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Robert Louis Debarge Sr. and the DeBarge Family’s Tragic Story

You may not know Robert Louis DeBarge Sr., but if you grew up during the ’80s or are just a fan of soul music, you probably heard of the musical group DeBarge. He was the DeBarge Father.

With R&B soul tracks such as “Rhythm of the Night” and “Love Me in a Special Way”, the Motown-influenced family band seemed to have the voice and the looks.

Bobby DeBarge parents » 80s musicians

Etterline and Robert Louis DeBarge Sr.

According to their mother, Etterlene, the DeBarge siblings had music in their DNA. She recalls that her choir singer father was a profoundly talented and entertaining musician.

Etterlene had 10 kids who became famous musicians in the 1980s. The DeBarges might have taken after their grandfather talent-wise, but their father, Robert Louis DeBarge Sr., had the most significant impact.

Robert Louis DeBarge Sr. Family Background

Robert DeBarge was born on July 9, 1932, in Cicero, Cook County, Illinois, United States of America. He was the son of John DeBarge, born in 1902 in Indiana.

John DeBarge’s father, Arthur, was an immigrant from France, and his mother, Mary Blane West, was from Indiana or Illinois — she was documented as being born in both states in different censuses.

John DeBarge married Frances, who was born in 1904 in Illinois. Frances’s parents were both from the USA.

Together, John and Frances had 11 children: George DeBarge, Carol DeBarge, William DeBarge, John DeBarge Jr., Frances DeBarge Jr., Ronald DeBarge, El DeBarge, and 5 others, including Robert.

Robert DeBarge was raised in a middle-class household. He attended the Chicago public school system. After graduating from high school in 1949, he enlisted in the Army and served during the Korean War until his discharge in 1952.

Debarge e1522928240594 » 80s musicians
Robert Louis Debarge Sr. and the DeBarge Family's Tragic Story 3

Robert DeBarge’s Marriage

In 1953, Robert Louis DeBarge Sr. met his first wife, Etterlene. He was 21 years old at the time, four years older than her.

The couple got married and settled in a predominantly Black area of Detroit. However, things did not go well for the young couple and quickly went downhill. Interracial marriages at the time were neither expected nor widely accepted, and the DeBarge family paid the price.

When Robert Louis DeBarge, Sr. landed a truck driving job in Detroit, he was fired from it by his employers because he was married to a Black woman. The impact this had on Robert is unknown, but it was evident he became increasingly hostile towards his wife.

According to Etterlene, Robert tormented her physically and emotionally, even keeping her continuously pregnant. He was also insanely jealous of her and did not want her to look pretty. He ordered her never to wear makeup, jewelry, wigs, or anything else that would attract the attention of another man and even demanded to know the names of any men who tried to speak to his wife.

Robert Louis DeBarge Sr. and Etterlene had their first child in 1955, “Bunny” DeBarge, and the second one, the late Robert Louis “Bobby” DeBarge, only a year later. They had eight more children together in the years to come: Thomas Keith “Tommy” DeBarge (b. 1957), William Randall “Randy” DeBarge (b. 1958), Mark “Marty” DeBarge (b. 1959), Eldra Patrick “El” DeBarge (b. 1961), James DeBarge (b. 1963), Jonathan Arthur “Chico” DeBarge (b. 1966), Carol “Peaches” DeBarge (b. 1970), and Darrell “Young” DeBarge (b. 1970).

Debare Family Abuse: The Hostile Childhood of the DeBarge Children

Etterlene’s children had horrific memories of their father. “My father sexually and physically abused many of my brothers and sisters,” Chico DeBarge told Vibe. The second-born son, Bobby, was the quietest and most sensitive. He was Etterlene’s favorite of the children, and his father was jealous that he took all her attention. Because of his demeanor, he allegedly bore the brunt of the abuse, but all the children suffered equally.

Bunny later recalled years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of her father, stating that he started molesting her when she was 7 years old, and this continued until she was 13. Bunny blames the siblings’ woes and struggles on the rough childhood they endured living with their father. Robert Sr. denied ever abusing his family, but something undoubtedly scarred them for years to come, even leading them to lives of drugs and crime.

The Results of the Hostility at Home

Bobby DeBarge was the first of the siblings to succumb to drugs, in his case, heroin. At age 15, he became addicted, and years of substance abuse led to legal problems. It is not surprising that he turned to drugs at a young age for solace, given his father’s notoriety for being domineering and physically abusive to his family. In 1988, Bobby was sentenced to 5 years in prison for drug trafficking. He later died at 39 years old of complications from HIV/AIDS contracted in prison.

