DeBarge's Tragic Real-Life Story

If you grew up during the 1980s, congratulations, you're almost old. And as an almost-fogey you probably have memories of the musically gifted DeBarge siblings warehoused in the cobwebs of your brain. The Debarges' musical legacy started with brothers Tommy and Bobby, who formed a funk group called Switch. Then came the tremendously popular music group DeBarge, which originally consisted of siblings El, Bunny, Marty, and Randy, and was later joined by brothers James and Bobby. An eighth DeBarge, Chico, made waves as a solo act but was considered a part of the larger DeBarge constellation.

In short, it was a big family. Their biggest success was the 1985 DeBarge hit "Rhythm of the Night," which featured in the film The Last Dragon. However, their personal lives have been defined by discord. Between their struggles with addiction, the crimes they suffered and committed, and the soap-opera-like drama they created, the DeBarges were like a reality-TV version of Requiem for a Dream, only more depressing.

The sins of the father

According to their mother Etterlene (above), the DeBarge siblings had music in their blood. Speaking with MLive, the matriarch recalled that her father, a choir director, was a deeply talented and entertaining musician. One of 11 children herself, Etterlene would have 10 kids, most of whom became famous musicians in the 1980s. While the DeBarges might have taken after their grandfather talent-wise, their father Robert DeBarge Sr. may have had the largest impact.

Etterlene met Robert shortly after her father died. She was 17 and romantically inexperienced. Robert was four years older, in the army, and white, which made him socially forbidden fruit. Unfortunately, he was also "insanely jealous," according to Etterlene, and ordered her not to wear jewelry, makeup, or anything else that might attract another man. After a hasty wedding, things rapidly went downhill. Etterlene said Robert tormented her physically and emotionally, even keeping her "continuously pregnant."

Etterlene's children had horrific memories of their father. "My father sexually molested a lot of my brothers and sisters," Chico DeBarge told Vibe. Bobby allegedly took the bulk of the abuse, but all the children suffered. Bunny would blame the siblings' professional woes and personal struggles on the ugliness they endured as children. Robert Sr. denied ever abusing his family, but something certainly scarred them.

El flies solo

It's easy to spot similarities between the DeBarges and the Jacksons (yes, those Jacksons). Eight of the 10 DeBarge siblings had music careers while all nine Jacksons had solo hits. The Jackson 5 and DeBarge were successful Motown acts, and each had a member named Randy. By extension, that makes El DeBarge the Michael Jackson of the DeBarges. (Heck, he kind of sounded like Michael with a slight cold.)

As the Michael of the group, El received special treatment from Motown architect Berry Gordy, who saw El as a budding solo artist. But the prospect of being split up "was very painful" for the close-knit siblings, according to their mother. "El being set apart caused each one of them to have bad feelings," she recalled in 2011. However, in a 1986 interview with the LA Times, El seemed to remember things a little differently, explaining, "I wanted to move out of the group and give the others some creative space."

El officially started dancing to his own drum beat after DeBarge released Rhythm of the Night, but he stumbled out of the gate. Previously hailed as the creative soul of DeBarge, he did zero writing or producing for his first solo album, plainly titled El DeBarge. He blamed his lack of involvement on a failed romance, but it wasn't his only source of sadness. El felt lonely without his siblings.

El flies off the handle

In a 1985 interview with the LA Times, El DeBarge made a weirdly unsettling admission: "There are these personalities in me, so many of them." As if that wasn't ominous enough, the singer also confessed to fighting some of his multiple personalities before adding, "I don't enjoy some of them and I know other people don't enjoy them either." The police especially didn't enjoy them.

In 1986 El pleaded no-contest to causing a misdemeanor disturbance after a Michigan woman accused him of attacking her. As reported by Jet, the 25-year-old singer had allegedly "pulled her hair, dragged her to the floor, and hit her" when she refused his advances at a hotel. El copped a plea and received a $200 fine plus 200 hours of community service. That's not even a slap on the wrist for a wealthy musician — more like a wrist massage.

In 2007 the singer found himself in handcuffs again, this time for possible domestic violence. Afterward, El's more peaceful personalities appeared to take over, but in 2018 TMZ revealed he tried to settle an argument by arming himself with a wrench and chasing a dude. The dude, who wanted no part of El or his wrench, fled to an RV, at which point El bashed in the vehicle's windshield. He was charged with felony vandalism.

