DeBarge would skyrocket into another realm of superstardom with 1983’s In a Special Way
Bunny DeBarge looks back thirty years later.
By the beginning of the 1980s, Eldra “El” DeBarge, Randy DeBarge, Mark DeBarge, James DeBarge, and Etterlene “Bunny” DeBarge had moved across the country from Michigan to California to chase their musical aspirations, signed a recording contract with one of the biggest labels in the world, and experienced their first taste of mainstream success. After releasing gold-selling All This Love in 1982, DeBarge would skyrocket into another realm of superstardom with their next effort. On September 24, 1983, In a Special Way was released by Motown Records, and it became their second highly successful album within two years. The record would spawn three singles, including the hits “Time Will Reveal,” “Love Me in a Special Way,” and “Stay with Me.”
During the recording of the album, all five members played an integral role in the success of it through their eclectic vocal techniques and production methodologies. In a Special Way set the stage for the group’s ascendancy to legendary status among music aficionados. As a result, it became their highest-selling album until the release of 1985’s Rhythm of the Night. For the album’s thirtieth anniversary, I spoke with Bunny DeBarge-Knight about recording this timeless record.
What is the story behind forming the group and your role in shaping it?
Bunny DeBarge-Knight: Well, when we were children, we were performing music. We came from the church, and coming from the church, we could only do church music. One day, we saw the Jackson 5 on television and they were a family that was performing together, and all of us were astonished by that. We figured we could do what they were doing. We left it there, but each one of us always felt in the back of our minds that one day we were going to pursue a career in music. So my brother Bobby was the first one to step out on his own and go into the secular world, and he was very successful. El, Randy, and I came together more so than Mark and James, because everyone had kind of went their separate ways, when we became teenagers. I was still singing in church and doing my solo thing, when I decided to go work with the younger boys, which were El, Randy, and Mark. Mark went on to Detroit to join a jazz group, so that left El, Randy, and I, which I say became the foundation of Debarge, because we were the ones that really wrote and learned how to get our blend together.
We started out in a group called God’s Children of Harmony. After Bobby left to form the group Switch, we tried to get a gospel recording contract, and that’s what we wanted to do first. But they didn’t know where to place us. So from there, since Bobby became successful with Motown, we decided to join him in the secular world also to pursue a musical career. That’s how DeBarge started. James was much younger back then, and that’s why on our first album it was just four of us in the group.
For many of the classic album pieces I’ve written, the church has been a large influence on many great Black musicians. Can you talk about that specific influence on your group and how it impacted your recording style?
As a family, we tended to talk alike, so that went for the singing and music as well. We would practice everyday. We worked on making our singing parts blend together and watching each other’s mouths, and we made an art out of doing that particular style. We were very much into Andrae Crouch and the Edwin Hawkins Singers growing up. But we wanted to create our own distinctive sound. I think, with us being Black and White, we didn’t sound like Black people or White people, so that kept us in the middle. Once we started listening to secular music, we would listen to music coming out of Grand Rapids because there wasn’t a soul music station there. So we started listening to White artists. One of the biggest influences on our sound was the Carpenters. We liked the way they harmonized their backgrounds, and we patterned ourselves after their style. We always wanted to have our own sound, and we did! I don’t think we were gospel singers. We were more toward the inspirational type of singers, because we never changed our sound coming from the church to the secular world. We kept the same music, but we changed the words.
Coming off the success from the All This Love album, what type of direction was the group looking to take the sound in for your In a Special Way album?
We never tried to sound like our contemporaries. We just wrote songs together and whatever the sound was became the sound. We were accepted by Motown to do our own sound. It was quite unusual back then for a new group to come in and produce their own songs. But Berry Gordy heard us, and he really liked our sound. And, with Bobby being there before us, he created his own sound, and they liked it, too. So it helped us to be able to do our own stuff. There wasn’t anyone out there that sounded like us except for Bobby. They really believed in our sound, so we never thought about changing it.
You mentioned Motown, and your brother’s relationship with the label before you signed with them. How did that process take shape?
We kept being disappointed by gospel music labels, because they didn’t know how to market our group. Since Bobby was already in California, and with Motown, we decided we would go out there with him. It started with the boys first. Mark went, Randy went, El went, and then eventually I went out there. They went out there, because a guy named Bernd Litchers got a group together which consisted of my brothers and two other guys. They were signed to Source Records. Chuck Brown was the only artist on that label back then. Somehow one of their masters was taken by someone, and they sold the tape to Bernd Litchers, who was in contact with the president of Source Records, Logan Westbrooks. They were actually out there promoting this album that had my brother Bobby’s voice on it and pretending it was them. I had no idea this was happening because I was the last one to go out to California. When I got there, they already signed contracts with this label. I very upset about it. I felt like it was going to stop us from doing our own thing. I was green, and I didn’t know anything about the recording industry.
