Robert “Bobby” DeBarge, Jr.’s arrival onto the music scene in the late 1970s signaled a new era of musicianship in soul, R&B and pop. As the charismatic, biracial lead singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and producer of the incredibly talented band Switch, DeBarge’s piercing falsetto heard on “There’ll Never Be” and “I Call Your Name” landed the group on the charts, netted gold and platinum certification, led the group’s record label, Motown Records [via Gordy subsidiary], out of the era of girl and well-tailored male vocal groups, and set the tone for his younger siblings, simply named DeBarge, to also carve out their niche as a prolific, commercially viable musical family act.
On the flip side to DeBarge’s newfound fame and fortune was a dark side plagued by drug abuse and post-traumatic stress resulting from ongoing torment and child abuse at the hands of his alcoholic white father. The Grand Rapids, Michigan native’s bout with narcotics morphed into drug trafficking, landing him in prison for a five-year sentence in 1988. His life ended tragically in 1995 from AIDS, at the young age of 39.
DeBarge’s life is now the subject of a TV One-produced feature film, The Bobby DeBarge Story. Set to premiere on the network this Saturday, June 29th at 8/7C, the two-hour made-for-TV biopic recounts how his addiction and erratic behavior affected the dynamic within Switch, his record label, and of course, his family. Directed by veteran radio personality Russ Parr, The Bobby DeBarge Story favors a series of traumatic flashbacks and gut-wrenching dialogue [and at times bits of comic relief] over an influx of nostalgic musical numbers.
“The music was such a small part of Bobby’s life,” said Parr prior to the film’s premiere in Atlanta. “We’re all products of our childhood, and that’s the story. When one [of the DeBarges] hurts, they all hurt. That whole family has been affected. It’s tragic, and I just pray for their happiness.”
Roshon Fegan stars as Bobby DeBarge. The method actor seen on Greenleaf and Shake it Up stayed in character throughout production, sporting a shoulder-length wig, trembling and jerking as if he was intoxicated. Since DeBarge’s presence wasn’t available to Fegan as a resource, the black and Filipino entertainer set the bar high to bring humanity to the selfless, consummate performer on screen.
“I had to put in a lot of work just to figure out how to play him right,” said Fegan, calling his role “super inspiring.” “He was the mastermind behind it all, a legendary person and singer, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t just disappoint.”
R&B singer Lloyd makes his on-screen debut as Switch co-founder Gregory Williams. Other than “I Call Your Name,” the “Get It Shawty” and “You” performer admits to not knowing much about Switch until he read for his role. He originally read for brother Tommy DeBarge [played by actor Blue Kimble], until Parr suggested he read for Williams’ part.
Lloyd didn’t chat or meet with any of the original Switch lineup, referring to them as “unsung musical heroes.” Lloyd interpreted Williams’ character, he says, around interview footage he studied and was surprised to learn that Williams and DeBarge had been in a pre-Switch group, White Heat, founded by Barry White.
“Greg had a lot of love for Bobby,” said the soft-spoken vocalist formerly signed to Irv Gotti’s The INC imprint, “but at the same time maybe there was a bit of hypocrisy there. Everyone was doing their own wrong to each other.”
In The Bobby DeBarge Story, Bobby and his younger brother/Switch bandmate Tommy [Kimble] are both close and at odds. Tommy also acts as Bobby’s shield when conflict arises outside of the family. Dressed in full costume, Kimble shares a striking resemblance with his character. He landed his part following a viral photo of him from Halloween dressed in the curly Afro, thick mustache, and polyester garments.
Kimble, additionally drawing from his relationship with his two older brothers, says he and his co-stars immediately clicked, resulting in authentic performances. “It was an instant bond,” he said, “and the energy was great. We took time in pre-production. They’re good guys; the laughter and the fun was real. When we have those emotional scenes, it was like I’m talking to my brother.”
Fegan piggybacks off Kimble’s insights on sustaining the family dynamic on set. “Russ just put us all together and had us have a lot of fun and bond. We bonded so quickly, it really feels like we’re a family now.”
