has served as the coked-out patron saint for countless soul men who rightfully hear in his voice and music something sonically special and painfully honest. In his nearly forty-five year lifetime, Gaye rose from wannabe lounge lizard worshipping at the altar of Frank Sinatra to become one of the most distinctive vocalists of his generation. Coming out of the Motown music factory in the sixties, Gaye not only made hit singles (Hitchhike, If This World Was Mine), but also forced the label to think beyond their 7-inch singles mentality when he crafted the brilliant concept album Whats Going On in 1971. A hard-hitting aural statement that was sung in the softest voice, Whats Going On was as powerful as Martin Luther King marching through Selma, as strong as a Malcolm X speech, and as rousing as a Molotov cocktail thrown from a moving car during yet another civil unrest.
More than four decades later, Gayes song cycle that includes the endearing title track, Mercy Mercy Me and Inner City Blues remains a rhythmic blueprint for others to follow. While some artists mightve slacked on their studio pimpin after making a masterpiece such as this, Gaye continued to create thrilling albums for Motown that ranged from the jazzed-out blaxploitation soundtrack Trouble Man, the sexed-out Lets Get It On and the ass-out Here, My Dear. Through it all, cocaine was his main man, that good shit that would get the creative juices flowing. Im passionate about good cocaine, he once said. As documented in David Ritzs brilliant Divided Soul as well as the recently released After the Dance by Jan Gaye, brother Marvins problem was all too real when it came to his mind games. But when it came to music, his genius was on point no matter how numb his tongue mightve been.
Of course, showbiz being what it has always been, Gaye didnt receive a nod from the gatekeepers until he left Motown and released his least ambitious album Midnight Love in 1983, for which he won a Grammy. A year later, caught-up in the haze of a coke addiction that some say contributed to his brutal murder at the hands of his father, the troubled man was gone, but his zooted spirit sniffed on in the imaginations of soulful upstarts. Unfortunately, much like Charlie Parkers romantic hop-head behavior that encouraged a generation of jazz junkies to spike themselves as they searched for genius within the head-nodding solitude of their heroin habits, Gayes powdered adventures inspired legions of white line sniffers searching for the true essence of soul music at the end of their straws or rolled-up hundred dollar bills.
For some artists, issues with drugs could be the end of their careers, while other more complex cats like DAngelo, Robin Thicke, who even made a song called Cocaine, and The Weeknd, get a creative pass and their drug use has become a part of their tortured mythology. Singer/songwriter El DeBarge was yet another Marvin Gaye worshipper who would go on to struggle with his quite publicized bouts with Bolivian marching powder.
Many of us grew up watching El back when he and his siblings were signed to Motown and recorded majestic ballads (All This Love, Stay With Me), as well as the reggae tinged post-disco show stopper Rhythm Of The Night. Hailing from Grand Rapids, Michigan, the DeBarges (Bunny, Randy, Mark and El) were church kids raised on hymns and AM radio; the Carpenters were a big influence on their sound. Their big brother Bobby, who was the lead singer in Switch (founded by boyhood friend Gregory Williams), had laid the falsetto wailing groundwork for the family on classic tracks There Will Never Be and I Call Your Name.
After the Jackson brothers left Motown for Philadelphia International Records, the label needed an act that would aid them in reaching the youth market. DeBarge became the de facto contenders when they signed on the dotted line. Although lead singers El and Bunny often looked innocent as they lip-synced on Soul Train and American Bandstand, one could hear their pain masked as obsessive sensitivity on songs I Like It and A Dream. Behind the scenes, El was as talented as Prince, flexing a prowess in the studio as well as playing various instruments including keyboards. Years later, the story of the DeBarges early childhood abuse would be first reported in my 2007 Vibe story Broken Dreams, but in the 80s they played the role of naive kids who were trying to prove that the world was big enough for two singing, dancing and songwriting clans on the pop and soul charts.
