Singer El DeBarge

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter talks about his new CD, his more than 20-year battle with drug addiction and how his comeback was possible.

El DeBarge has one of R&B's most distinctive voices. The sixth of ten children, his signature falsetto has anchored 16 Top 10 hits, as part of the family group DeBarge and as a solo artist. He recently returned to the spotlight, after 16 years away, with rave reviews—and two Grammy nods—for his fifth solo project, "Second Chance." Labeled a child prodigy due to his vocal and keyboard skills, DeBarge released his self-titled solo debut in '86. He's also contributed to tracks by DJ Quik and the RZA and has been touring in support of his new CD.


Tavis: El DeBarge is the phenomenally talented front man for one of my favorite groups of all time, DeBarge. He is out now with his first solo project in over 15 years – hard to believe. The new disc, now nominated for two Grammys, is called, appropriately enough, “Second Chance.” Here now some of the video for the title track, “Second Chance.”
Tavis: You still got it, man; you still got it, El. Golly. (Laughter) I crack up every time I see you because for those who don’t know – and this is unheard of in this industry – so El is, like, 49 years – can I say that?
El DeBarge: Yeah.
Tavis: I think I just did.
DeBarge: Yeah, you just did.
Tavis: So El’s almost 50 – keep that camera on El. What you’re looking at is an almost 50-year-old man who had a drug problem for two decades, and God has protected the look, the aesthetic, he’s protected the voice, and El is back with a CD that I am just absolutely in love with. God loves you.
DeBarge: I love him.
Tavis: Yeah.
DeBarge: He loves us all, man. I’m just here to be a testimony of his grace and his goodness and his love for all mankind.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact, though, as I said, that you’re not a spring chicken anymore. First of all, you didn’t get my memo – you never come to my show dressed better than I am.
DeBarge: Okay. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s the first thing. Let’s just get that out the way right now. You cannot out-dress the host, that’s the first thing. But on a serious note, though, 20 years of battling drug addiction, and the voice, that falsetto, is still there. You still have, again, what women love about you, the look, you still have that. What do you make of the fact that you still have the voice after all these years?
DeBarge: First and foremost, we know it’s God, because you’re not supposed to survive this. You’re not supposed to survive crack, period, especially 22 years of crack. Then periodically it was heroin, and that should have took me out too, you know what I mean? The drinking and all of that.
But my heart was set for God, and he knew he had a purpose yet for me, and he knew he would rescue me, and this time, with a great testimony. So it’s even bigger and better now because I’ve come from something, and I slipped forward – I didn’t slip backwards, because I know that I won’t do the same things I did before. I won’t make the same mistakes. I’m still looking at the finish line, Tavis.
Tavis: So Prince is a good friend of mine, as you may know. He’s been on this show any number of times. Was to receive the artist of the year award, as you know, from BET. Prince showed up to receive the award, but as is the custom, the recipient of the big BET honor this year, every year, for that matter, performs.
So Prince shows up, we all recall, we all saw the show. Prince shows up to receive the award but did not perform, so we’re all assuming that one of the reasons why you sang so many songs on that show is that Prince, for whatever reason, did not perform that night. Whether that’s true or not, the point is that you came on stage at the BET awards a couple of times – once to do your new song, “Second Chance.”
Then you come back out and you do this medley. You killed the BET. I was not watching it that night when it aired, but my phone started blowing up, the computer started popping off, and everybody’s like, “You have to see El.”
DeBarge: Wow.
Tavis: So I couldn’t get to a TV fast enough to rewind to see what you had done. I raised all that to ask what this BET appearance did to revive this career.
DeBarge: What it did for me is priceless to me, because all of the millions of viewers that saw me that night on BET, they had a second chance to see my second chance.
Tavis: Mm, I like that, yeah.
DeBarge: They saw me nervous, they saw –
Tavis: You were nervous that night?
DeBarge: Oh, they saw me – but they saw the triumph that God had wrought in me.
Tavis: But you were nervous, though?
DeBarge: Oh, I was very nervous.
Tavis: Wow.