Oakland-based singer-songwriter Adrian Marcel—who recently released his new album 98TH—also makes his small screen debut as DeBarge’s frequently taunted sibling [most famously Janet Jackson’s first husband] James. The “2AM” and “Slow Burn” singer jokes that he was always called “a DeBarge” growing up because of his light skin, wavy hair, and heartthrob physical appearance.
James, in Marcel’s words, is The Bobby DeBarge Story’s “turning point,” forcing Bobby to see how his own issues filtered into him constantly bullying his younger brother. Marcel believes The Bobby DeBarge Story places mental health and PTSD in the African-American community at the forefront of the film’s subject matter. “You have to see it,” said the founder of his own imprint, Third Voice Music Group.
“We run from a lot of those issues that we dealt with. We run from it, choose not to accept it, or we don’t like to sit in it. We need to acknowledge the fact there are issues in the black community that affect us deeper than what we think. We have to step in.”
Kimble agrees with Marcel: “It’s those dynamics that have to be acknowledged, and I’m glad it’s one of the themes that’s highlighted. As black men, we need to be able to focus more, talk about our feelings, emotions, and let people know what’s going on inside of us.”
OutKast member Antwan “Big Boi” Patton assumes the role of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. The Diamond-certified, GRAMMY-winning rapper compares his portrayal to the “big brother [record executive] L.A. Reid was to him.” The Atlanta hip-hop icon concurs with both Kimble and Marcel, hoping the film acts as a cautionary tale for ongoing conversations around mental health in both African-American culture and popular music.
“For them to showcase that and to see how a black singer dealt with it is good,” Big Boi says. “The viewer can see how he got out of it, and they can take steps from that.”
A large portion of The Bobby DeBarge Story’s screen time vividly illustrates Bobby’s estranged relationship with his parents. Tyra Ferrell acts as God-fearing, blonde matriarch Etterlene DeBarge. The character and physical actress from White Men Can’t Jump, Boyz N the Hood and Poetic Justice went into her role with “a lot of judgments.” When Ferrell read Etterlene’s memoir, The Other Side of Pain, to capture poignant moments of the film, the actress says she found compassion for her character.
A mother of a daughter who took a hiatus from Hollywood to focus on raising her child, Ferrell doesn’t mince words about disagreeing with how Etterlene masked her kids’ experiences in the home as taboo. Etterlene’s spirituality, she says, is what makes her likeable. “I had to try to understand a mother who would allow this to happen,” Ferrell explains. “She’s a strong woman; Etterlene thought that she could pray it away and heal. Parents need to involve themselves in the lives of their children.”
Ferrell goes on to say The Bobby DeBarge Story is a timely film that centers men in conversations around abuse and sexual molestation. “Children should always be heard,” she says. “So many times we protect the girls; it’s our little boys we have to protect as well. We need to start talking about what’s happening to our children and to share what these children who grew into men have gone through.”
Teri DeBarge, Bobby’s widow and the film’s executive producer, was given on-screen treatment by Laila Odom. The mother of Bobby’s two sons was around when Bobby’s health began to fade, so Odom wanted to ensure her portrayal towards the film’s close was one filled with unconditional love.
“Teri was an open book with how she felt about Bobby,” Odom said. “Even though it’s 25 years removed, this is still a tough matter. It’s something you have to proceed with caution and respect. She’s not broken or bitter.”
Despite having to recapture a stormy time for a first-rate musical family ensemble, the consensus across The Bobby DeBarge Story’s cast is there was a sense of camaraderie during production. Building love for one another and behaving as family encouraged the actors and crew to see how their art could be a teaching tool.
“It’s a tragic story,” Kimble declares, “but it’s informative and educational.”
Parr shares Kimble’s perspective: setting a goal to help at least one child. “I really want a lot of the voiceless children out there to get a voice so that they don’t have to go through what Bobby went through. Look at the journey and learn from it.”
WATCH The Bobby DeBarge Story on TV One this Saturday, June 29th at 8/7C | Learn More