The music’s playing, there’s a celebration: the best of Debarge

This list should be forty tunes long — that’s the tragedy of the most talented singing and writing family since the Jacksons. A remarkably protracted period of drug abuse paralyzed the Debarge clan for two decades, such that when mastermind El attempted a comeback in 2010 he succumbed again. Yet he’s so blessed that his singing and piano playing remains unblemished. I can’t watch the “Ellen” performance hyperlinked without crying, and thirty-two years after becoming his biggest pop hit “Rhythm of the Night” transcends its Diane Warren songwriting credit and Lionel Richie influence as one of the last moments of levity and, yes, grace that the Debarge siblings recorded. Through several minutes of terrible clothes and scarves and failed Berry Gordy attempts to wring more dough out of another crew of troubled kids, El nevertheless owns the bridge: he knows a place where he can shake the blues right away, and the impishness with which he smiles at the camera in the video is the kind of joy you can’t fake even after smoking a dime bag. His early nineties albums I recommend to R&B fans looking for silkier descendants of Barry White and I Want You-Era Marvin Gaye; you can get them for cheap too.

My favorite Debarge story: in 2011 a student caught me listening to “I Like It,” and when I asked her if she’d grown up listening to them she said, “Alfred, this was baby-making music.” Which is why the truest line he ever sung he didn’t write: “The music’s playing, there’s a celebration.” So long as El Debarge sat in front of a keyboard the music was a celebration.

1. All This Love
2. I Like It
3. The Other Side
4. Stay With Me
5. Rhythm of the Night
6. The Secret Garden (Quincy Jones ft. Barry White, Al B Sure! and El Debarge)
7. Love Me in a Special Way
8. Time Will Reveal
9. You Wear It Well
10. Second Chance
11. A Dream
12. Stop! Don’t Tease Me
13. Love Always
14. Queen of My Heart
15. You Know What I Like

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