The star-crossed marriage of James DeBarge and Janet Jackson

Far too often in life, we're forced to choose between career success and personal happiness. In Janet Jackson's case, pursuing stardom meant shattering James DeBarge's heart. As People detailed, in 1984 Janet (Ms. Jackson, if you're nasty) eloped with James DeBarge (above). But her manager wanted to cultivate the image of nasty Janet, not a carnally unavailable married woman. Plus, Janet's family wasn't exactly thrilled about the union, which caught them off guard.

Not everyone seemed startled by the elopement. As El told the LA Times in 1985, the Jacksons and DeBarges had known each other for years by that point. In fact, Jermaine Jackson helped at least six different DeBarges get started in the music industry. Plus, according to El, James and Janet had been seeing each other for two years and it had "all been peaches 'n' cream." Then again, one brother's dessert might be another brother's tumultuous marriage.

Rumor had it that Janet and James were clashing like plaid and polka dots, and the Daily Beast reported that James was depressed and on drugs. Of course, if they were fighting, it might have been because Janet's manager relentlessly pressured her to leave her husband. The badgering seemed to work, and the marriage was annulled in 1985. James was shattered, telling People, "She wasn't just my wife, she was my sister, my mother, everything."

In the grip of addiction

1980s PSAs told kids to just say no to drugs, but that was much easier said than done for the DeBarge family. Peer pressure played a big part for Bunny DeBarge, who dabbled in cocaine before transitioning to pills. In 2007 she explained to Vibe, "If you weren't doing drugs, you weren't in."

The siblings allegedly witnessed and experienced monstrous abuse by their father, which on its own could send anyone to a dark place. But the DeBarges also had to cope with the callous self-interest of the music business. According to their mother, Etterlene, Motown didn't care about her kids' emotional welfare and eventually had them "fighting like enemies." She further charged that El Debarge turned to drugs partly because "he just couldn't deal with all the people in the music industry" and their cutthroat tactics.

When the DeBarges weren't doing drugs, they were doing time for drugs. In 1988 Chico and Bobby were convicted on drug trafficking charges and sentenced to six years apiece. In 1990 Tommy (of Switch fame) sold fake cocaine to an undercover officer. In 2012 CBS reported that Mark, James, and El were all arrested for unrelated cases of drug possession.

Bobby's bitter farewell

Legendary Motown founder Berry Gordy reportedly called Bobby DeBarge "the most talented artist I have signed." Keep in mind that Motown had signed megastars like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the Jackson 5, and Marvin Gaye, to name a few, so that's saying something. Music producer Bernd Lichters said he'd "never heard anyone sound quite like [Bobby], and with so much ease."

Musically, Bobby could do it all — sing, write, produce. He also dated LaToya Jackson for a spell. Unfortunately, the one thing he couldn't seem to do was heal. Described by Vibe as "a tortured soul" with an attractive exterior, Bobby sunk into heroin addiction and never resurfaced. Perhaps his problems resulted from alleged molestation by his father, as Bobby's sibling claimed. Or maybe fame simply provided too many temptations and imposed too few restrictions. Regardless of why it began, the ending was drawn out and agonizing.

While serving a six-year prison sentence for drug offenses Bobby discovered he had HIV. Gregory Williams, who attended school with Bobby and performed alongside him in the group Switch, recalled that the singer's "last years were hell." Bobby grew paranoid and distant from his family as his health declined. He managed to complete a final album, It's Not Over, but realized that his life was ending. His family placed him in hospice, and in 1995, at just 39 years old, Bobby DeBarge died from AIDS-related health problems.

The trials of Chico

Jonathan "Chico" DeBarge was determined not to ride his famous siblings' coattails. But as the LA Times pointed out, when Chico released his first album in 1986, DeBarge was already a household name and people frequently mistook him for a former member of the singing group. And Chico himself admitted that he didn't have the greatest singing voice. However, being a DeBarge didn't always give him a leg up.