However, while DeBarge were talented, as can be heard on the groups last Motown album Rhythm Of The Night, the label was already positioning El to go solo. Most people dont take family groups seriously, says veteran cultural critic Nelson George, author of Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. El incorporated complex counter-melodies and a tortured spirit into DeBarges compositions, but crossover hits like Rhythm of the Night made him into a perpetual teenager. Though El would record two solo albums for Motown, he left for Warner Brothers in the early 90s in hopes of reaching that level of stardom he felt he deserved.
On his first release In the Storm (1992), he worked with Earth, Wind & Fire maestro Maurice White who produced the sultry duet You Know What I Like, featuring Chanté Moore. It was on that album that El began to publically show his affection towards Gaye, manifest in the album art that was a direct homage to I Want You and his cover version of After the Dance with Fourplay, the smooth jazz quartet that consisted of Bob James, Lee Ritenour, Nathan East, and Harvey Mason. While the song was a hit on the jazz charts (it appeared on Fourplays debut album the year before), it did nothing in terms of elevating El to that pinnacle of real soul genius, an accomplishment that his talent most certainly warranted.
Despite Els hauntingly beautiful voice and decent material, the level of fame achieved by Michael Jackson and Prince evaded him. However, in 1993 Warner Brothers executive Benny Medina (who would later manage Jennifer Lopez and Diddy) thought hed devise a solution to transform El into a bona fide soul superstar. Initially, I got a call from Benny asking if I would work on the project, famed singer, songwriter and producer Babyface, who produced the bulk of Els 1994 follow-up Heart, Mind & Soul, told me in 2007. Not long after talking to Benny, I ran into El and we talked about working together and we just went into it. Having crafted hit song after hit song for numerous artists including Bobby Brown, Karyn White and Toni Braxton, whose debut album on his own label LaFace (a partnership with LA Reid) sold over eight million copies, Babyface was at the top of his game and very well could have made an album with anyone. Ultimately, he decided to devote his expertise and energy toward his old friend El.
Ten years before, when Babyface was a member of The Deele, they joined DeBarge on the road as the opening acts for Luther Vandross 1984 Busy Body tour. I would watch El every night and he would just kill it, Babyface said. I listened to how he approached things and I learned so much. I took a few things from him as well, but I was always a fan anyway. El is one of the most talented artists Ive known in terms of writing and voice. One thing about the DeBarges, they all have unique voices. First there was Bobby, and then El came behind him. El was sort of an upgrade. The way El plays piano, the way he arranges the vocals, its heavenly. He might be influenced by Marvin Gaye, but he is also a unique talent.
While working on the project, El lived at Babyfaces house for two months, and the two became tighter. He shared with me the pressures of Motown and his family, but he was always that funny, cool guy. Babyface produced Heart, Mind & Souls sexy first single Cant Get Enough, which reached #21 on the R&B Charts, and the scorching second joint Where Is My Love, a duet between El and him. Laughing at the memory, Babyface said, At first I didnt want to do a duet with him, because I knew he would outshine me.
Critics agreed that Heart, Mind & Soul was as close as El would ever get to making a masterpiece that was anything close to resembling the indelible albums of his spiritual mentor Marvin Gaye. The usually curmudgeonly music critic Robert Christgau referred to the project as, an overdue quest for his own genius and gave it an A- rating in his Village Voice column Consumer Guide Reviews. However, critical acclaim might make legends, but it doesnt always sell records. Despite its beautiful title track that saluted (once again) the memory of Marvin, Heart, Mind & Soul was a relative failure commercially.
While El also collaborated with Jermaine Dupri (Slide) and Tony Dofat (Special Lady), Babyface took on the project for more than a check, believing in his own heart, mind and soul that he and El would create something dazzling that would be canonized with the best of the best. Years later, sounding slightly disappointed about the outcome of Heart, Mind & Soul, Babyface conceded, El always sounds great, but he still hasnt made that record that we know he is capable of making; we didnt conquer what we set out to do. I think we made a decent record, but if we had kept working, I think we couldve made a far more important one.