Times Staff Writer

If you congratulate Chico DeBarge on his hit single, “Talk to Me,” and then ask him how it feels to be free of the group DeBarge, you’ll be committing a faux pas.

Yes, he does sing the danceable Motown single, but he was not in DeBarge. People make that mistake all the time.

“It doesn’t bother me when people think I was in the group,” he insisted, during a break in a recording session in a North Hollywood studio. “It doesn’t mean they don’t know what’s happening. There are a lot of us to keep track of.”

He’s right about that. There are eight singing DeBarges in the family. Only two of the 10 children don’t sing. When ranking soul music clans in terms of talent, the DeBarges of Detroit are considered second only to the Jacksons.


Until recently, the best-known DeBarge was El, lead singer of the quintet DeBarge. Many apparently assume Chico was one of the lesser-known members of the group.

But Chico, 20, was in high school when the group was at its peak in the mid-’80s.

Though his passion for music slowly intensified through his teen years, joining the family performing group wasn’t his goal. “At one time long ago I wanted to be in the group, but I changed my mind,” he said. “I preferred to make it on my own. I didn’t want to be in their shadow and I didn’t want it to look like I made it because of them.”

Actually, though, that’s what happened. His first credit was as co-writer of the song “You Wear It Well” on the 1985 DeBarge album, “Rhythm of the Night.” Partly because of that song, Motown took an interest in Chico as a solo artist and signed him last year.

His debut album, “Chico DeBarge,” came out last September. His other major credit last year was singing a remake of the 1963 Essex hit “Easier Said Than Done” on the sound track of the movie “A Fine Mess,” directed by Blake Edwards.

Two months after Chico signed with Motown, the group DeBarge split up. Though there had been constant reports that El was dissatisfied and wanted out, the breakup was apparently a surprise to Chico.

“I’m the younger brother,” he said. “They never told me much about their business. I never knew what they were going to do.”


The group, he said, has re-formed with a new cast of DeBarges--Bobby, James, Randy and Mark--and will surface again on an independent label.

Chico is not even the best singer in his own family. Big brother El still holds that distinction. Their sister Bunny, at 30 the eldest of the clan, isn’t far behind. Her first solo album, “In Love,” has just been released by Motown, which has all three DeBarges under solo contracts.

Like most novice R&B; singers, Chico gets by on expressiveness and enthusiasm. His voice isn’t particularly strong or supple yet, although the vocal tools are definitely there.

“My voice is still not where I want it to be,” he admitted. “But I’m building it up.”

But the strength of his voice is largely irrelevant to a large part of his audience--swooning teen-age girls. To please them, all he has to do is carry a tune. What turns them on is that he’s cute and has a good physique. Though not inclined to boast, DeBarge came close when discussing his athletic ability. In high school he starred in basketball, football and wrestling. He’s not big--5 feet, 11 inches tall and 140 pounds--but he insisted he makes up for it in toughness.

Back home in Detroit, that toughness came in handy. When the group DeBarge got hot and the family was prospering, he was often harassed by jealous high-school classmates.

“We’re from a poor family, but things really got better for us,” he said. “Some kids couldn’t handle that. They would bother me, call me names. I didn’t mind what they said to me but when they swung at me, I wouldn’t take it. So I got into fights. I did pretty well. I was more scared of my brothers--they used to beat me up if I lost a fight.”

Harassment was nothing new to DeBarge. Because his father is white and his mother is black and Indian, he had to endure slurs about being racially mixed.


“They called me Oreo, zebra, half-breed--those kinds of things,” he recalled. “I’d get into fights when I had to. People can be so ignorant and hurtful. In some ways I got used to that stuff because I heard it so much. But in some ways I’ll never get used to it. It can make you cautious and hesitant about people.”

Now a San Fernando Valley resident, DeBarge claimed he’s wary of people in this town--particularly the Hollywood types.

“They’re nice to you but you feel like they’re gonna stab you in the back at some point,” he said. “People have these ulterior motives. You never know why they’re being nice. You can’t trust them.

“If I ever get to be a big star, I don’t know how I’ll deal with these people. I’m not a chicken but I may have to go into hiding. It may be the only answer.”