So, I went up there to him [Westbrooks], and I asked him to let my brothers’ out of their contract. I told him we had too much talent and that we weren’t going to promote that album. We had God’s favor. Mr. Westbrooks did something and I didn’t know about it until after it happened, but he did something that record companies don’t normally do, and he let us go from our contract. I always say that God was there for us. So we were with a group called SMASH on Source Records. From there, we went to Motown to perform in a showcase, and Bobby set that up for us. He was quite busy at that time, but I was doing a lot of talking with the secretary of Jermaine [Jackson] and Hazel [Gordy], and she was schooling me on what I could do. They couldn’t even talk to us, because that would be seen as a breach of contract. So I had to get them out their contract first, and then, they would be able to talk to us. The guys went back home for a little bit, but I had to get them back out there, because the Motown showcase was scheduled for a couple days later. When they came back, we got with Jermaine and the rest is history.
Who was responsible for coming up with the harmonies and melodies for this particular album?
It was a joint effort between El and I. As a family, we weren’t together in the beginning of the record. On the first three albums, we worked together as a group on harmony parts for the songs. We made sure that everybody had a song on the album. If someone came with a half a song, we would finish it together. If someone came with half of the lyrics, we would finish the lyrics. So El and I would do the harmony parts. We were more balladeers than up-tempo songwriters. James and Mark wrote more of the up-tempo songs, but El, Randy, and I wrote ballads, and we were the ones to sing the ballads. Because we had sung together in a group before, El, Randy, and I had a bond and really learned how to sing together. For El, Randy, and I, it was more natural to come up with ballads. It was natural for Mark to come with jazzy sounding tunes and James brought the funk. We were able to collaborate with them. It wasn’t something natural that we came up with. So they would come up with the foundation for a funk or jazz tune, and we would collaborate.
Were the songs for the album constructed inside or outside of the studio?
For this album, each sibling was given two songs to do. We would bring the song ideas to El. I would sing my ideas to him, because I didn’t play an instrument. I would sing my ideas into a tape recorder. I would sing my bass part. When I wrote “A Dream,” I wrote the bass part first. I had the name of the song, some of the lyrics, the concept for it, and the melody. I brought it to El, and we sat down and we would work on it. Sometimes we would go to Motown’s offices on the seventeenth floor. They had a sixteen-track studio, and we would lay our parts down there before we would take it to the big studio. All five of us would be in the studio together.
What was the creative dynamic between the five members of the group during the recording process?
Well, James usually came to the studio with his songs finished. James would do a lot of work with Billy Preston. He would come in knowing how he wanted his song to sound. James also played the keyboards and drums. So, he would do all that when he came in. But, the way we would work together, would be on the lyrics and the background harmony parts. Once we had a song and a melody, we would write it right then and there. Everything might not have been written in stone, but as we would go on later and start singing the melodies, sometimes we would change a verse or a word somewhere within the song. As far as writing songs, some of them came in completed. “Love Me in a Special Way” came to us completed. El had that written already. The only lyric he didn’t have was “what more can I say?” Everything else was in there. He kept saying, “I just need this little sentence.” I told him, “I love the song. I love the message of the song. El, what more can you say?” And he said, “That’s it!” So that’s where he got that lyric from.
It took us a few months to record the entire album. We went into the studio to complete the album, because we had time to work it out before we got in the actual recording studio to know where we were going. We had time to figure out who we were going to get to play the strings and what they would sound like on our records. We had a chance to figure out, if we were going to have horns on the record, and who would do the horn parts. It would take us a while to work on one song. We would have sessions where we would work on just the rhythm section for a song. That would consist of El being on the keyboards, a drummer, and a bass player. We would lay down what they did. Then, there would be a day for the guitar player. And we would lay that down. Before we would put strings or horns on a record, we would do our background parts. It was like covering. When we would go into the big studio, we would have the actual song, but as the song progressed from the rhythm track to the background parts, we would see where we wanted the strings to go, and how we wanted to build the song.
What were some the instruments the group used while constructing this album?
El used the Roland 88. We used a clavinet, a Fender Rhodes bass, but it wasn’t so much the instruments, it was the musicians who played on this album. We had Paul Jackson on guitar. We had Harvey Mason on drums. We had Nathan East on bass. It was about the people who played these instruments and arranged the strings on our records.
You had some of the best musicians to ever walk the earth playing on this record. What was that experience like?
It was great; it was really overwhelming. Many of those musicians were people we looked up to. We were fans of theirs. We never thought we would play with them. I remember being in a studio session, and El was telling Harvey Mason and Joe Sample what to do. And I watched how amazed they were watching my little brother. It was an overwhelming feeling. I’ve always been the number one fan of my brothers. I always knew they were great, but now they were playing with the greatest musicians in the world, and the world knew they were great.
What was the atmosphere behind the scenes during the making of this album?
