By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
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.
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.
It's called, appropriately, "Second Chance."
In the 1980s, every urban teen in America fell in love to music by DeBarge.
Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds toured along with the family group as they opened for Luther Vandross in 1985. Vandross was the headliner, but "what we didn't expect was this - almost like Jackson 5 - Beatlemania that would happen when DeBarge would hit the stage," Edmonds said in "Unsung," a documentary about the DeBarges that aired on TV One in 2008. Every night, the group walked away with the house.
The DeBarges - late teen and 20-something siblings Bunny, Mark, Randy, James and Eldra Patrick, or El for short - had scored back-to-back gold albums with 1982's "All This Love" and 1983's "In a Special Way," which featured the No. 1 R&B single "Time Will Reveal." The group had radio-friendly lyrics and appearances on "American Bandstand." Fans - especially the ladies - swarmed them at record stores. Every DeBarge was pretty, but El was arguably the finest one.
He was already being singled out for attention when their album "Rhythm of the Night" went platinum in 1985. They made a video and appeared in the Berry Gordy movie "The Last Dragon." But it proved to be their last hurrah as a family act.
The group was roiled by infighting and drug use. They started missing concerts and deadlines. Except for El, described in "Unsung" as "the one dependably sober member." The one who produced, who wanted to please.
He was signed to a solo contract and in 1986 released his self-titled debut album. Propelled by the pop hit "Who's Johnny," it went gold. But it would be the last time El saw those heights for a while. Over the next dozen years, he had three more solo efforts and collaborations with Quincy Jones, Patti LaBelle and Edmonds. He continued making appearances but beginning in the late 1980s he fell into a slow, anguished spiral.
The members of DeBarge were among the 10 children of Robert DeBarge, a white man, and his wife, Etterlene, a black woman and devout Pentecostal. Their father was abusive, and most of the siblings ended up battling drug problems. Bobby (who along with brother Tommy formed the Motown group Switch, which had a string of hits in the late '70s) and Chico both served time in prison, and Bobby, a heroin addict, ended up dying from AIDS complications.
For long years, El had scrupulously avoided what had come to be the family scourge of drugs. But at 25, he smoked marijuana for the first time. By 30, he was a heroin and crack addict. And all of his promise got lost in a haze.
He had a string of run-ins with the law: contempt of court, possession, vandalism, disturbing the peace, domestic violence.
"I was praying for God to rescue me," DeBarge says. "My low point was when I first took a hit of crack. I felt the evil right there. . . . From that point on I began to try to find my way back."
It took decades.
DeBarge moved constantly, from house to house, apartment to apartment, sometimes from his room to the closet where he would get high, paranoid and alone. While he dropped out of the music scene, younger artists - Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige - sampled his songs. He had money from royalties and occasional performances. But he says sometimes he couldn't even buy drugs - because dealers refused to sell them to him. Nobody in the world wanted to see El DeBarge?? Come on now! - go out like that.
"When you're on drugs, you lose your confidence, your self-control, your willpower. You're saying, 'I don't want to do this,' but you're at a point where you can't help but do it," DeBarge says. "Something's got control over you. You start losing family and friends and loved ones." (He has been married and divorced three times and has 12 children.) "Either you run away from them and isolate yourself, or you run them away. It's all bad."
Says his younger brother Chico: "You'd never think in a million years this guy would have a crack pipe to his mouth."
In October 2008, El began serving 13 months in California state prison for drug possession. He says it saved him. It was where he got clean and began to dream again of life.
In late 2009, DeBarge was newly clean and out of prison, and his manager arranged an audition for him at Geffen Records. DeBarge sang a cappella to prove that 22 years of hard drugs, age and burden had hadn't taken the sweetness from his voice. It was the beginning of a triumphant return to the music scene.
In June, he was a special surprise guest on the BET Awards. He was kept hidden for much of the show, and the stage lights stayed dim as the first notes began.
Tentative applause turned ecstatic as the lights came up and DeBarge sang clearly:
I had some problems
And no one could seem to solve them
But you found the answer
And told me to take a chance
And learn the ways of love, my baby . . .
The singer ran through a medley of DeBarge hits as the stars in attendance delighted in the performance. Rapper T.I. and his fiancee, Tameka "Tiny" Cottle, danced to "All This Love." Actress Taraji P. Henson leaned in to sing "I Like It." Jada Pinkett Smith said "Yes, yes!" as DeBarge sailed into his upper register. Kanye West happy-danced to "Rhythm of the Night."
The love-love has been repeated in performances around the country.