Bunny DeBarge, the only female member of DeBarge, once stated that she didn’t hate her father and had a way of blocking things out of her mind. She was fortunate enough to overcome her drug habit in rehabilitation, managing to do so after she intentionally sought a relationship with God.

Robert Louis DeBarge, Sr. Ministerial Appointment, Divorce, Remarriage, and Death

In the late 1950s, after Randall “Randy” DeBarge was born, Robert DeBarge Sr. received his license to minister and later became a devoted member of the Bethel Apostolic Temple in Miami, Florida. Robert and Etterlene remained married for the next 20 years until she divorced him in 1970 with the help of her brothers. They left him and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Around the time Mark “Marty” DeBarge was born, Robert had started an affair with another Black woman, Barbara. They had two children together, Chantell DeBarge and Deathra DeBarge. After the divorce, Robert married Barbara and remained with her until his death on August 30. He was buried in Parkview Cemetery in Wayne County, Michigan.

A lot of details about Robert DeBarge Sr.’s life remain hidden, but his abusive character, as witnessed through the narration of his children, shows that he was not a good father. His negative influence on his family is reflected in all the negative aspects of his children’s lives.

The stories about Robert Louis DeBarge, Sr.’s abuse of his children emerged when they were young. They probably are the reasons behind the dark shadow that followed the family, causing the demise of their successive careers. The full impact of his actions on his family may never be fully understood.

This account of Robert Louis DeBarge, Sr. and his family highlights the complexities and tragedies within the DeBarge family, showing how personal and familial struggles can deeply affect personal lives and professional careers. Despite the hardships, the musical legacy of the DeBarge family continues to be celebrated by fans worldwide.

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The story of Robert DeBarge Sr. and his family is a poignant reminder of how deeply family dynamics can influence individuals’ lives and careers. Despite the considerable challenges and adversities faced by the DeBarge siblings, their remarkable talent and contributions to the music industry continue to resonate with audiences. Their legacy is a testament to the power of resilience and the enduring appeal of their music.

The DeBarge’s Signing to Motown Records

The DeBarge family’s journey to signing with Motown Records is a testament to their undeniable talent, strategic connections, and the pivotal moments aligned to launch their career. The DeBarge siblings were naturally gifted musicians, honing their vocal and instrumental skills from a young age. This foundational talent set the stage for their future endeavors in the music industry.

Before DeBarge’s formation, the older siblings Bobby and Tommy were part of the band Switch, which had already signed with Motown Records and enjoyed some success. This connection to Motown indirectly opened doors for the younger DeBarge siblings, giving them a glimpse into the music industry and its possibilities.

Jermaine Jackson, of the Jackson 5 fame and a successful solo artist under Motown, played an instrumental role in DeBarge’s discovery. After being introduced to the DeBarge siblings’ music, Jackson was thoroughly impressed and took it upon himself to introduce them to the executives at Motown. His endorsement was crucial, as it came from a well-respected artist within the same label.

DeBarge: Auditioning for Motown Records

The DeBarge siblings then auditioned for Motown executives, showcasing their unique blend of R&B, soul, and pop and their harmonious vocal abilities. Their performance was compelling enough to secure a recording contract with the label, demonstrating that their talent was undeniable and that they were ready for the bigger stage.

After signing with Motown, DeBarge went on to release their debut album. Though their first album received a lukewarm response, their subsequent releases, including “All This Love,” propelled them to fame, featuring hits highlighting their musical versatility and solidifying their status in the music industry.

The signing of DeBarge to Motown Records was not just about being in the right place at the right time; it was a culmination of their early exposure to the industry through family connections, the recognition of their talent by established artists like Jermaine Jackson, and their ability to impress Motown executives with their unique sound and harmonious vocals.

As the DeBarge family’s journey from adversity to artistry continues to inspire, it also reflects on the complexities of familial relationships and the lasting impact of parental actions on children’s lives.

In remembering the DeBarge family’s history, it’s crucial to acknowledge the strength and talent that emerged from their struggles. Their music, a blend of soul, R&B, and funk, remains a significant part of the 80s musical landscape and beyond, celebrated for its depth, emotion, and the unique story it tells of their family’s legacy.

