Let me warn y’all now: You will be hard pressed to find a bigger stan for the DeBarge family than me. Quite frankly, I’m surprised it took me this long to write something about them.
I always say the music, rhythm and harmony of those singing siblings is the reason I’m the audiophile I am today. My sister, who is seven years my senior, exposed me to their output at a very early age, keeping albums like “All This Love” and “In a Special Way” blasting out of our folks’ big ol’ wood-paneled stereo system. (You know, the fly ones that had the glass doors on each side.) We watched them on “Soul Train,” “American Bandstand” and “Solid Gold” in the days before BET became essential viewing for black folks, savoring every sweet note they sang. When my father and sister returned home from seeing them open for the late Luther Vandross during his 1984 tour, my sister, keenly aware of my love for Bunny DeBarge, pinned a fresh button emblazoned with the “In a Special Way” cover photo on my pajamas. Twenty-four years later, it sits proudly on my CD rack. It’s a little battered, faded and dusty, but I cherish it as much now as I did when I was a rock-headed, hyperactive 5-year-old.
It would be a number of years before I would learn that the DeBarge family’s life at Motown Records didn’t begin with Eldra, James, Mark, Randy and Bunny. Three years before “The DeBarges” was released, a sextet of soul brothers called Switch set the family’s journey at the label in motion and gave the world its first glimpse of their indelible style. Under the tutelage of executive producers Jermaine and Hazel Jackson, the late Bobby DeBarge (keyboards, drums, lead and background vocals), Tommy DeBarge (bass, background vocals), Phillip Ingram (percussion, keyboards, lead and background vocals), Jody Sims (drums, percussion and background vocals), Eddie Fluellen (keyboards, string ensemble, trombone and background vocals) and Gregory Williams (keyboards, trumpet and background vocals) launched a pearl of an album into orbit in the form of the band’s 1978 eponymous debut. Issued on Motown’s Gordy label, the album veers between the sweepingly romantic and the undeniably funky, a perfectly balanced song cycle that only hints at the greatness that would become synonymous with the DeBarge name.
As a black six-man outfit adept at churning out burners for both boudoirs and badass discos, Switch was hardly an anomaly. The same year “Switch” hit the street, funkateers like Cameo, Con Funk Shun and Kinsman Dazz (later known as The Dazz Band) were all making waves in the R&B world. Still, there was something different about the Switch sound that gave them an edge, a certain sonic savoir faire. Giving the album a solid three-star rating, Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh praised the integrity of their work, saying the band’s lack of crossover appeal may have been “proof of its quality.” These were seasoned players after all, as various members sharpened their game with bands like White Heat, an adjunct to Barry White’s musical empire, and Smash. (I actually have a copy of the very rare White Heat LP for RCA – that post will come a little later.)
Their first single, the ever-sexy Bobby DeBarge composition “There’ll Never Be,” still stands as the ultimate culmination of their diverse talents. Complete with a sprawling intro, sturdy bass-line and Bobby’s tangy falsetto, the song is a cross-generational romantic rallying cry. The one-two punch of it and the lovely Jermaine Jackson-penned ballad “I Wanna Be Closer” is likely what helped the album climb to No. 6 R&B and No. 37 pop, but that was just the beginning of the tale. The brothers funk it up in high style on “We Like to Party … Come On” and “Fever,” while the slow jams “It’s So Real” and “I Wanna Be With You” are outstanding showcases for Phillip Ingram’s silky smooth voice. While I am a big fan of his brother James I have to admit that I think Phillip’s the better singer, primarily because he does not resort to gruff histrionics to connect with you. It’s hard to deny that the intelligence of Phillip’s readings was a key part of the group’s formula and subsequent success, something for which he does not get enough credit. The fact that he never became a solo star is criminal to me.
Though he and Bobby traded leads on several cuts throughout the life of the band, the jazzy stepper “You Pulled a Switch” has to be my favorite. A lively change-of-pace number that could have been at home on an LP by Norman Connors or even Side Effect, it’s a delightful blend of nimble keys, wah-wah guitar and percolating percussion. With Bobby and Phillip riding the groove in all their glory, the cut becomes one of the many jewels in the band’s crown, proof that they were no one-trick pony.
In the years that followed the band would continue hitting the R&B charts, with the singles “I Call Your Name” and “Love Over and Over Again” landing in the Top 10. Each album release showed real signs of progress and maturity, and there’s really not a weak one in the bunch. Of the latter-day Switch LPs, 1980’s “This is My Dream” is probably the strongest; however, it would be the last to feature Bobby and Tommy DeBarge. After releasing the low-key “Switch V” in 1981 with new members Terrence Gaines and Attala Zane Giles, the band bolted for the Total Experience label sans Philip Ingram for “Am I Still Your Boyfriend?”, an oft-forgotten LP from 1984. Though the Total Experience roster boasted hit acts like The Gap Band and Yarbrough and Peoples, the magic didn’t extend to Switch and the band eventually disbanded. Amazingly, none of the band’s original studio albums are in print.
Though their time to shine was relatively short, the impact Switch made is immeasurable. Classic DeBarge singles like “Time Will Reveal” and “Love Me in a Special Way” are cut from the cloth that cloaked the Switch sound, glowing examples of the mark big brother Bobby’s approach left on his siblings. Aside from the endless Switch samples that have popped up over the last several years, I feel the DeBarge family vibe each time I listen to talented blue-eyed crooner Robin Thicke. “The Evolution of Robin Thicke” is a fitting bookend to El DeBarge’s underrated 1994 opus “Heart, Mind and Soul” – it’s a sweetly melodic, falsetto-laced excursion taken right out of the DeBarge family playbook. I’d love for him to collaborate with them someday.
The ages will birth a million imitators, but there’ll never be another Switch. Brothers to the sunny day and the soulful night, they touched the heart and soul with songs of love lost and found, and built an ageless musical template in the process.
Here’s to hoping they will one day get the praise and recognition they deserve.