R&B Albums from the Lost and Found (DeBarge edition) (Part 3): Rhythm of the Night

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.

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The siblings’ fourth album was its most commercially successful yet, although, ironically, it’s the one they had the least involvement in making (six of the nine songs surprisingly are penned by outside parties) and comes dangerously close to being an El DeBarge solo album in everything but name. [James has gone on record as admitting that the only cut he appears on is the title cut and that the group’s escalating drug use at the time was the reason behind the minimal involvement of most of the band members.] Artistically, it falls slightly shy of reaching the greatness of In a Special Way, but it’s nonetheless a very fun and solid listen and the one most likely to go over well with pop buffs. Indeed, two monster-sized pop hits emerged from the disc.

The title cut, heralding from the martial-arts-themed motion picture The Last Dragon (co-starring former Prince protégé Vanity), became the group’s all-time biggest hit on the Hot 100, soaring all the way to #3 and topping both the R&B and adult-contemporary charts. Surprisingly and interestingly enough, the playful dance tune – which distinctly calls to mind the light calypso stylings of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night)” – was produced, incongruously enough, by Richard Perry (most famous for producing albums by the likes of Nilsson, Carly Simon, and Barbra Streisand, though he’d go on to work extensively in the ‘80s with the Pointer Sisters) and written by a then-unknown songwriter by the name of Diane Warren. Warren would later go on to be one of the most prolific hit-makers of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, penning dozens upon dozens of smashes for everyone from Chicago (“Look Away”), Starship (“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”), Aerosmith (“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”), and Bad English (“When I See You Smile”) to Leann Rimes (“How Do I Live”), Roberta Flack (“Set the Night to Music”), Celine Dion (“Because You Loved Me”) and Toni Braxton (“Un-Break My Heart”) and eventually became so synonymous with ballads – power ballads in particular – that it’s frankly quite shocking to realize that she actually first made her name by writing up-tempo tunes like Laura Branigan’s “Solitaire” and “Rhythm of the Night.” Hilariously enough, DeBarge itself had become so well-known at this point for its ballads that Motown specifically had the band cut “Rhythm of the Night” to diversify their catalog and hopefully provide the band with a more dance-oriented hit single, so it’s rather ironic in hindsight that they’d turn to a writer who’d eventually became known almost exclusively for ballads!

The other big hit from the disc was the stunningly pretty Top Ten ballad “Who’s Holding Donna Now,” penned by the legendary songwriter/producer David Foster, Jay Graydon (the co-writer of George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around,” Al Jarreau’s “Mornin’” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone”), Randy Goodrum (best known for writing Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me” and “Broken-Hearted Me,” Steve Perry’s “Oh, Sherrie,” Toto’s “I’ll Be Over You,” and Michael Johnson’s “Bluer Than Blue,” though he’d also penned the criminally-underappreciated R&B hit “20/20” for George Benson.) Though the lyric is distinctly the work of someone other than El DeBarge, the actual melody of the song and the track’s gently-soulful vibe make it fit surprisingly comfortably into the band’s body of work – it’s really not that far a cry from, say, “All This Love” – and El really commits himself to the song and delivers a knockout vocal on the track that ranks among his finest moments as a singer, not in the least due to his impassioned ad-libs during the song’s extended fade. [Fun trivia: the background vocals on the cut were provided by Richard Page and Steven George, both of the pop/rock band Mr. Mister of “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings” fame!] Though the song remains the siblings’ second-biggest crossover hit, it’s strangely – and sadly – become somewhat forgotten to time and doesn’t pop up on the radio dial nearly as frequently these days as lower-charting sides like “Time Will Reveal” or “All This Love.”

Though there are no other Top 40 hits on the album, “You Wear It Well” didn’t miss by much – it stopped at #46. [It did much better on the R&B charts, climbing all the way to #7, and would even top the Hot Dance Club Play survey, no mean feat for a band primarily known for its ballads!] The track is also notable for being the most self-contained moment on the album – El (who both arranged and produced the cut) penned the song with brother Chico, also providing all the keyboards and drums, while Tommy and Mark provide bass and percussion, respectively. The Time’s Jesse Johnson makes a guest appearance on the track as well, providing all the red-hot guitar licks.

The disc also spawned a fourth Hot 100 entry in the Diane Warren-penned “The Heart Is Not So Smart,” which, like “Rhythm of the Night,” is uncharacteristically up-tempo compared to most of the songs in her vast body of work and even boasts a distinctly tropical flavor (there’s even a steel-drum player featured on the cut!). Like the title cut, it’s a playful and very infectious tune – why Warren doesn’t write songs like this anymore is a bit of a mystery – and deserved to fare much better than it did, but it sadly stopped at #75.    

Other highlights here include the warm and hook-heavy adult-contemporary up-tempo R&B of “Give It Up,” a rare lead-vocal turn from Mark, and “Single Heart,” a duet between El and Bunny that hails from the film D.C. Cab and is both written and produced by the legendary Giorgio Moroder (best known for his extensive work with Donna Summer and Irene Cara, in addition to co-writing and producing Blondie’s “Call Me.”) The album’s entire first side is rather hook-loaded, in fact, and the disc only falls flat midway through its second side, owing to the mildly-awkward dance tune “The Walls (Came Tumbling Down)” and the lovely-but-redundant “Share My World,” which had already appeared in identical form on The DeBarges. But that momentary lull is quickly made up for by the title cut, which ends the disc on as winning a note as one could wish for. 

And then … just like that, the family’s reign come to a sudden end. El’s solo career got off to a monster start with the Top Ten pop success of the oft-forgotten “Who’s Johnny,” the theme song to the big-screen comedy Short Circuit, but his little subsequent success was exclusively confined to the R&B charts after that and only his featured credit as one of the all-star lead vocalists on the Quincy Jones single “The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)” – Barry White, Al B. Sure!, and James Ingram are the other three vocalists on the cut – prevents him from being a one-hit-wonder on the pop charts as a solo artist. With El – as well as sister Bunny, who had similarly followed El’s lead and gone solo – no longer in the group, DeBarge attempted to carry on as a quartet with brother Bobby replacing his two departed younger siblings, but the group’s next – and, as it would turn out, final – album, 1987’s Bad Boys, was a commercial bomb, and both Bobby and Chico ended up getting arrested the following year for drug trafficking, the two remaining brothers in the band consequently deciding to call it a day. But in 2009, James’ lovely and talented daughter Kristinia would bring the family name back to the forefront after signing a deal with Island/Def Jam and scoring a much-deserved Top Twenty pop hit with the fun, bubbly teen-pop of “Goodbye,” which fused the chorus of Steam’s enduring Number One hit “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” to a feisty stomping beat, while her famous uncle El would resurface the following year with his first solo album in sixteen years, the critically-lauded Second Chance, and just as unexpectedly pop up in cameo form on Saturday Night Live in 2016 performing alongside Kanye West for the song “Highlights.”