When Berry Gordy signed Switch to Gordy/Motown Records in 1977, it signaled that a new sound and image was emerging out of the famed hit factory. Discovered in the label’s Los Angeles office elevator by Jermaine Jackson and his then wife, Hazel Gordy Jackson, the multi-talented funk, R&B, soul and pop sextet consisting of Bobby DeBarge, Phillip Ingram, Gregory Williams, Jody Sims, Tommy DeBarge and Eddie Fluellen were impeccable multi-instrumentalists, songwriters, producers and vocalists with tight harmonies.
The Grand Rapids, Michigan and Akron, Ohio-based performers cranked out tender mid-tempo ballads (“There’ll Never Be,” “I Call Your Name” and “Love Over and Over Again”), slow jams (“I Wanna Be Closer”), lush melodies and arrangements (“A Better Tomorrow” and “My Friend in the Sky”) and dance grooves (“Best Beat in Town”). Coming at a time when acts like The Commodores, Rick James and the Stone City Band, and Teena Marie were giving Motown’s “Sound of Young America” a makeover, Switch were seemingly set to be Gordy’s golden boys.
“When Berry Gordy saw us, he told us nothing could mess us up but us,” says Ingram, Switch’s co-lead vocalist, keyboardist, percussionist and brother of singer-songwriter James Ingram. “He individualized us as a band with talents. He wanted to treat us as he had The Jackson Five. He felt the guys were nice looking and talented. There was nothing like us, so that’s probably where we were heading.”
Prior to signing with Motown, Bobby (DeBarge), Williams and Sims were members of Barry White’s side project, White Heat. The Maestro’s proteges released their self-titled debut effort in 1975 via RCA Records and White’s imprint, Soul Unlimited. The album tanked. However, the experience was the first time the three entertainers landed in a recording studio.
Williams, a trumpeter and keyboardist, recalls that year-and-a-half in White Heat being a school of hard knocks despite his admiration for White. “To be honest about it, we learned to watch Barry,” says Williams. “We learned about business: never sign a contract without an attorney [laughs]. We may have done a couple of events. We weren’t allowed to perform live. We had a little stipend, so there wasn’t a whole lot to do or learn.”
White Heat disbanded in 1975 when White left RCA. Williams and Sims recalibrated themselves, rounding out Switch’s lineup during their stint in Ohio. Switch’s 1978 self-titled debut album was certified platinum. Their sophomore release the following year, Switch II, went gold.
Commercial success came with costs. Drugs, excess, ego and failed romantic relationships began to interfere with Switch’s momentum. The band released three subsequent albums (1980’s Ready for Tomorrow and This is My Dream, followed by 1981’s Switch V) under Motown before signing a new deal with Total Experience Records in 1982. Switch released their own project on the label, Am I Still Your Boyfriend?, two years after signing the deal. Williams, Sims and Fluellen were the only members remaining from the original lineup.
Bobby and Tommy proceeded to help develop their younger siblings, who became the successful family act, DeBarge, also a Motown act. Bobby, also bisexual, never fully healed old wounds of abuse by his father and a lifelong battle with drug addiction. The immensely-talented falsetto, pianist, drummer and melody maker was sentenced to five years in prison in 1988 for drug trafficking. Tommy, Switch’s bassist, was also arrested and sentenced to prison for drugs. Tragically, Bobby succumbed to AIDS in 1995 at age 39.
Switch’s music continues to find new life in contemporary music. Their compositions have been covered by groups like Boyz II Men and SWV. Hip-hop and R&B acts De La Soul, Big Sean, Rich Boy, Raheem DeVaughn, 2Pac, Common, Master P, Ne-Yo, Erykah Badu, Lil KeKe, The Game and Queen Pen have each sampled or reimagined Switch’s work. The standing group members are flattered their original music has been repurposed by a new generation of performers.
“It’s awesome. It’s incredible,” declares Williams. “This is why we started. We play music, and we wanted it to be heard. It’s a blessing quite frankly for that music to be copied. I love they thought enough of our music to do it. I made a decent amount of money off of Rich Boy (“Throw Some D’s”), and that don’t hurt nobody either.”
Adds Williams: “The most important thing is for something that we had done in our youth to live so long and we know it’s gonna outlive us, that’s awesome. You can’t ask for more than that.”
Fluellen echoes Williams’ sentiments: reflecting on De La Soul’s “The Future” sampling Switch’s “A Better Tomorrow.” “It’s an extreme honor. When De La Soul used my song, I was wowed by how they took our music to make that.”
Capturing Switch’s story for TV One’s Unsung, the band agrees, was long overdue. Their episode (which airs this Sunday, July 23rd at 10/9c) had been in discussion since DeBarge was profiled in the show’s inaugural season. Williams, who appeared in the DeBarge episode, is also releasing a memoir, Switch, DeBarge, Motown & Me, this fall. He says TV One assured him Switch would get their just due if the show became a success.
“Finally, we got the call earlier this year,” says Williams. “Forty-two minutes cannot depict the story of our lives, but I think very highly of it. Our story is unsung, untold and underrated. We’re seizing the moment in telling it here.”
Ingram, who completed a stint as faculty at the California College of Music and lent his voice to films like The Little Mermaid, The Prince of Egypt and Shrek, appreciates the opportunity to use Unsung as a vehicle to introduce past fans and younger generations to Switch’s story, while clearing the air on a few details.
“There are some misconceptions as to whose records were whose,” says Ingram. “They get mixed up with who DeBarge is and who Switch is. James [Ingram] and I are brothers, but they don’t get us mixed up. Because Bobby and El sound so similar, they really do get mixed up. This story is the good, bad and ugly, which everybody has.”
WATCH Switch’s Unsung profile on TV One this Sunday, July 23rd at 10/9c | Details