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CAN EL DeBARGE RETURN FROM MISSING IN ACTION?

There’s a mystery about El DeBarge. No one can quite figure out what has happened to him.

He has been the creative force behind DeBarge, the co-ed family singing group that has been prospering on Motown since 1980. But he seems to be in creative limbo. The group’s chief producer and writer--an exceptional composer and producer of pop-soul songs--hasn’t had many credits lately.

On the last group album, “Rhythm of the Night,” outsiders were mainly responsible for producing and writing. He produced and arranged only two songs and co-wrote several others. His new album is his first solo effort. Strangely, he has no producing and writing credits on “El DeBarge,” which features the Top Five single “Who’s Johnny.” When’s the last time you heard of a debut solo album by a singer known for producing and writing that was not produced and written by the singer?

The songs, however, are fine. So is the album. Many fans certainly like it. On the Billboard magazine pop chart, it’s No. 24. But that personal touch is missing. There’s no question that DeBarge’s vocals on songs he writes and produces are lustier and more heartfelt.

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Has DeBarge sworn off composing and producing?

He smiled at the question. “I’m the same El DeBarge,” he insisted. “I still produce and write. I just didn’t do it on this album.”

When he began the project, he planned to write and produce extensively. “I wrote a lot of songs for this album,” he explained. “But I just put my stuff on the shelf and used these other songs.”

He never really explained why.

The feeling among some pop music insiders is that the reason his songs weren’t used is that they just weren’t good enough. That notion didn’t at all rile the mild-mannered singer.

“There was nothing wrong with my songs,” he reiterated. “I just decided to use other songs. It was intuition. The other songs felt right.

“I’m not like other writers. I’m not hung up on using my own songs. In fact, my sister Bunny always tells me I sing other people’s songs better than my own. She says I loosen up and give the songs a different feel.”

A personal problem may be a factor in this situation. He admitted last year in a Calendar interview that, while preparing the “Rhythm of the Night” album, he was suffering the ill effects of a broken romance and was too upset to concentrate on the album.

Apparently those wounds still haven’t healed.

“I was still recuperating from that experience by the time I got to this album,” he said. “I’m still recuperating from it now. It was traumatic and heart-breaking. It threw me--threw me so far I’ll never forget it. But I’ve got to move on. I’m not going to let that destroy my life.”

Has that romantic trauma derailed his creativity? “I don’t think so,” he replied pensively. “That’s not an easy question to answer.”

Is there still a DeBarge group? Yes there is, but El apparently isn’t in it--for now, anyway.

The group, which originated in Grand Rapids, Mich., now consists of DeBarge brothers Mark, Randy and James. Sister Bunny, the eldest of the performers and another former group member, is beginning her own solo career. So is brother Chico, 20, who will have an album out on Motown this summer.

El explained why he left the group: “I wanted to move out of the group and give the others some creative space. They have a better chance to express themselves musically if I wasn’t around.”

The group is working on a project now. So far he hasn’t been involved. “A couple of times I’ve come to the studio but I didn’t do anything,” he recalled. “I just gave them moral support.”

Will he ever contribute anything to this group album? His answer was non-committal: “You never know.”

He recently started his solo performing career. Without his family, he admitted, it’s not the same: “It gets lonely. I miss my family on stage. This might change one day. I’m certainly not going to say I’m not going to work with them again.”

El DeBarge, now 25, started as a teen idol but is slowly attracting more mature fans. Recently he served as opening act for the Pointer Sisters, which was, he observed, quite a challenge:

“The audience was older. You have to prove yourself by singing well. They’re not going to yell and scream just because they like the way you look.”

In other concerts, he’s been the headliner. That’s where most of his young fans--the teen-age girls in particular--see him. To put it mildly, they go berserk.

“All I have to do is walk on stage and they start screaming,” he said. “The girls in the front rows really go crazy. I don’t think anybody can hear what I’m singing. I wish they could hear me.”

But plenty of others are listening to him. In fact, DeBarge could be a superstar ballad singer one day. He’s particularly skilled at singing slow, dreamy, romantic songs. Two of his biggest singles with the group, “I Like It” and ‘Time Will Reveal,” were serene ballads.

His looks and manner are definitely part of his appeal. Besides being undeniably handsome, he’s soft-spoken, gentle and rather introverted--which apparently turns females on.

He didn’t really have to prove his sex appeal, but during the interview--one afternoon at a restaurant--there was an unsolicited testimonial from a fan, singer Irene Cara, who was walking by the table.

“You’re even more handsome in person,” gushed Cara, who kept on walking.

DeBarge blushed.


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