by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
They’re one of the most heavily-sampled acts in all of rap and hip-hop and their silky-smooth ballads made them R&B legends. And yet DeBarge strangely commands little attention from most music critics, and their music – though it’s never really gone away, living on both in the form of samples and as staples on stations specializing in smooth-jazz or quiet-storm-styled formats; their biggest pop hit, “Rhythm of the Night,” would even pop back up in the 2016 all-female remake of Ghostbusters alongside a brilliantly funny pun name-checking the group, a joke that must have flown over the heads of countless younger moviegoers – doesn’t get nearly the exposure on radio you would expect it to have from its sheer reputation, particularly among diehard R&B enthusiasts.
They were never as much of a commercial force as the Jacksons, but much like that legendary family, the DeBarge clan was absolutely overflowing with talent. The actual five members of DeBarge itself – Bunny (the eldest child in the family) and younger brothers El, James, Randy, and Mark – comprised just half of the offspring in Robert and Etterlene DeBarge’s very musical family. Robert and Etterlene’s two eldest sons, Tommy and Bobby, had made it big as the bassist and keyboardist, respectively, for the late ‘70s funk band (and Gordy Records recording act) Switch, who had found greater success on the R&B surveys than on the pop market, though they did manage to secure themselves a place in the annals of Top 40 history with “There’ll Never Be,” which managed to cross over and crawl its way up to a #36 placing. Brother Chico DeBarge, the third youngest of the ten children, would embark on a solo career in 1986 and score a sizable, near-Top-Twenty pop hit with “Talk to Me.” [Coincidentally, the two musical families were briefly intertwined both by business – it would be Jermaine Jackson who brought both Switch and DeBarge to Motown’s attention and got both bands their label deals with Gordy – and by marriage: James was famously briefly married to Janet Jackson from 1984 to 1985, just before her own musical career broke wide open with the release of Control.]
The group’s debut, 1981’s The DeBarges, was a commercial flop (though the cuts “Share My World” and “Queen of My Heart” would be re-purposed on later, better-selling studio efforts), but the siblings soldiered on, adding brothers James to the group, and the follow-up disc, 1982’s All This Love, would prove to be their breakthrough. It’s also their lone disc to be co-produced by Iris Gordy (the niece of Motown founder Berry Gordy and formerly married to singer-songwriter Johnny Bristol), a former VP at Motown who had also co-written the Originals’ hit “The Bells.”
It’s not exactly clear from the liner notes just how much of the instrumentation was actually provided by the siblings; El and James are credited with playing keyboards, Randy bass, and Mark trumpet and saxophone, but there is a long laundry list of session musicians who also make appearances on the disc, including the great bassist “Ready” Freddie Washington, drummers Ollie E. Brown and Ricky Lawson, and saxophonist (and smooth-jazz radio staple) Gerald Albright. But little matter – it sounds fabulous regardless, and the group is still a relatively self-contained outfit, writing nearly all their own material (only one cut here comes from outside the family) and crafting nearly all of the rhythm and vocal arrangements themselves. [In fact, this is easily the group’s most democratic album, each sibling getting a chance to contribute to the writing. Though El sings lead on the cut, the jazzy closer “I’m in Love with You” is actually penned by Mark, while new member James offers up the funky opener “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” arguably the best of the more dance-oriented tunes included here, though El’s playful “Stop! Don’t Tease Me” is a close runner-up.]
“I Like It,” penned by Randy, El, and Bunny and sung by El and Randy, wasn’t the biggest hit here, but it might be the album’s most heavily sampled song. It’s cropped up not just in Warren G and Mack 10’s “I Want It All,” but two different Nelly hits as well, “Ride wit Me” and “My Place.” It’s easy to see why the song is so revered by hip-hop producers: its rhythm track is simultaneously sparse yet dynamic, assembling a winning easy-going groove on little more than a piano, a bass, and a simple drumbeat, with a small horn section providing light decoration.
Although it’s El who, as the primary songwriter and vocalist in the group, typically commands the lion’s share of attention in the group, the group’s secret weapon is arguably sister Bunny, who is no slouch in the songwriting department herself and both writes and sings lead on the show-stealing “Life Begins with You.” “All This Love” and “I Like It” may sound like more obvious hits, but the Bunny-led ballad arguably stands behind only those two singles for the title of the best song on this disc.
But it’s the album’s title cut that remains the album’s best-known song and has become an R&B classic. Both written and sung by El, the mellow, electric piano-driven single – which boasts just a slight hint of bossa-nova and fittingly and effectively employs congas as the primary percussion for the song’s gentle verses – is a perfect showcase for all of El’s many talents, and his vocal on the cut is as warm and perfectly nuanced a performance as he’s ever turned in and serves as a textbook example of why he is so highly revered as a singer. As if El’s vocal and the equally excellent rhythm track weren’t enough to render the cut intoxicating, it’s put completely over the top by a brilliantly-conceived cameo from the legendary Jose Feliciano (best known for his cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and, of course, the seasonal classic “Felix Navidad”), who provides a sultry acoustic guitar solo that could not possibly be more lovely. [Rapper Da Brat would go on to sample the song in her hit “Ghetto Love.”]