Since the late 1980s, El DeBarge saw his career crumble under a haze of cocaine and heroin. Just last October, he ended a 13-month stint in prison over drug possession.
But at age 49, the singer with the sweet falsetto voice is forging an unlikely comeback.
Known in the 1980s for his role as lead singer of DeBarge (”Rhythm of the Night,” “All This Love”) and solo artist (”Who’s Holding Donna Now,” “Who’s Johnny”), he signed a deal earlier this year Interscope Records. (He was set to open for Mary J. Blige Saturday at Chastain Park Amphitheatre but recently pulled out and changed his tour dates. Instead, he is going to be at Center Stage October 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets go on sale for $24 at noon Friday.)
DeBarge’s current single, an emotional ballad appropriately titled “Second Chance,” quickly jumped into the top 20 on the urban adult contemporary radio charts. Locally, Atlanta powerhouse R & B/hip-hop station V-103 has given the song plenty of spins and invited him to perform at its recent For Sisters Only conference at the Georgia World Congress Center. (see below)
“Second chance is in the air,” he said in an interview before the concert. “It was in the atmosphere. My manager saw it. Interscope saw it. I clearly saw it. It was God who gave me a second chance. I’m living again. It’s joyful just to feel pain, even to cry.”
Prior to the concert, DeBarge nervously walked around the green room, doing vocal exercises and sipping hot tea with honey to sooth a sore throat. He autographed a few copies of a recent cover story about him in Ebony magazine.
“They managed to make me look good on that cover,” he mused. The last time he recalled being on that magazine cover? “Before they invented dirt!” he joked. “A long time.”
DeBarge said his drug problems began in 1986, at age 25, during the peak of his career. He first tried pot, then moved to heroin and crack cocaine. By 1994, after his final solo album with Warner Brothers, he said drugs “became my reason for living,” not music.
It wasn’t until he landed in jail in 2008 that he broke the addiction.
His big public reemergence was a spirited, surprise performance at the BET Awards in June where T.I. is seen swaying to “All This Love.” “It was awesome for me,” he said. “I turned around in that stool and people were screaming and joyful and passionate toward me. I used that to strengthen me.”
Unlike some high-profile artists, drug problems have not damaged his voice. He can still hit the high ones.
“My whole energy level was weak during the whole drug period,” he said. “My strength came back full force after I got off from drugs. By the grace of God, my voice is still here.”
Here’s part of my interview with him. (I did some more off camera.)