Recent airings of the new made-for-TV movie “The Bobby DeBarge Story” along with the 2017 Unsung episode about his former band, Switch – plus an earlier 2008 episode showcasing his siblings’ group DeBarge – have reminded fans just how much talent this family really had.
Unfortunately, the TV broadcasts also told the sad, darker stories about the family that touched on common themes of physical and emotional abuse, drug addictions, and an inability to properly deal with those problems at the times when they needed to most. Each show shed light on why all of their careers never really saw their fullest potentials given the many challenges they faced – some of which were never truly overcome.
Despite all their demons – primarily suffered at the hands of an abusive father and drug addictions that more than half the singing siblings struggled with – the DeBarge family collectively made a musical mark in the 1970s and ‘80s that, at their peak, rivaled just about anyone else’s. They created a large musical legacy that included producing two of the greatest falsetto singers in R&B history with brother Bobby and later El DeBarge.
The music they made included several No. 1 R&B chart hits, even more top tens, and quite a few pop Top-40 crossovers. In addition, their albums contain some non-hit cult classics, including two songs (“Stay With Me” and “A Dream”) that are among the most sampled in hip-hop history – both principally written by sister Bunny (I hope she got paid handsomely for hits like “One More Chance” by The Notorious B.I.G. and “Foolish” by Ashanti, or “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” by 2Pac or “Don’t Leave Me” by Blackstreet).
This blog pays tribute to those tunes and more by the eight eldest famous musical siblings with a special ranking of their 25 best songs! It’s an exclusive ranking that combines songs by the group that started it all – Switch – which included the two oldest brothers Bobby and Tommy, plus the group DeBarge (eldest sibling Bunny and younger brothers Randy, Mark, El and James), and finally Jonathan “Chico” DeBarge.
Also included are songs by El as a solo singer (yes, “Who’s Johnny?” is a guilty pleasure that made the list!).
Now before you go down memory lane by scrolling through this list, there’s a disclaimer. This ranking – from No. 25 to No. 1 (yep, we always start from the bottom) – is the result of one blogger’s opinion. It’s a combination of which songs this writer liked most with which ones did the best on the charts and those that left a large impression on music fans in general. Several album cuts are included that weren’t released as singles but had a huge impact nonetheless.
You’ll likely have a different opinion on the list, so prepare yourself mentally to comment on where you think the songs should rank and which ones should have been omitted or included that weren’t. You can comment either at the bottom of this page or on the blog’s Facebook or Twitter feeds.
The band’s third album ‘Reaching For Tomorrow’ is regarded as a throwaway that marked the beginning of Switch’s downturn. Still, it contained a near-miss top-40 Soul chart hit with this one, a mid-tempo song featuring the more subdued tenor/falsetto of late co-lead singer Bobby DeBarge.
A dreamy mid-tempo ballad from Switch’s second album featuring Bobby on lead vocals. The melody is irresistible. Great way to kick-off the album. The “la-la-la’s” practically cemented their heartthrob status - that and Bobby’s distinctive falsetto.
Another song in the mid-tempo category, this one was from El’s solo debut album in 1986. Slightly overshadowed by “Who’s Johnny?,” this one peaked at No. 32 on the Billboard Soul chart and No. 70 on the Hot 100. It also reached the top 20 on the Adult Contemporary list.
Although their fans wanted nothing but ballads, the ‘Switch II’ album contained a number of disco tunes, including this lead-off single that reached No. 16 on the Soul chart and No. 69 pop. It’s not generally regarded as one of their best moments, but it’s a guilty pleasure that still gets this butt shaking when I hear it.
One of the most recent entries on this list, younger brother Chico DeBarge remained in the game long past the hit-making careers of his older siblings. This funky tune from 2000 just missed the R&B top 40, peaking at No. 41 that year.
This rousing 1983 anthem served as the title track to their third (and IMHO best) album, ‘In A Special Way.’ The song was released as the second single and it just missed the top 10 on the soul chart (No. 11) and the top 40 on the pop list (No. 45). El is in fine form here as he showcases his high tenor vocals.
Renewed interest in all things DeBarge led to this mini-comeback for El in 2010. With Faith Evans collaborating, El took this to the top 20 on the R&B list in 2010, making it the most recent entry on this list.
You may want to file this ballad in the sappy department, but it was a huge hit for the group in 1985 when it spent a whole month at No. 2 on the R&B list and made No. 6 pop. Not sure if you’ll ever hear the name “Donna” in a pop song ever again though.
After the disappointment of the band’s third album in 1980, Motown rush released their fourth LP the same year. It included this hit that returned them to the top-10 on the soul chart. It wasn’t much of a stretch musically, but it gave Switch fans what they wanted: familiar-sounding ballads.
With DeBarge, love is always the central theme, whether it be Switch, Debarge, Chico or El. “Love Always” was the second solo hit for El and it reached the top 10 R&B (No. 7). But like many of the family’s better songs, this was a near-miss top-40 pop crossover hit (No. 43).
Don’t hate, this is my favorite El DeBarge solo hit, and ranks up there with the rest of DeBarge’s hits as well. And I wasn’t the only one who loved it back in the day. The quirky movie tune reached No. 1 on Billboard’s soul chart and No. 3 on its pop list.
In the fall of 1979, two ballads from ‘Switch II’ were competing for airtime on R&B radio - a format that gave little regard for whether there was a single released or not. “Calling On All Girls” was one, the other is coming up later. This was a personal fave featuring the shared lead vocals of tenor Phillip Ingram (James’ little brother) and Bobby DeBarge. Just listen to Bobby’s ad-libs at the finish. Incredible.
