Happy 35th Anniversary to DeBarge’s second studio album All This Love, originally released July 22, 1982.
Clearly, DeBarge—Eldra (“El”), Bunny, Mark, and Randy—knew they would become an enduring musical force once they set their sights on California in 1979. Several of them already performed with various bands in their native Detroit, while their older siblings, the late Bobby DeBarge and Tommy DeBarge were fresh off of two classic hits, “There’ll Never Be” and “I Call Your Name,” with the funk-soul band, Switch. Initially, the siblings envisioned themselves as a gospel group called God’s Children of Harmony, but it never came to fruition.
Awestruck by their brothers’ ascension as superstars, they headed west, in hopes of securing a deal at Motown Records to hit the big time. During those humbling years as Motown’s developing stalwarts, they sharpened their songwriting and production game as collaborators for Switch (who also mentored them), while lending their talents to other acts on the label. While this was a fruitful start, they were hungry for their break in the limelight. Berry Gordy eventually saw their potential and convinced them to fire their previous managers, and they signed with Motown affiliated managers Suzanne de Passe and Madison Jones on Motown’s subsidiary label, Gordy.
Their time finally came. Well, sort of.
When their eponymous debut album The DeBarges dropped in the spring of 1981, it stalled on the charts and flopped. It wasn’t that the sibling group didn’t have a distinctive sound with their heavenly, church-fueled vocal harmonies and indelible pop-friendly R&B style. They were tremendously gifted when it came to writing infectious, deep-pocket grooves that brimmed with lasting effervescence and conviction. Artistically, their debut was hardly a dismissible effort. Not by any stretch.
An elegant slice of post-disco soul, The DeBarges alternated between sensitive ballads (“Queen of My Heart” and “What’s Your Name”) and delightful roller-rink fillers (“Strange Romance”), all anchored by the siblings’ peerless songwriting and production approach. Beneath the music’s sheen orchestration and fluffy Los Angeles R&B pulse was an enormously talented family longing to mark their place in the black pop pantheon.
However, things just hadn’t clicked. Motown didn’t provide the goods to bring their vision to the masses. The label’s crossover methodology was apparent, but the group’s tailor-made, genteel allure wasn’t enough to get them where they needed to be. While the group certainly had musical spark, their budding nuances hadn’t been refined yet.
As the group recouped from the rugged response to their debut album, they went back to the old drawing board. They altered their group name from The DeBarges to simply DeBarge and recruited their younger brother, 18-year-old James to the lineup, right after he graduated from high school. During the early part of 1982, the group swiftly worked on their sophomore platter All This Love in various studios throughout California, with El and Berry Gordy’s niece, Iris Gordy serving as the album’s primary producers. As they’d done on their debut, each sibling of the reinvigorated quintet shared songwriting chores and traded lead vocals, resulting in the project being another genuine family affair.
Where The DeBarges showcased smidges of the group’s promise, All This Love marked their breakthrough—the slam dunk moment their sound grew into a rock-solid R&B hallmark. It was more than a reintroduction. It was their great leap forward as black pop’s premier sibling group of the Eighties, setting the pace for others to come. Switch may have sowed the seeds for DeBarge’s artistic path, but their fellow mentees ran marathons with it, pushing their brand of delectable grooves and billowy balladry further than ever imagined. This breakthrough also represented their second stab at living up to Berry Gordy’s vision of them being the definitive pop successor to the Jacksons, during Motown’s troubled period in the Eighties and beyond.
They rose to the national front as fresh-faced, superstar heartthrobs that graced covers of Right On! and the American Bandstand stage, while being cherished by thousands of teenage girls, who obsessed madly over their plush good looks. It was daunting, if not facile, for their artistry and success to be measured by such a quintessential pop dynasty like the Jacksons, but little did people know that they were carving their own legacy. They had their own thing and they knew it, even if others neglected to see it.
Subtlety always stood at the forefront of DeBarge’s sound, in which large swathes of lush introspection and sheer suppleness defined the timbre of their grooves. On All This Love, this quality is magnified to the highest power. In the tradition of DeBarge’s overall body of work, the themes of romanticism and commitment are at the helm of this eight-song gem. The album’s opener, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” is a slinky funk-pop ditty, where the sweetly-nasal newcomer James dishes on the scandalous nature of an ex-lover. The gusty sleaze of “Stop! Don’t Tease Me” (US R&B #46) raises the funk edge, with a grinding bass synth groove that’s so potently steamy, one would think Minneapolis’ purple funk messiah Prince laid it down.
