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Why Did El DeBarge Go to Prison?

El DeBarge is an American singer-songwriter best known as the lead vocalist for the popular Motown family group DeBarge in the 1980s. Throughout his successful music career, DeBarge also struggled with drug addiction which led to legal problems. In the early 2000s, his substance abuse issues resulted in convictions that sent the R&B star to prison. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at El DeBarge’s background, the criminal charges he faced, and the reasons behind the prison time that stalled his singing career.

Background on El DeBarge

Born Eldra Patrick DeBarge in 1961, he grew up in Detroit as part of the talented DeBarge family. As teens, he and his siblings started performing together, blending pop, soul and funk styles into their harmony-driven songs. The group DeBarge landed a deal with Motown Records in the early 80s after catching the ear of Motown CEO Berry Gordy.

With El as lead singer, DeBarge churned out hits like “Time Will Reveal,” “Rhythm of the Night,” and “Who’s Holding Donna Now,” showcasing El’s instantly recognizable falsetto vocals. During DeBarge’s peak fame, El also released his well-received solo debut album in 1986 called El DeBarge.

However, behind the scenes El developed substance abuse problems that soon interfered with his blossoming career. His addiction to drugs like heroin and cocaine led to health issues, arrests, and ultimately prison time in the early 2000s at the height of DeBarge’s success.

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Early Drug Convictions

El DeBarge’s struggles with the law began in the late 1980s and early 90s as his drug usage increased. In 1988, he was arrested for drug possession in Grand Rapids, Michigan but the charges were reduced. His brother Bobby was jailed on drug charges around the same time.

Over the next decade, El continued to have drug busts including a conviction for cocaine possession in 1992. But his legal troubles got much worse starting in 2001, when his addiction-fueled criminal activities escalated.

2001 Cocaine Bust

In March 2001, police pulled over a sports utility vehicle driven by El DeBarge in Los Angeles. A search of the SUV turned up 47 vials of powder cocaine as well as residue-coated spoons found in DeBarge’s pocket. At the time, he was already on probation for a prior drug offense.

DeBarge was arrested and charged with felony possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. Despite his claims that the cocaine was for personal use, the large quantity of drugs and associated paraphernalia resulted in a distribution charge.

Facing up to seven years in prison, DeBarge pleaded no contest to the cocaine possession for sale charge in 2001. He was ultimately sentenced to two to four years behind bars in California state prison.

Arrest for Meth Possession

Shortly after his release from prison on the 2001 conviction, El DeBarge was arrested again in 2006 in Los Angeles for drug possession. Police noticed illegal activity while patrolling a known drug area and witnessed DeBarge discarding an item.

Officers recovered the discarded package and found methamphetamine inside. DeBarge was booked for misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 96 hours in jail, plus fines and continued probation.

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Drug Abuse Spirals Out of Control

El DeBarge’s early talent and potential were undeniably hampered by worsening addiction that led to multiple stints behind bars. Friends and family watched helplessly as his life and career deteriorated over the decades.

In a 2010 interview with Ebony after briefly performing again, DeBarge admitted he had “pretty much lost everything” due to uncontrollable drug usage. He confessed to being addicted to heroin, cocaine, PCP and meth at various points.

DeBarge also revealed he became homeless for a period during the 2000s as his life and finances fell apart. His drug habit had completely taken over by the time his substance abuse-related convictions sent him to prison twice in the early 2000s.

Efforts at Turning His Life Around

After being arrested for meth possession in 2006, El DeBarge made renewed efforts at recovery when he was released. He completed drug rehabilitation treatment in 2009 and has said he remains committed to sobriety.

DeBarge also resumed performing and recording new music, motivated to redeem himself professionally after losing years to addiction. He appeared on reality singing competitions like The Voice and toured with fellow R&B acts in recent years.

While still involved in some minor legal incidents, DeBarge has avoided further time behind bars. He credits his children with providing inspiration to overcome substance abuse and revive his career. Now in his 60s, fans continue rooting for the talented singer to maintain sobriety.


El DeBarge showed immense promise in the 1980s as lead singer of the family soul group DeBarge and budding solo artist. But his escalating drug addiction led to his life and career unraveling through the 90s and 2000s. Multiple drug possession and distribution convictions resulted in DeBarge spending time in prison in California during the early 2000s.

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After hitting rock bottom, the famed R&B vocalist committed to reclaiming his health and musical gifts. Staying clean and reconnecting with supporters, he continues using his second chance to share his soulful artistry once again. Despite the detours caused by substance abuse, El DeBarge’s smooth falsetto remains a cherished part of the Motown legacy.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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