In school, Chico's classmates were used to him being poor, so when his siblings started raking in cash, "some kids couldn't handle that," according to Chico. Race added another layer of tension. Born to a white father and a mother with black and Native American roots, Chico always received unwanted attention. Rich or poor, his family made him a target for ridicule, so he got into a lot of fights growing up.

In adulthood Chico fought the law. Guess who won. As detailed by ThoughtCo, shortly after releasing his second album in 1988, Chico got busted for trying to traffic coke with his brother Bobby. He rose from the ashes like a lukewarm phoenix, making a somewhat successful comeback in the late '90s. But things went downhill again when he was stabbed outside a nightclub in 2003. While recuperating from his injuries Chico started abusing painkillers and then moved on to heroin. This resulted in another drug-related arrest in 2007.

James and Janet's mythical baby

There's no credible evidence that Janet Jackson and James DeBarge created a DeJackson (or JaBarge) together. But for decades rumors swirled that the two secretly conceived a child during their year-long marriage. Supposedly, this baby was raised by Janet's sister or maybe placed in foster care. But since both singers claimed to be baby-free, it seemed safe to assume the rumors were poppycock. Then, 2016, happened. On an episode of the reality series Growing Up Hip Hop, James suddenly claimed he and Janet had a child.

Why wait 31 years to drop such a bombshell? "I got tired of the secrecy," James explained on the show. But he might have had another reason. As Entertainment Tonight mentioned, Janet was expecting her first (real) baby. Was James desperate for attention from his ex-wife or the media? Not according to his mother and some woman named Tiffany. Tiffany contacted Mamma DeBarge claiming to be her not-so-mythical granddaughter. To prove their relatedness, she even took a DNA test that was supposedly shared with Inside Edition in 2017.

The test showed a 96.7 percent probability that Tiffany was related to James' mom, which proved nothing because nobody confirmed the test's authenticity. Thankfully, Radar Online stepped in to play Maury Povich. James and Tiffany submitted DNA samples for testing and, shockingly, they weren't father and daughter. But even if they were, it wouldn't prove that Janet was Tiffany's mom because biology doesn't work that way.

A wealth of health problems

Given enough time, everyone's body will break down and eventually stop working altogether. But celebrities tend to accelerate that process by indulging in narcotics and other naughtiness. In 2007, family matriarch Etterlene DeBarge told Jet that "life in the fast lane has caught up with her children."

According to Etterlene's memoir, The Other Side of Pain, her son Tommy, whose funk group Switch had a string of R&B hits, ended up on kidney dialysis. Mark, who formed part of the group DeBarge, was reduced to walking around on crutches due to "chronic debilitation in his legs." Fellow DeBarge member Randy allegedly contracted incurable illness. Etterlene declined to specify what illness he had except that it wasn't AIDS. Her son Bobby, who achieved success with both Switch and DeBarge, did die of AIDS.

Bunny DeBarge, meanwhile, battled drug addiction and breast cancer. She managed to beat breast cancer, but drugs seemed to have her number. In 2011 Bunny's daughter Janae tearfully confronted her about her ongoing substance abuse on an episode of Dr. Drew's Lifechangers. Whether it changed Bunny's life is unclear.

A dozen kids and a thousand missed chances

Throughout his career El DeBarge regularly felt the rhythm of the night, as did the women he spent the night with, which is how El wound up with 12 kids. Per the Toronto Star, the singer has credited his children with helping him get through tough times. But he hasn't always been there for them.

In 2010 El met with his daughter Kendall for the first time in 15 years. "When my daughter was born, I held her in my arms. I haven't seen her since," he told the Houston Chronicle. Their reunion went well, but El struggled to connect with some of his children. Speaking with Jet, he revealed that at least two of his kids "got used to [him] not being around."

Part of the reason El wasn't around his kids was his crippling drug addiction, which led to bouts of homelessness and a 13-month prison stint. In fact, in 2010 he couldn't even locate his 3-year-old daughter because he "lost" her "to the system" while hooked on drugs. However, that year he was also a Grammy-nominated artist who said he'd seen the light: "I'm not even thinking about any drugs. The devil had his chance to destroy me. He can't do it now." The following year he entered rehab and in 2012 he was busted for allegedly trying to sell drugs. Hopefully, in the long run El will follow the advice he offered fans: "Just learn from my mistakes."