The inviting teases of “I Like It” brings the love fest full circle, with its laid-back, gospel-inflected melody and Randy’s agile tenor anchoring the ballad’s leading verses. Then, El’s suave countertenor commands the bridge and the remainder of the song, with the clan harmonizing the hook like there’s no tomorrow. As legend has it, Idris Gordy convinced El to utilize his high register near the end of the song, to give it a dramatic climax. El was reluctant at first; concerned that she wanted him to sound like older brother, Bobby DeBarge, who shared vocal similarities with El. Idris shot back with “you’d better thank your lucky stars if you sound even close to Bobby.” This signature ballad was composed by El, who also produced it with Gordy, along with Randy, El, and Bunny penning the lyrics. It became their first national hit, reaching #31 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B chart at number two.
Marvin Gaye’s artistry stood as a major influence on DeBarge’s sound from day one. Early traces of his influence could be heard in Bobby’s buttery vocal inflections and songwriting approach during his tenure with Switch. El certainly took cues from his brother, when writing material for the group’s debut and second album. If there’s one song in DeBarge’s oeuvre that solidifies their enduring affinity to Gaye, it would be “All This Love,” which El originally intended for him to record when he wrote it. With its easygoing jazz-soul melody, El convincingly sings on the wonderment of his lover, for she made him the changed man he became. He pleads with and reassures her that his love grows stronger for her, even with the strains that come in his life. A melodious acoustic guitar solo beautifully caps off the romantic aura of the ballad. In reaffirming Gaye’s inspiration behind the song, they smartly lift harmonic refrains from Gaye’s “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again,” a sensual album cut from his 1976 landmark suite, I Want You, for the backdrop of the song’s concluding climax.
A mighty rarity in R&B, where simple sentiments of love gave way to hyper-carnal throbs, “All This Love” struck a chord with a new generation of music lovers that yearned for vulnerability and grace. The classic staple hit #17 the Billboard Hot 100, while reaching the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts at five and one, respectively.
The remainder of All This Love comprises up-tempo stompers and airy balladry, which underscores DeBarge’s standing as consummate R&B stylists. The lively “Can’t Stop” finds the group riding the early Eighties L.A. urban-pop wave, while the Bunny-helmed, “It’s Getting Stronger” is a zesty dance jam with Bunny and El trading leads. Bunny also shines in the spotlight with her passionate lead on “My Life Begins with You,” a lovely ballad about committed love. On the Mark-helmed closer “I’m In Love with You,” understated jazz overtones roam the song’s succulent groove, with the group’s dreamy harmonies floating atop the subtle rhythms.
Determined to establish their place in the music scene, members of DeBarge were pleasantly surprised at the reception All This Love garnered. The album solidly hit number 24 on the US Billboard album chart, while reaching the R&B album chart at number three. By the summer of 1982, it would reach gold status, marking their mercurial rise to R&B superstardom. Critics and R&B purists welcomed their efforts on the album, but wondered if Motown’s pop-minded grooming eclipsed or embellished their artistic strengths. In a critical blurb for the album, the famed music critic Robert Christgau praised the work, stating that “they go against their own best instincts, bearing down on individual compositions rather than immersing themselves in sound.” He concedes with Motown’s crossover aspirations for the group, insisting that the group succeeds at the expense of the label’s hit-making approach, while disregarding the group’s singular artistry. “When they hit one—slow stuff like “All This Love” and “I Like It” is why the Lord blessed them—you can hear it breaking through and crossing over, always the Motown ideal. When they don’t, all you hear is exquisitely cautious product.”
What made All This Love an intriguing work was DeBarge’s heartfelt commitment to their craft, with unmatched focus, class, and urgency. It’s the sole reason why black contemporary music resonates strongly with its timeless grooves, as countless musicians and producers have either lifted from them or interpreted the songs over the years. While their ubiquitous R&B-pop blend reached its apogee with their 1983 magnum opus In a Special Way, All This Love was the stepping stone that made DeBarge a vital R&B institution for decades to come.