DeBarge weren’t always perfection by any means, but when they nailed it – and I’m talking about their ballads here – to paraphrase Stacy Lattisaw, they f—ing nailed it to the wall. Their 20th Century Masters/The Millenium Collection best-of brings together 6 slow(er) songs and 5 uptempo, labeled ‘Smooth’ and ‘Groove’ respectively, to cement their legacy, and does a better job than you might expect.
First and foremost: the four brothers and one sister named DeBarge were not like the Jacksons nor the Jets in that they were writing and producing their material from day one. The four selections not written by at least one DeBarge sibling are all from 1985 and ’86 – the lesser part of their short time as a group – and are largely negligible. [And of those four, three are on the “groove” side, which is essentially throwaway.] The strength of El(dra), Randy, Mark, Bobby and Bunny was always their balladry, and that’s what shines here.
Based on its use as a sample, you may be (without realizing it) most familiar with 1985’s “Stay With Me,” produced by El and written by Mark; its main piano riff was used as the backbone of both The Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance (Remix)” and Ashanti’s “Foolish.” If that’s the only way you’ve known the song, however, you’ve been missing out on a sweetly-sung, gorgeous piece of balladry. “Won’t you come stay with me, because I love you so?” El asks, and, well, why wouldn’t you? Come-ons don’t come much prettier.
Their streak of huge (R&B) hits started back in ’82 with “I Like It,” which justifiably topped the Black Singles chart for 5 weeks. A slow’n’easy pledge of devotion (well, near-devotion at least – you can tell he’s been hooked) spotlighting El’s fierce falsetto and some classic keyb underpinning, “I Like It” features another element key to DeBarge love: a surprisingly hard-poppin’ bassline. Seriously, this bassline could stand up to any Gap Band record from the same era, and what’s so great about it is that it catches you off-guard; ballads aren’t supposed to have basslines like that.
In much the same way that even an early-’80s devotee of R&B might not anticipate hearing a piano intro like that featured on “Love Me In A Special Way,” which comes off very gospel in its construction (thanks to songwriter/producer Eldra). This classic’s also got a harmonica guest spot from (who else?) Stevie Wonder, and strings arranged by Claire Fischer, who did the same on many of Prince’s records. El’s voice here is clear as a bell’s peals cutting through the morning air, and the arrangement’s kept nicely clean, the better to hear the lyrics of l-o-v-e. The song is the quasi-title track from 1984’s In A Special Way (an album given an astounding A+ review by Robert Christgau, one of the chief pieces of rockcrit that made me wanna do what I do), the album which also gave the world “Time Will Reveal.”
Besides sporting another one of those shocking-in-its-day basslines, “Time Will Reveal” also has a melody sturdy as California redwood, so fine that Teddy Riley remade the song with BLACKstreet on 1996’s Finally as the retooled “The Lord Will Reveal.” [Thanks to Riley’s acumen as a producer and arranger, the song lost none of its beauty in the transition.] This is yet another DeBarge smash which highlights El’s heartbreakingly lovely falsetto, as well. Tellingly, no uptempo tracks from this album appear on 20th Century Masters; I’d tell you that it’s simply because that was never the DeBarge strength.
One such song from early in their career makes an appearance here, 1982’s “Stop! Don’t Tease Me,” their first charted single (it scraped its way to #46 on the R&B chart). It’s workmanlike and mediocre and best, frankly, and also shows why Eldra’s brothers were backup singers (their contributions on the song’s chorus – well, some things are better left unsaid, or in this case, unsung). It’s not surprising that it took the song’s follow-up, “I Like It,” to truly launch DeBarge as an act worth paying attention to.
Also on the ‘Groove’ “side” (it’s a CD, people) are the vile Diane Warren-penned, Richard Perry-produced “Rhythm of the Night” (sadly and unsurprisingly, their biggest crossover hit, which thanks to Perry sounds like a tepid Pointer Sisters single), the equally weak “Caribbean”-inspired/Warren-penned (and she certainly deserves all of the blame here) “The Heart Is Not So Smart,” and the solo El smash “Who’s Johnny” (also from a lame soundtrack, but better than you likely recall; further discussion here).
But there’s another song found here which is a little surprising: 1985’s we’re-about-to-spin-El-off-as-a-solo-artist single “You Wear It Well,” credited to “El DeBarge featuring DeBarge” (shades of “Wham! Featuring George Michael”). Lyrically, it’s a total throwaway, not even a patch on Rod Stewart’s ’72 hit of the same name. And El unfortunately slips into a vaguely annoying “cutesy” kinda voice on the song’s bridge. But something about the song’s arrangement just crackles and pops with energy in spite of itself. (Interestingly, the song was cowritten by El and his future D’Angelo-in-training brother Chico.)
Of the songs I’ve not covered, “Who’s Holding Donna Now?” is pretty in its bland way and entirely songwriter David Foster’s fault, and “All This Love” you should most certainly know already. (It’s in the canon, it’s so classic.) Hopefully, one of these days, Universal will get around to remastering In A Special Way at least, if not All This Love as well. Until that happens, this comp will get you by and may open your eyes. Because the blinding brilliance of their great ballads more than compensates for the mediocrity-at-best of the rest, DeBarge’s 20th Century Masters gets an A.