He released "Second Chance" on Nov. 30. The album, which features collaborations with Faith Evans and 50 Cent, peaked at No. 13 on the R&B chart. According to Soundscan, DeBarge is selling comparably to contemporary artists Chrisette Michele and Eric Benet and outsold the comeback album of another popular 1980s group, Duran Duran, during its debut week. Next month, he's up for Grammys for best vocalist and best R&B single.
"The rollout of this album has been brilliant," says Emil Wilbekin, managing editor of Essence.com and former editor in chief of Vibe magazine. He saw DeBarge perform at the Essence Music Festival and at Radio City Music Hall last year.
"Everyone was dancing in the aisles. You just felt this emotional wave over the crowd," Wilbekin says. "There's something special about El DeBarge. For him to survive very heavy drug use . . . he still looks good, but more importantly, he really sounds good."
It's all due to "God's love," DeBarge says, and he now calls himself a vessel to carry that message. Vulnerability has gone missing from today's R&B, he says, but "men will listen to me now. . . . I have their attention and I'm not saying, 'We don't love them hos,' I'm saying you know you love her, show her that you love her."
There's also the fact that he is fine. As Sybil Wilkes, co-host of the "Tom Joyner Morning Show," says: "I'm going to be really shallow and say there's nothing like a good-looking man, and you just want him to be a good guy."
She says whenever they played a DeBarge song, the show would get calls and e-mails asking whatever happened to El. The outlines of his story are familiar to fans, she says: "The abusive father, the mother who was a churchgoing woman and felt as though El was anointed. He tries heroin and gets hooked immediately. . . . We've seen it and he represents those people who have so much potential or who have realized their potential and fallen. This is a guy who we want to get up and stay up."
But of course, this is the music business, and everyone has seen these things go a couple of different ways.
In the mid-December show at the BWX Lounge, DeBarge plays to an intimate crowd. "We can't cry forever," he tells them. For five rows standing, there's nothing but women. They press against the velvet rope. "I love you, Eldra!" a woman in front yells. He sings, and the audience sings with him.
"They think I'm trying to bring light-skinned back, but I ain't trying to do that. I'm just trying to bring back the love, baby," he murmurs and the audience swoons. They hang on his joy at being onstage. "It's good to be back," he says, pausing to take it all in.
Two weeks later, he returns to perform for New Year's Eve. More than 1,000 people have packed the club, two radio programs are broadcasting live, and for two hours, Tanisha Williams has stood rooted in the same spot, waiting for him to appear.
"He's a legend. He would have been bigger than MJ" if the drugs hadn't gotten him, she says. She wants an autograph. But it's past 11:30, and though no time was specified for his appearance, he hasn't shown up and she's "not having fun."
A rumor is circulating that DeBarge is sick, but suddenly, five minutes into 2011, he appears , twirling on stage, smiling, posing for pictures. He jumps up on an end table to dance. His manager, Pete Farmer, says they drove from Philadelphia rather than fly because DeBarge had food poisoning and they didn't want him throwing up on the plane.
Onstage, the singer loses his cellphone and everyone up there stops partying to find it. DeBarge exits for a while, but comes back about an hour later to do four songs.
"He looked a little tired, a little overwhelmed," Williams says later. "He's trying to impress his fans. I know he loves us, but if it was up to me, I would want him to stay and home and rest and not come out."
"God knows, I'm so tired," DeBarge says by phone several days later. His voice is soft and flat. From July through New Year's Eve, he worked nonstop. There's "so much healing in the music that God has given me, but it pulls on me and sometimes it just drains me."
He bristles at a reporter's question about whether he's sober and how he manages his sobriety. "I've been sober for two years and the way I manage my sobriety is I don't have to. I don't concentrate. When you concentrate on trying to stay sober, I think you're empowering the devil to say hey, I have a power. . . . I don't say, 'I'm a drug addict and I'm fighting every day to stay sober.' I don't buy into that philosophy. Once God makes you new, old things pass away."
The next day, Farmer calls to cancel a photo shoot. DeBarge is sick, he says: "Food poisoning."
Chico DeBarge, who says he has been sober for a year and eight months, says he hopes that one day the family will sing together again. That they will all be a part of each other's salvation and stand in sobriety, together with their brother, without the addictions that have haunted "every single child of my mother."
Williams says she believes in El's music and his recovery. She's like legions of fans who are pulling for him, not just to win the Grammys, but, finally, to win at life: "He's got a second chance, and he's got to take advantage of it."
Like the old DeBarge song says, it's something only time will reveal.
Erin Williams contributed to this report.