Grand Rapids’ Legendary R&B Groups: Switch and Debarge
All month long, the Grand Rapids Historical Society and I will be sharing Black History facts that have taken place right here in Grand Rapids.
If you missed the last one, you can learn about the icon, Al Green – legendary R&B singer, songwriter, and pastor.
Today's Blackity Black History Fact is all about Switch and Debarge, the legendary R&B groups.
The first child of the DeBarges was Etterlene “Bunny” DeBarge, born in 1955 in Detroit. Bobby was born the next year, followed by Tommy, Randy, Marty, El, James, and Jonathan “Chico.” Twins Darrell and Carol, aka “Peaches,” were born in 1971.
Extensions of the legendary Abneys by way of their mother Etterlene or Mama D, the Debarge Family relocated to Grand Rapids from Detroit in the mid-1970s. Mama D believes her father’s musical gifts were not only passed down through her to her talented children but to their entire family.
“Every one of them has musical ability,” she said. “There is a link between my dad and every last one of my children.”
The DeBarges attended Ottawa Hills High School. With the help of Social Services, Mama D set up housekeeping on Fuller Avenue, then Giddings Street, and Griswold Street. She bought an upright piano, which she paid for in installments. The family thrived in the rich gospel music tradition at Bethel, where Mama D’s brother Bishop William C. Abney officiated and directed the choir.
Bethel was the family’s sanctuary where the Abneys mentored and loved the DeBarge children. James Abney taught El how to play chords and Bishop Abney fathered them.
“He chastised them like they were his own, and he invested and deposited into them many qualities. To this day, they remember his wisdom.”
Tommy and Bobby were the first of the DeBarges to strike out in the music world. Together with Grand Rapids native Greg Williams and Philip Ingram, James Ingram’s brother, they formed the funk group Switch under the mentorship of Jermaine Jackson, who was blown away by their ability to “switch” to different instruments during a song.
Within days of hearing their demo tape, Jackson signed the group to the Motown Records subsidiary label, Gordy, which released their self-titled debut album, Switch, in 1978. The album featured the first of several Top 10 R&B hit singles, such as “There’ll Never Be.”
After witnessing Switch’s success, Bunny, El, Marty, and Randy decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue music stardom, signing to Motown with their brother James as the group DeBarge.
DeBarge would go on to score five Top 40 pop singles, two No. 1 R&B singles, a No. 1 single on the dance chart, and three No. 1 hits on the adult contemporary chart. DeBarge was one of the few Motown success stories of the 1980s.
With the classic jams “I Like It”, “The Rhythm of the Night” and “Love Me in A Special Way”, the DeBarges are forever cemented into R&B and music history. These songs and their legendary voices continue to make the world groove. Grand Rapids is forever proud that the DeBarge family calls our city home.