DeBarge: I was very, and I turned around on that stage and everybody was cheering and just full of joy and up on their feet, and that’s what got me through it. But prior to that, I was nervous. BET, I’ll never, never, ever forget them for this wonderful blessing they gave to me, to be on the 10th annual BET awards for my comeback.
Tavis: This song that I referenced, “Second Chance,” it is – y’all are working it, because you could not have picked a better song with a more potent lyric to come back the way you’ve come back. But tell me about the song, “Second Chance,” and how you landed on that song.
DeBarge: “Second Chance” is a song that was in the making the whole time of my drug addiction, because I was calling out for that second chance. I was saying, “God, rescue me. Give it to me again. Please, help me.” But clearly, I have to get healed first; I have to get well first. But then when I get well, will there be a second chance for me? Will people still want to hear my voice? Will they forgive me?
“Second Chance” is not just about my drug addiction, my comeback from drugs, but it’s also – it commemorates and speaks the sentiments of a lot of people’s hearts out there in the whole world looking for second chances, in marriages. They’ve lost jobs; they’ve lost homes, mortgages – second chance.
Tavis: You and I have talked about this privately and publicly, and you’ve shared with me that there were people, drug dealers, when you were caught up in this for 22 years, who were such fans of yours, who adored you so much, loved your family so much, like all the rest of us do, they wouldn’t even sell you – you were trying to buy, and there were certain folks who said, “I am not, El DeBarge, going to sell you no drugs.”
DeBarge: They wouldn’t sell it to me. They couldn’t. Then they ran – they were the heads of certain districts where drugs were sold, certain areas, and they called to all their people and they said, “If you see him -” (Laughter) They were even – some people told me, they said, “Man, I can’t do it because he’ll shut me down,” (laughter) or “He’ll beat me up if I give it to you, man, you know what I mean? I can’t do it, El.” (Laughter)
Tavis: So people really were protecting you from yourself.
DeBarge: They said, man, I – now, that’s interesting, because most of the drug dealers that we all know, they don’t care.
Tavis: Exactly.
DeBarge: They just want the money. But the anointing of God was so heavy on me that it even reached their spirit, and I think they found themselves compelled to follow a role that their feet was on. They just said, “No, I just can’t do it, man.”
Tavis: You know that’s the Holy Ghost, when drug dealers turn down money. (Laughter) Ain’t nothing but the Holy Ghost (unintelligible).
DeBarge: My mama told me I’m not fit for nothing but the kingdom of God. (Laughter)
Tavis: And your mama’s right, but your mama’s statement is true for all of us, though.
DeBarge: Yes.
Tavis: Ron Isley, another great artist, iconic artist, on this program just a few weeks ago. I asked Ron this question. I’m going to ask you the same question, and I think the answer is going to be the same. So Ron was telling me when he was on lockdown that the brothers insisted that he perform. I assume that you must have had the same.
DeBarge: Pretty much. (Laughter)
Tavis: So on the one hand, the brothers on the street won’t sell you drugs.
DeBarge: Right.
Tavis: But the brothers in prison must have told you that if you didn’t sing, you were going to be in trouble.
DeBarge: Well, the thing is they get an attitude if – (laughter) it’s like I sang and I sang, and then the one time that I said, “Well, man, I’m tired,” “Well (unintelligible) crackhead, you ought to be glad somebody wants you to sing.” (Laughter) I said, “What? What, man?”
Tavis: So when they said, “Sing,” you had to skip to it.
DeBarge: Oh, man, because you never know, you might need them the next day to help you out (unintelligible). (Laughter)
Tavis: How did you – this is not the way you were raised, this ain’t the experience that you grew up having in Michigan. We grew up in the same church. How did you survive being in a place where you had no business being? That’s just not who you are.
DeBarge: It’s clearly not who I am. I hid most of the time. I found myself hiding in my own house. That’s how bad it had my mind. I have a house with four bedrooms, and I’d be in a closet, 24/7, just in the closet, just stuck, wondering how in the world did I get myself into this, but how do I get out of it?
I didn’t really hang out that much with people. I tried to stay to myself. But you’ve got to get out because you want more drugs, you know what I mean? So I don’t know, I was – that was my biggest question: How did I get here? This is not me.