Fourplay was a jazz/soul ensemble that scored platinum success in 1991 with their debut album. For one daring move, they recruited El DeBarge to provide lead vocals on a classic Marvin Gaye tune. The result was this smooth remake of “After The Dance,” and a million copies of the parent album being sold.
Bunny DeBarge had few shining moments with the group DeBarge. But the ones she had were memorable and - ultimately - lucrative. The first one on this list is “A Dream,” a stellar album cut from ‘In A Special Way’ that later became the foundation for ‘90s hits by Tupac (“I Ain’t Mad At Cha”) Shakur and Blackstreet (“Don’t Leave Me”).
Bunny DeBarge deferred to a higher calling as inspiration for this song she co-wrote with little brother Bobby for Switch’s 1980 ‘Reaching For Tomorrow’ album. The song has an irresistible hook that proved the band could still make good music, even if Motown’s promotion department had cooled the engines as Switch was falling out of favor with the label’s top brass.
This was the title track from the breakthrough album by Bobby and Tommy’s older sister and younger brothers in DeBarge. It’s a little known fact that El wrote this song for his idol Marvin Gaye. The guitar solo was provided by José Feliciano. Smooth performance by the five DeBarge siblings, indeed...and their first top-20 pop hit!
Okay, this is the group DeBarge’s biggest pop hit...in fact it’s the biggest song by any member of the DeBarge family. That helps it land in the top ten on this list, even though it’s not my absolute favorite by them. Pop fans may be surprised it’s not ranked ahead of the eight songs above it, but those who appreciate their funkier and more soulful fare will understand - I think.
Perhaps the funkiest song on this list belongs to younger brother Chico. It reached No. 7 R&B and No. 21 pop in 1986 - and even made the UK charts (No. 88). Fans of the DeBarge family probably already know that Chico is not the youngest sibling. He has a younger brother and sister (twins) who were born when he was 4. They don’t have any songs on this list, and “Talk To Me” is the highest-ranking song by the youngest singing sibling.
It’s ironic that El teamed up with Barry White on this Quincy Jones single, as it was Barry who helped give his older brother Bobby his start in the pre-Switch group White Heat some 15 years earlier. “The Secret Garden,” featuring four R&B titans El, Barry, Al B. Sure! And James Ingram (whose brother Phillip was co-lead vocalist in Switch) topped the R&B chart in 1990, and crossed over to the top 40 of the pop chart.
From Switch’s first album came this stellar follow-up ballad to their breakthrough hit (coming up later). “I Wanna Be Closer” was written by Jermaine Jackson and proved to be one of his best artistic moments. The song peaked at No. 22 and featured the vocals of both Phillip Ingram and Bobby DeBarge. Their first single helped this album go gold, while “Closer” had just what it took to kick the album to platinum status.
Not many people knew about this obscure cut from the group’s ‘In A Special Way’ album before Bad Boy mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs got ahold of it to use for a remix of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance” in 1995. The result was a bonafide smash for Biggie - a song that spent nine weeks at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Seven years later it was used again for Ashanti’s breakthrough solo hit, “Foolish,” a song that spent nearly 3 months on top of both the pop and R&B /Hip-Hop singles charts, and wound up as the top R&B song of 2002, and the second-biggest pop single.
This thumping, mid-tempo ballad was the first we’d hear from any member of the DeBarge family when it became a top-10 soul/top-40 pop hit in the fall of 1978. It was the first time we were introduced to Bobby’s incredible falsetto and the band’s impeccable harmonies. No wonder Jermaine Jackson had been so enamored with the band when he discovered them at Motown’s offices earlier that year. It may be Jermaine’s single biggest contribution to music when you really think about it. Without this find, we may have never known the DeBarge family and their music as we know them now.
It’s a toss-up between this breakthrough hit for DeBarge and the next song on the list as to which one ranks the highest. “I Like It,” which featured co-lead vocals by El and a rare turn at the mic for brother Randy, was a huge smash for the group and, in 1983, it spent four weeks at No. 2 on the soul chart behind Michael Jackson’s nine-week No. 1 juggernaut “Billie Jean.” That’s not bad competition to be stuck behind, but it meant that DeBarge would have to wait before getting their first chart topper, which would come at the end of the year with the next song on this list, and at the expense of Mr. Jackson himself.
Before “Rhythm of the Night” two years later, this was DeBarge’s biggest chart hit. It reached the top 20 on the pop chart and spent five big weeks at No. 1 on the soul chart. What was more intriguing was the song that “Time Will Reveal” prevented from hitting No. 1 soul. It was none other than “Say, Say, Say” by Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson, which spent a month at No. 2 behind the DeBarge smash. It was a case of turnabout being fair play in the DeBarge vs. Jackson chart war, given the reverse outcome from their two big hits earlier in the year.
“I do, you do, birds and bees do, too.”
There’s one reason this song ranks at the top of this list: Bobby DeBarge’s falsetto. There are few vocal performances that come close and it’s one that solidified Switch’s status as hitmakers after it was released as the second single from the band’s ‘Switch II’ album in the fall of 1979. “I Call Your Name” reached the top ten on the R&B chart and barely made the Hot 100 (No. 83), but it stands as the band’s signature tune - and their most memorable for soul music fans - nearly 40 years after its release. El DeBarge says in the ‘Unsung’ episode about his big brothers’ band that Bobby had more talent in his little finger than all the rest of the DeBarge family put together. That may be an overstatement, but you definitely get the picture. R.I.P. Bobby DeBarge.
Here’s a special djrobblog playlist of all the songs in the above list plus an extra by Bunny DeBarge to kick it off.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
You can also register for free to play receive notifications of future articles by visiting the home page (scroll up!).