'80s star El DeBarge has a second chance at music and at life - but no one is sure if he can grab either

After more than two decades of drug use and personal turmoil, singer El Debarge has returned to performing, earning two Grammy nominations for his album "Second Chance."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 10:01 AM

El DeBarge looks like he feels good about himself.

Twenty minutes before he takes the stage at the BWX Lounge in Hanover, sounds of cheering fans reach the singer in a curtained-off room.

He fixes his scarf to adjust his appearance, though, truth be told, there's nothing wrong there - white T-shirt, black jeans, rhinestone belt, camel duster. Five-foot-nine and high-school skinny. His black hair gleams, and his smooth olive complexion betrays little of his 49 years. It's really quite remarkable, considering all he has been through.

It's mid-December, and the 1980s R&B star with the achingly sweet falsetto, former lead singer of the family group DeBarge, is staging a comeback, not just musically - his first album in 16 years has earned two Grammy nominations - but a comeback to life.

Courtesy of www.eldebargemusic.com

Jeri Wiggins of Baltimore, one of hundreds of fans who braved long lines in the cold, says she has loved DeBarge since second grade and is thrilled he's back performing. "I'm always online looking for him," she says. "He looks good!" She adds that with everything DeBarge has endured, her "heart went out to him," but "he's still standing."

"I'm feeling that they want me to be okay," DeBarge says. "I'm feeling that they want me to do good."

The singer is all kinetic energy. He pumps his fist to the music, then breaks into an impromptu rhyme. He playfully sings a snippet of the Gap Band's "Outstanding" to a reporter while showing off his smoothest dance moves. He smiles at everybody.

Then, just before taking the stage, he kneels by a chair, clasps his hands and prays silently as the din from outside grows stronger and stronger.

"Y'all want to see El?" the emcee asks.

"Yeessss!!" the crowd screams in response.

DeBarge heads for the keyboard, and as the screaming crescendos, cameras flash and women yell his name, his smile widens and he begins his set with a song from his brand-new album.

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