy some of them and I know other people don’t enjoy them either.”

Describing his least favorite persona, DeBarge said: “It’s the depressed one. Sometimes I feel so lonely I don’t know what to do. I fight that one, very hard.”

His primary weapon is music. “I fight these strange personalities by getting into music,” he said. “I have a studio in my house (in Canoga Park). I’ll go in there and turn out all the lights. I have lots of synthesizers. The lights from the drum machines flicker on and off. I concentrate and play music. Music really helps me. It’s like a best friend.”

From my expression, he could tell what I was thinking. I was looking at him as he were very strange.

“I’m not crazy,” he said, smiling. “But I am different. I’m still learning about myself.”

Last year was a big one for the vocal quintet. The potential that Motown has been talking about for years finally surfaced. Its third album, “In a Special Way,” was a hit. So was the album’s best song, the pretty ballad single “Time Will Reveal.”

The group’s current Top Five single, “Rhythm of the Night,” is its biggest hit. It’s the title song from fast-rising new DeBarge album, which just entered the Billboard magazine pop Top 40. The single, a bubbly, up-tempo piece reminiscent of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” is atypical for DeBarge, which is known for its rapturous ballads and lush harmonies. The album is atypical too. The last album, “In a Special Way,” was written and produced by the group. But several producers worked on the new one, notably Richard Perry, who did the title song, and Jay Graydon. Half the material was written by outsiders. As Connie Johnson astutely observed in a Calendar album review, the outsiders’ work is admirable but the songs the group wrote and produced are much better. “The Walls (Came Tumbling Down),” a terrific dance number, was produced, arranged, co-written and performed by El DeBarge. It’s the group’s best song ever.

The group was a big attraction last year on tour as opening act for Luther Vandross. While praising the group’s potential, critics consistently rapped its performances, usually citing inexperience.

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DeBarge acknowledged that touring with Vandross may have been too much too soon. Besides having no previous performing experience, the group had only one month to rehearse for the four-month tour. He was stone-faced when discussing the tour. Apparently, the conversation unearthed some unpleasant memories.

“We needed more time to prepare,” he said. “Also that was too long for a first tour. Luther was as helpful as he could be. None of it was his fault. We learned from the experience. There’s a lot of things we won’t do again. One thing we’ll never do again is be an opening act.”

DeBarge is a family group made up of four brothers--El, Randy, Mark and James--and sister Bunny, 29, the senior member. She’s also the oldest of the 10 DeBarge children. This budding show-biz dynasty, which originated in Grand Rapids, Mich., could rival the Jacksons someday.

El DeBarge--singer, writer, producer, keyboards player--is an extraordinary talent. He sings in silky, sensuous style, much like Marvin Gaye’s. With more polish and experience, he might be a superstar of Prince-Michael Jackson caliber. He’s constantly asked if he has any solo plans.

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“I’m not sure,” he said. “But with all the questions everybody is making me think about a solo career. I’m not really ready to think about it now.”

Other family members have show biz aspirations. The 15-year-old boy-girl twins are in high school waiting their chance. Brother Chico, who co-wrote one of the songs on the new album, has signed with Motown. The eldest brother, Bobby, who used to be with Motown in a group called Switch, is now in search of a solo deal. Even their mother, a gospel singer and one of the group’s primary musical inspirations, is going to record a solo album.

It isn’t likely that other family members will be added to the group. Bobby wants to join but has encountered strong opposition. “We won’t let him in,” El said. “The group is big enough now. Besides, he probably couldn’t make full use of his talent in this group. We’d probably clash too. It’s better for him to be solo.”

When the group signed with Motown in 1980, it was a quartet. After the debut album, “DeBarge,” James was added, but not without opposition from Motown. “The company didn’t want to add a new face just when we were starting to get recognized,” El explained.

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James has been in the news in recent months because of his marriage to Janet Jackson of the Jackson family. The public was surprised by this union but insiders, like El, were not. “They were dating for two years before they got married,” he explained.

Commenting on rumors that the newlyweds have been battling, DeBarge said: “All I’ve seen is that it’s all peaches ‘n’ cream. But who knows what goes on behind closed doors? I hope it’s peaches ‘n’ cream behind closed doors too.”

Fans have been fascinated by the union of these two noted show biz clans. But, DeBarge revealed, ties were established before the recent marriage: “My brother Bobby used to date LaToya (a singing Jackson sister) years ago.”

Does El know Michael Jackson, to whom he is often compared, very well? “I knew Michael before he got so busy,” he replied. “James is at the Jackson house all the time. He sees Michael a lot. I don’t see him much anymore.”

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While the current album was being assembled, El DeBarge wasn’t himself. Apparently that’s why there was so much outside help from producers and writers. The problem was that he was still reeling from a broken romance.

“There wasn’t a moment in the studio when it wasn’t on my mind,” he said. “I still don’t know how I was able to work on the album when I was going through this trauma. I was in a trance. Mentally, I wasn’t there.”

DeBarge claimed he still hasn’t recovered. “It’s wasn’t my first romance,” he said. “That’s supposed to be the roughest. This is worst than the heartbreak of first love. I still can’t believe it happened to me.”

But something positive, he insisted, will come out of this romantic trauma. “Sometimes I’m too creative, too ambitious, too smart for my own good. I have to suffer some pain. It’s good for me. It’ll make me a man, I guess. That’s what they say anyway. But isn’t there a better way?”

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