There was a ton of laughter and food. I think a lot of money was wasted in the budget. They let us do pretty much what we wanted. With the guys being young, they had a lot of girls coming in and out of the studio. It was just a lot of fun. When you’re having fun, time goes by so fast. We were doing what we loved. It never felt like work to us. We always had a thing where we used to say, if there was an argument going on, none of it would come out on the track. At the beginning of our sessions, we used to pray, especially, before we started singing together, because it would come out on a track. When things were going well and we got a good night’s sleep, we came in knowing what we were supposed to do, and that’s when things went along smoothly.
During the making of this album, what was your most memorable moment?
My most memorable moment was doing the “A Dream” song. Barney Perkins, the engineer for the album, loved that song. Whenever we would come into the studio to record, that would be on. I remember when I was in there to record my final vocal, we would always do a vocal before just to let the horns and strings know where the vocal was, so they could play around it. The time came for me to do my final vocal, and all the guys were in the middle of the room and I was in the vocal booth. I could see them through the window, and everybody was listening. El was telling me what to do. He kept saying, “Do that part over.” I asked him, “What’s wrong with it?” I was getting frustrated with him. I could see that their minds were in another place. I tried to get them to stay focused, but one by one, I would see the boys leaving the room. I’d look around and El was gone, then Mark and Bobby were gone, and all of a sudden, everyone was gone. I’m sitting there wondering where everyone went to. The guys went out because they invited some girls over. We had been in the studio for a couple days straight. They were trying to look for some fun time. There were always girls around my brothers. [laughs] I was upset with them because they all left, and I had to go looking for them. It wasn’t just the boys, but Barney left as well. [laughs] I was surprised by how great the song turned out. I was able to pull it off.
Working with my brothers was a thrill. Toward the ending of the album, when time was winding down, Mr. Gordy was looking for us to come through, because we had a deadline. There were some songs that needed to have the final lead vocal completed. The lead vocal is the one that brings everything home. Some things started to happen and the guys were fussing among each other. When you have eight brothers and they’re all good looking and women are after them, there was some conflict going on between them. With me being the only girl and the oldest, I became the mediator. Things were ready to come down on us, and we had to get that album finished. I got them together and told them, “Hey, we have to get this album finished.” The pressure was on El more so than anyone else, because he was the producer of that album. We had to come back together as a family, and we were able to do it. We were a close-knit family. This was the last album where we were able to really create as a family.
Take me through the creative process in making each song.
“Be My Lady” was a song that James wrote. He had that pretty much finished when he came to the studio. He knew how he wanted it to sound. He and I worked together on the backgrounds for the song.
“Stay With Me” was a song that Mark brought to the table. There was some conflict on who was going to sing the song. It started out as everyone was going to sing their own songs, but it ended up that El got to sing lead on all the songs except for the ones I wrote. When the song was brought in, it wasn’t quite finished, and we were trying to get him [Mark] to come in to give his input, but we couldn’t find him, so El and I went in and finished the song. And El had to end up singing the song.
“Time Will Reveal” was written between El, Bobby, and I. We actually wrote that at home. We were sitting around, and El was at the keyboards and sung his part. Bobby wrote the bridge to the song. The song was finished by the time we went to the studio. We knew who we were going to get to play on it. As I said before, for the ballads, it was Randy, El, and I doing the background vocals. El and I wrote the lyrics for this song.
“Need Somebody” was a record that lost a lot in the mixing of it. To me, it sounded better before it was mixed. It was much funkier. The mix watered it down. James did that song at Billy Preston’s house first and brought it into the studio from there. I’m not on the backgrounds for this one.
“Love Me in a Special Way” was really a gospel song. The lyrics aren’t, but it has that type of feel. El played the baby grand piano on this tune. You can actually hear how great of a piano player he is on this song. You can also hear where he’s from, because it has a gospel feel.
“Queen of My Heart” was from our first album entitled The DeBarges. This album failed, because we went and got outside managers, who didn’t promote it at all. We had to drop our outside managers and come back and get inside managers, which happened to be Berry Gordy, Suzanne De Passe, and Tony Jones. On this song, you could hear that we were fresh out of the church. Most of the songs from our first album were written before we appeared in the Motown showcase. Those songs were written when we first came to California searching for a record deal. This is when we were with Source Records, and we were hoping to do our first album with them. We wrote those songs for that, but we winded up doing the songs for Motown.
“Baby, Won’t Cha Come Quick?” this song was one of El’s first up-tempo songs. This was during his beginning years of writing up-tempo songs.
“I Give Up on You” was a song written by my brother James and Billy Preston. They were very close. They recorded this song at Billy’s house.
The fact that so many hip-hop acts have sampled songs from this album speaks volumes to the longevity of it, and the classic material that’s on it. As you look back thirty years later, how do you feel about the impact it has made on popular culture?
I believe that it’s a God thing. We were raised in the church and things have come full circle. Only what you do for Christ will last. I believe God gave us the platform to perform and tell the world who our God is. I believe there was an anointing on those songs. They were real love songs, and a lot of the younger people grew up with our songs and it stayed with them. I’m proud of our legacy, and I’ll always be my brothers’ number one fan. I think we all miss one another, and it’s time for the DeBarge family to get back together to write another hit and create more magic.
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