The narratives of Robert Louis DeBarge, Sr. his children, and their musical achievements underscore the complexity of human experiences—blending creativity, hardship, and the quest for personal redemption. As we reflect on their contributions to music and culture, we are reminded of the enduring human spirit’s capacity to overcome, create, and inspire.


  1. no matter what mr debarge was their father, and as life goes u take the good with the bad, most dad don’t stick around,i am 49 and have never met my dad, i realize mr debarge did some things that were bad to his family. but at the same time moma d did not have to stay with him no matter how many kids she had, it’s time to for give him and move on and don’t blame him for his kid’s drug problums, we know what we do when we do drugs, no one make’s u do it but u, i know cause i use to used. i don’t any more, so good luck debarge family,

  2. To : Fionna Walker Uhm , excuse Me …. depression leads to drugs .. and of course that leads to prison. you have Your Own opinion and I have Mine’s.

    • RightYou don’t know what’s in a persons heart/mind at the time they are going through psychological trauma Lots of drugs and alcohol become friends you don’t have in those troubling times.

      • Good evening. Are you on Crack ?? If you’re father sexually abused you and someone says move on get over it how would you feel ?? I’m in disbelief ? that you said that. I’m not saying hold a grudge but you said that like it was nothing.

  3. It Seems You Guys Don’t Knw What Your Talking About. Cause You Have NOT I Repeat HAVE NOT Gone Threw it .. So First of all Please Dont Comment And Feel It’s Right. Cause Its Not. Cause You read What He’d Done , But Have You Actually Gone Threw It? NO You Havent It. So , Let’s Just Please Keep Our Comment’s To Our Self. Of Course It Was There Choice But , Following On To the Pain And Awful stucture This Man Has Caused. And I Repeated Like #3 ? Times.. I FORGAVE—> ? HIM! But Had To Let My Opinion Out. And Uhm , Not To Be Rude But I Could Care Less How Old You Are… You Still Don’t Know What They Been Threw. You Read —> ” Heard It”, But Haven’t Been Threw It. So Before You Talk And Comment On Other People’s Opinion , Please Make Sure You Actually Gone Threw What They Went Threw The Past! Please Have A Pleasent Day.?RIP?Robert DeBarge Sr.,

  4. Rest in peace, Mr. DeBarge. May God have mercy on your soul.Thank you for your contributions of producing some children who are tremendous musicians and singers.

  5. People do not realize that what a child experiences in the early years is a total reflections of the future years. Meaning that if you are molested as a child by your father of all people, it is and will have a drastic change on your life. If it has not happened to you, you cannot say what the affects would or would not have lead you to do. It was not his abscense in their lives that did the damage, but if the molestation allegations are true it definitely could, would, and did lead to devistation to his children.