Tavis: So you’re back, and you’re back in a big way, and I know the question that many people are asking is whether or not you can handle – I saw a quote the other day. “Be careful of the catastrophe that success can bring.” You feel competent to handle all this? Because it’s back, and it’s hitting you so fast. Everybody’s glad you’re back and everybody wants to hear the record?
DeBarge: The way you can be careful of the catastrophe that success can bring is by paying attention to something else that comes along with success – responsibility. Along with success comes responsibility. Keep your eye on what you’re responsible to and what you’re responsible for, and that’ll keep you right.
Tavis: Tell me about the music. When your “Second Chance,” of course, the title track, but when you’re putting together a record that ain’t just a record, this is the first time in 15 years you’ve done the solo thing, everybody’s waiting to hear it, we want to see if the chops are still there, we know that El DeBarge, DeBarge family sound, that (unintelligible) sound that we’re used to hearing.
How do you go about putting together a record that you think is going to work for us?
DeBarge: Oh, my goodness, Tavis, I felt the pressure from the first song (laughter), from writing the first song (unintelligible) the first song, from Jimmy Jam to Terry Lewis, Babyface, the Isley Brothers, everybody on this album, Ron Fair. It’s like everybody, every time I got behind the mic, it was like just listening. (Laughter)
So we put together a great feel-good album, man. We took our time, as much time as we were allowed to take. My manager, Peter Farmer, was very instrumental in putting all these producers together and putting all the songwriters together with me.
Then we finished this beautiful album, and then I go out on tour, and then I got the audience looking at me like this. (Laughter)
Tavis: So you’re used to this by now, huh?
DeBarge: They’re like, “You’d better not hit a wrong note or I wish you would.” (Laughter)
Tavis: I wish you would.
DeBarge: I’m going to know something. (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, you know what? I’m one of those people who was doing like this. (Laughter) Recently here in L.A. a wonderful organization, wonderful group called CARRY, one of my physicians, Dr. Pearl Grimes, just a wonderful sister, and has an organization that works with at-risk youth, saves kids all across this city.
I was a recipient of an award at this event and I was excited to receive the award, very nice honor, but I really went, with all due respect to Dr. Grimes, because El DeBarge was the entertainment that night, and I wanted to see if he still had it.
So here’s El, a little footage here of El on stage working it out, and when I say this Negro killed it, he killed it. It was the most amazing experience. I was in my seat trying to be cool, and there I am. (Laughter) I couldn’t keep still. So I get up and I can’t decide whether I want to dance or whether I want to sing.
And there’s me, and then you see Martin Lawrence is there, there’s Dr. Grimes, somewhere on that dance floor is Cedric the entertainer. We had the most wonderful experience with CARRY and these young people, but El, you brought that thing to life. When I heard you that night live and I’m two feet from the stage, I’m like this – El is back.
DeBarge: Wasn’t that so much fun? I had a lot of fun that night, man.
Tavis: But you made it possible for all of us.
DeBarge: Wow, everybody was –
Tavis: You brought so much joy to so many people that night.
DeBarge: I’m full of joy. I have a song on my CD called, “Joyful.”
Tavis: I heard it today.
DeBarge: I’m full of joy, man. I’m so joyful – exceedingly. (Laughs)
Tavis: He’s talented, and I’m just – I’m going to stop before I start crying, because for those of us who are DeBarge family fans, we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, for El to be back, to be himself and to give us what he gives so well, that beautiful voice, and lyrics that you – see, part of what makes your stuff so great is that you sing stuff that everybody can sing along with.
We don’t sound like you, but the lyrical content – (laughter) well, I do in my shower, of course. But we can sing along and the stuff is just so uplifting. So El, I could not be more happy that you are back, and congratulations.
DeBarge: Thank you so much, Tavis.
Tavis: Oh, man, I’m honored to have you here. The new CD from El DeBarge is called, appropriately again, “Second Chance.” If you don’t get but one record this year, you have to get this and add it to your collection. El DeBarge, good to have you here. That’s our show for tonight.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm