The DeBarge family are the children of Etterlene DeBarge (née Abney), a Black American gospel singer born in Royal Oak, Michigan in 1935 and Robert Louis DeBarge, Sr. (1932–2009), an American soldier of French and English descent born in Cicero, Illinois . They married when Etterlene was 17, a year after the death of her father James Abney, a church choir leader and peanut retailer. They separated in the mid-1970s and divorced in 1974. Etterlene remembers Robert DeBarge, Sr. as physically and emotionally abusive to her and the children, and said he used her youth, the absence of her father, and continuous pregnancy to control her. DeBarge, Sr. has been characterized as "domineering and physically abusive to his wife," and some of the DeBarge children have accused him of having sexually abused them. Bunny Debarge, the eldest, recalls being sexually abused by him between the ages of seven to 13.
The group, named for their shared surname, hailed from the East Side of Detroit, where the siblings were born and raised; they later relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Members included sister Etterlene (or "Bunny") and brothers Mark (or "Marty"), William (or "Randy"), Eldra (or "El"), and James (younger siblings Chico, Darell, and Carol "Peaches" DeBarge are also singers though not with the group).
Early years of the group
The siblings who became DeBarge started performing in various groups together in the Detroit, Michigan area in the mid 1970s. In 1979, brothers Randy, Mark, and El were part of the SMASH band, which was a release on Source Records/MCA in the USA/Canada before it was released as Pall Mall Groove HOT ICE in Germany by Polydor. Bernd Lichters, who rented a home in Cerritos, CA, bought them instruments, and they were mentored by members of the Motown group Switch, including their elder brothers Tommy and Bobby and co-founding member and family friend Gregory Williams. Bunny DeBarge had joined her younger brothers in 1979 as well, and they formed as The DeBarges in 1980. That year, because of Bobby's success with Switch, younger brother El was able to perform live on the piano and sing for Motown CEO and founder Berry Gordy, who was impressed by the group and agreed to sign them that year. For a year the group worked alongside members of Switch, helping to add background vocals, instrumentation, arranging, and musical and lyrical composition to the band's works, most prominently in "I Call Your Name", "My Friend in the Sky", and "Love Over and Over Again".
By 1981, Bobby and Tommy had left Switch and returned the favor to their siblings working with them on their debut album, which was released that year with Bobby, Bunny, and El as main producers. The only single, the Bobby-led ballad "What's Your Name", failed to chart.
In 1982, they added their brother James and cousin Cameron to the lineup and worked on their second album, All This Love, produced by El and Iris Gordy. The album launched them into R&B stardom with the records "I Like It" and "All This Love". Both songs also became crossover pop hits with "All This Love" later going to number one on Billboard's adult contemporary chart. In 1983, the group made an impression after appearing on Motown 25, where they performed alongside High Inergy. Later in 1983, the group issued their third album, In a Special Way, which spawned two further hit singles, "Time Will Reveal" and "Love Me in a Special Way". Like All This Love before it, the album reached gold status in the United States.
Following that album's success, DeBarge were handpicked by Luther Vandross to open for him on his "Busy Body Tour" to support his album of the same name. Also in 1984, James DeBarge made headlines when he secretly eloped with Janet Jackson of the famed Jackson family, but their marriage was quickly annulled the following year.
When the tour ended in late 1984, the group recorded the Diane Warren composition, "Rhythm of the Night", for the soundtrack to the Motown-produced film, Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon from 1985. The song was released in early 1985 and became a hit single, eventually reaching the top five in several countries, mainly in the US and UK, becoming the band's biggest-selling and their best-known hit.
DeBarge released six studio albums, four of them with Motown subsidiary Gordy Records. These albums included The DeBarges (1981), All This Love (1982), In a Special Way (1983), and Rhythm of the Night (1985). The latter became the group's best-selling album and contained the single "Rhythm of the Night", which hit No. 3 on the US Billboard Hot 100, making it their highest charting single in America. In the mid-1980s, El and Bunny each went solo and DeBarge was subsequently released from its contract.