Music made the man.
Demons weakened the man.
Chasing demons away with music just might -- his admirers fervently hope -- remake the man.
"Fans are really rooting for him," says Gerrick Kennedy, music writer for the Los Angeles Times and "Pop & Hiss," the newspaper's music blog.
Subject of discussion? Marquee name of this weekend's City of Lights Jazz and R&B Festival: soul specialist El DeBarge, 49.
"It was a shock to hear he had fallen back into (drugs) because when we talked, he discussed the struggle, that he didn't want to go back to any of that. I knew he was clean for a very long time."
Knocked way off his personal and professional trajectory during the past couple of decades by drug abuse, scrapes with the law and a prison stint, the one-time lead vocalist of '80s hitmaking family DeBarge -- buoyed by fans whose ardor for his angelic falsetto is undimmed, and even by casual ones taken with the pure sweetness of the man -- seemed poised for the kind of magical comeback story that turns cynicism into fairy dust.
Remembered for hits both with his family and as a solo -- including "All This Love," "I Like It," "Time Will Reveal" and "The Rhythm of the Night" -- DeBarge appeared ready to rebuild his R&B cred.
Surprising the industry with a performance at the BET Awards last June after his release from a California prison, DeBarge's appearance was greeted by ecstatic fans as if he had sprinkled musical manna from heaven, and he followed up with the November release of the hopefully titled "Second Chance." After 16 dry years, the CD returned him to music industry grace, garnering him Grammy nominations for best vocalist and best R&B single.
"What's clear here is that hard times didn't diminish his soul, spiritually or musically," wrote USA Today in its review. "The gorgeous title track serves as both love ballad and life mission statement as he looks to better days ahead."
Sad irony suffuses his story since then, however, perhaps glimpsed in this quote he gave to The Washington Post in January: "I've been sober for two years and the way I manage my sobriety is I don't have to. I don't concentrate. When you concentrate on trying to stay sober, I think you're empowering the devil to say, 'Hey, I have a power.' ... Once God makes you new, old things pass away."
Apparently, the devil wasn't done. Citing a "music insider who is extremely connected with the camp of El DeBarge's label," the St. Louis-American, an African-American newspaper, reported this account of his latest relapse in February:
"DeBarge reportedly went missing during a break in a meeting at the Interscope Records building and when they found him, he was out of his mind and admitted that he'd been smoking crack. He was immediately ordered to get treatment. According to the source, El cracked under the pressure of being thrust into the music industry spotlight for the first time in years."
Unsurprisingly, this news release from a back-to-rehab DeBarge followed, announcing suspension of his tour: "I hate to disappoint my fans but it is necessary for me to take the time to work on me so that I may continue to share my music and my story with everyone."
Completing rehab earlier this month, DeBarge is set to take the stage Saturday at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheatre for the festival.
(Also on the two-day bill are jazz-funk artist Maceo Parker; blues/jazz guitarist Nick Colionne; the Philadelphia sound of Pieces of Dream; soul singer Phil Perry; Skip Martin of Kool and the Gang; and singers Kem, Dwele, N'Dambi and Ledisi and the Super Grooves.)
"I actually breathed a sigh of relief," says writer Lonnae O'Neal Parker, who profiled DeBarge for the Post, about his rehab return. "From what I understand about addiction and recovery, it's often a process of cleaning up and backsliding, cleaning up and backsliding. But one of the saddest things is that because of your celebrity, you feel trapped and cannot ask for help. That's not the case with El DeBarge. In the face of this redemption story that captivated people, he was still able to go back to rehab. It was profoundly hopeful to me."
Unavailable for an interview with the Review-Journal, DeBarge did make the media rounds on his pre-relapse comeback trail, offering up candor on his troubles. "I didn't get on drugs for any other reason than I liked the way they made me feel," DeBarge told Essence.com last October, just before the "Second Chance" release. "It didn't have anything to do with any problems I had. I wasn't stressed out or anything. It's just that a long time ago, I said, 'Let me try it,' and, you know, (the drugs) threw me a left hook."
Professionally, it's been about success that came, went and came again. Personally, it's been about severe strife that has been more unhappily consistent.
Opening on tour for Luther Vandross in 1985, the DeBarge family -- siblings Randy, Mark, Bunny, James and Eldra, i.e. "El" -- detonated like an R&B bomb on the music scene, leaving screaming fans (largely ladies) swooning.
Noting that "every DeBarge was pretty, but El was arguably the finest one," Parker's piece described how the family group was gradually beset by infighting and drug use. However, El was beginning to attract attention as a single performer, signed a contract and produced a hit single, "Who's Johnny," that went gold. Yet subsequent efforts didn't hit the same heights, and he descended into a drug-fueled haze and maze of run-ins:
Arrest for cocaine possession in 2001, receiving probation. Another arrest in 2006 for possession of a controlled substance, again earning probation. Still another arrest in 2007 stemming from a domestic dispute, the charges later dropped. Finally he lost his freedom from a 2008 bust for crack possession that violated terms of his probation, getting a two-year stretch in a California prison, where he sought drug rehabilitation and declared himself a born-again Christian upon his 2009 release.
Despite the woes of both himself and his family -- indeed, partly because of them -- Kennedy expects the El faithful to greet him with gusto. "The amount of stuff this family endured, they were almost like the Jacksons, almost a dynasty," Kennedy says. "Given all that, people feel like they're part of the family."
Spending time with him, Parker became a fan of the man, as well as the musician.
"This is the brother you want to see win," Parker says. "There's nothing not to like about El DeBarge, although he's been married and divorced three times, so there are folks who would disagree with that. But everybody in the R&B tradition, and in the African-American community understands trouble, right? That's just part of the narrative. He can fall half a million times, but as long as he keeps trying to get back up, he will have people who love him and support his recovery."
Perhaps this time, the man's demons will finally be forced offstage.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@review journal.com or 702-383-0256.