  6. I wish people would refrain from judging others and this case Mama De Barge. You don’t not know the circumstances. My daughter got pregnant and I had no idea even though there were signs — after I looked back on the scenario. First thing, for no reason I suddenly quit my job at a radio station thinking to myself that I needed to take better care of my family. Then I immediately went out and got lots of vitamins, placed them in the center of the breakfast room table and demanded the entire family take them. We went camping, to the Beach, visited relatives in northern CA and she went along with us, She spent a couple days with her grandmother in Hollywood. During this time she was wearing this Caftan thing which we all made fun of. She constantly wore this thing but the worse I thought was that she had some mental quirk. She even wore it on the beach. To top everything, when I took her school shopping at end of August she couldn’t find anything that she liked (I never went into the dressing room — I just continued to take possible things to her). I was exasperated that she didn’t like anything any place that we tried and when we returned home I told her dad how frustrated I was with her. Prior to first day of school her dad and I went shopping and she asked us to drop her off for a job interview which we did. Now,on first day of school, her 10th year, she left home as usual and I thought nothing till she did not come home on time, so I jumped into my car and went over to the school. Since it was the first day it was chaotic and the office wasn’t able to tell me if she had even arrived. I went back home and told her dad then called her older sister who was at work. Her sister reluctantly told me she may have gone to the job where I had taken her for interview (she knew about the pregnancy but her sister had sworn her to secrecy. My mind went back to the place where I dropped her off so her dad and I jumped into the car and headed over there (I barely remembered where the place was). I had not asked questions when we dropped her off there, but I remembered I thought at the time that the place looked like one of those old rambling L. A. homes of earlier days, and there was no name on it. Anyway, my husband stayed in the car while I went inside. Upon entering and looking around I saw all these pregnant girls and my mind is just swirling and I blurted out to the lady at the desk: “What kind of place is this?” That question cracked everybody up and they were laughing and saying: “oh nobody here is pregnant”. Then and only then did I finally get a clue. I was oblivious until that very moment. The person at the desk told one of the pregnant girls to go upstairs to get my child. I guess my mouth was open all that time until I saw my 15 year old daughter slowly coming down the stairs still wearing that Caftan and I softly asked: “are you pregnant?” I was crushed. I then took her by her hand and started pulling her to the front door. As I reached the front door, the lady at the desk shouted: “You have to sign her out”, and I shouted back to her that I did not sign her in and I would not sign her out. I open the door and started shouting to my husband, “this girl is pregnant”. Both of us looked at each other incredulous, looking all silly and baffled.I tell you my story because all my family jumped on me saying I was lying by saying that I did not know. Something, God’s Holy Ghost, must have intervened and caused me to quit my job because my child needed medical help. So all those things that I was obviously led to do, upon leaving my job must have helped because she and her son came out OK. I just never suspected a thing but you can read all of the signs in my story above. Not everyone is the same. Some people are always suspecting something or look for bad things, but some of us are naive and don’t see evil in everything. The Lord was obviously trying to get me look deeper but my child had never given me any reason to think badly of her.Even my mother fussed at me but I reminded her that she had spent several nights with her — so why didn’t she see something. My mom was with us on some of our outings with the Caftan and like the rest of us, she thought nothing. No one know how they will act before/unless they have a personal situation that requires looking into. We did not keep her closeted while she was acting weird, we visited many people and relatives and everyone laughed at the Caftan in the hot summer time. All of us just thought she was acting weird. Suddenly quiting my job, without a known reason, and buying all those vitamins and cooking up a storm did not seem weird to me until I found out she was pregnant and I immediately took her to the doctor and the baby was born about a couple weeks later.Mrs. De Barge did not have to be aware of what was going on. I KNOW THAT IT CAN HAPPEN. For some reason some people are sometimes blind to what is going on all around them. Only God knows why. Most of all, remember what God’s Word says about judging oths. That is His job.

  7. “Train up a child they way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”…Proverbs 22. Although they went through valleys, in their older years they have returned to their Christian/spiritual roots. So, mama DeBarge did do something right. From hearing her children speak, NONE of them would appreciate the disrespectful bashing of their mom that has been posted here, and rightfully so! Judge not, they ye yourselves be not judged and, as some said here in their posts, stop throwing stones because none of us are without sin. None of us are ‘perfect’! No, not one.In my humble opinon (IMHO), Eldra is being used by God as a shining example of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness. Thank God El himself recognizes this and is boldly speaking out about his own pitfalls by using his life as an example. God is good and can do anything, but fail. Seeing El and hearing him speak in various venues, gives me joy in witnessing God’s light on him through the vast change in him. Gone, indeed is the cocky ego which has been replaced by a gentle humbleness. Although El shamefully gave God no choice but to take him down from that mountain top into the depth of the valleys, God kept his hand on him. Listen to his words of peace, love and forgiveness. Look at the DeBarges love and bond for one another after all they’ve been through both publicly and as children non publicly…including their mom!I don’t believe anyone of us would care to have every single thing about our private lives flashed across the public airwaves via radio, tv, print and internet for every Tom, Dick or Harriet to voice their 2cents worth.Until you actually walk in that persons shoes step for step….stop the hateful blaming and finger pointing.Mama DeBarge did the best she could do at that time under circumstances which were much different in those days. Their dad also had circumstances unbeknown to those outside of the family, which triggered his questionable behavior. Amazingly, back to Proverbs 22, their son, Bobby Jr. requested to see his dad when on his own deathbed. The family said their dad, R. DeBarge, Sr. obliged and through a flood of tears, whispered into his son Bobby, Jr.’s ear words that only Bobby, his dad and God knows. Perhaps the words he whispered to his son, allowed Bobby, Jr. to RIP. Only God knows. May they both now RIP and may God keep them all in the palm of his hands as they strive to fulfill a clean life.

  8. I dont have any thing good r bad to say about a person who would harm children who couldnt protect themselves.I pray that God has not forgot those kids and he will stick to his word that he gets the revenge on judgement day.Bobby rest in peace.To the dad theres no cold water where he is going..


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